A blue plaque has been unveiled on a house facing Greenwich Park to honour 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.
After being kidnapped from his home in Nigeria at the age of 11, he 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.
The plaque was unveiled on Friday by the Nubian Jak Community Trust, which suggested the idea to Ursula Bowyer, the president of the Greenwich Society, who lives in the house. Greenwich ceremonial mayor Denise Hyland was among those there.
It reads: “In September 1767, Olaudah Equiano, c.1745-1797, African writer and abolitionist, spent time in this house, then home of his friends, the Guerin sisters.”
Planning documents submitted to Greenwich Council in September, when permission was sought for the plaque, noted the house’s location near the National Maritime Museum, with its “major holdings on slavery and abolition, and today gives these subjects much more prominence than when founded in the 1930s”.
The plaque’s installation comes as British institutions try to figure out how to deal with the country’s colonial past in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests. Locally, the old Deptford dockyard having played a key role in the slave trade, and many of those connected with slavery lived in comfortable mansions around Blackheath.
In October, a report commissioned by Greenwich Council concluded that there were no street names in the borough with definite connections with slavery, but that more work needed to be carried out to uncover the history of some names.
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