Olaudah Equiano: Blue plaque near Greenwich Park could honour former slave

Mocked-up blue plaque in place
A mocked-up plaque led to approval and interest from passers-by, the application to Greenwich Council said

A blue plaque on a house opposite Greenwich Park could mark the life of a former slave who campaigned to abolish the practice in the 18th century.

Olaudah Equiano briefly stayed in the house on Maze Hill, owned by three sisters known as the Misses Guerin, in September 1767 after he had bought his freedom and returned from the West Indies.

Equiano was kidnapped from his home in Nigeria at the age of 11 and spent the rest of his early life being bought and sold like cargo – including at the Deptford royal dockyard – until he managed to raise the funds to buy his freedom. He spent his teenage years serving with the Royal Navy after being sold to a lieutenant who named him Gustavus Vassa.

He went on to campaign for the abolition of the trade, and his book – The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African – was one of the earliest first-hand accounts of the human trafficking trade.

The Guerin sisters had taken an interest in Equiano while he was enslaved to a naval officer friend of their brother, and he stayed at their home while seeking their help after buying his freedom. He later took part in a voyage to the Arctic in a failed attempt to find a northern passage to India before joining the abolitionist campaign.

Equiano died in 1797, aged 52, a decade before the trade was made illegal in Britain, although slavery itself was not abolished until 1833.

A planning application has been submitted to Greenwich Council to install the English Heritage-backed plaque. A heritage statement recalls Equiano’s seafaring life and the house’s proximity to the National Maritime Museum – which contains “major holdings on slavery and abolition, and today gives these subjects much more prominence than when founded in the 1930s”.

The house is owned by the architect Ursula Bowyer, who is president of the Greenwich Society, and the plaque was suggested to her and her late husband Gordon by the Nubian Jak Community Trust, which has placed over 50 plaques to ethnic minority figures in London.

A mocked-up plaque installed on the house prompted “positive/intrigued/interested” comments from passers-by, the planning application reported.

The application can be seen on the Greenwich Council planning website.

The worldwide protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd in the USA last year, and the subsequent toppling of a statue of the slaver Edward Colston in Bristol, have prompted a renewed reckoning with Britain’s past involvement with human trafficking – a trade which the Deptford dockyard played a large role in.

Last June, Greenwich Council said it would be reviewing street names and monuments with connections to the slave trade, with a report due to be published soon.

In Deptford, campaigners have been trying to make sure a Museum of Slavery and Freedom is part of the new Convoys Wharf development; while Goldsmiths University recently opened a public consultation into the future of statues on the former Deptford Town Hall on New Cross Road, which depict figures linked to the trade.

Help 853 continue reporting on public interest issues in Greenwich and southeast London – we are the only outlet regularly producing original journalism in the borough, and we can only do it with your funding.

Please join over 100 donors who use Steady, PressPatron or Patreon to give a little towards our costs every month. The money pays the bills, a wage for the editor and pays others to write for the site.

You can also buy the editor a coffee at ko-fi.com. Thank you.