Anti-slavery in London’s Fitzrovia

GIGS KEBAB SHOP has been in Tottenham Street near to London’s Goodge Street station for over fifty years. Frequently, during the twelve years that I studied at University College London, I used to purchase a pita filled with lamb shish kebab from Gigs and then sit on a bench in the open space next to the nearby American church opposite Heal’s furniture shop on Tottenham Court Road. While I enjoyed the snack, hopeful pigeons used to wander around my feet, hoping for crumbs from the student’s pita. In those far-off days, I had no idea that Tottenham Street had once been the home of an important figure in the movement to abolish the slave trade. It was only this month, March 2021, that we noticed his house at 37 Tottenham Street, which is close to the northern end of Goodge Place, and used to bear the number ‘13’.

Olaudah Equiano, also known as ‘Gustavus Vassa’ (c1745-1797) was born in what is now Nigeria (see https://equiano.uk/the-equiano-project/ for a useful timeline of his life). In 1756, he was kidnapped by slavers and sent to the Caribbean, where he was sold to a British naval officer, MH Pascal. Between 1756 and 1762, he served with Pascal in the Royal Navy during the Seven Years War with France and was baptised in 1759 in London. From 1763 to 1766, he was ‘owned’ by Robert King of Montserrat. During this time, he made money ‘on the side’ and was able to purchase his freedom in 1766. The following year, we find him in London, from where he set sail to Italy and Turkey. In 1773, this intrepid man set sail on an expedition to the Arctic. Its aim was to find a new passage to India. After more adventures in the Caribbean and Central America, Equiano informed the abolitionist Granville Sharp (1735-1813) about the Zong massacre of 1781, during which more than 130 enslaved Africans were murdered on the Zong, a British slave ship.

After a trip to New York and Philadelphia in 1784-85, Equiano returned to London, where he became involved in the relief of the plight of ‘black’ people in London. After another sea voyage to Sierra Leone, we find him back in London in 1788. In his book “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Written by Himself” (published in 1789), he recorded:

“March the 21st, 1788, I had the honour of presenting the Queen with a petition on behalf of my African brethren, which was received most graciously by her Majesty”.

The Queen was Charlotte, wife of King George III. Part of his petition was as follows:

“I presume, therefore, gracious Queen, to implore your interposition with your royal consort, in favour of the wretched Africans; that, by your Majesty’s benevolent influence, a period may now be put to their misery; and that they may be raised from the condition of brutes, to which they are at present degraded, to the rights and situation of freemen, and admitted to partake of the blessings of your Majesty’s happy government; so shall your Majesty enjoy the heartfelt pleasure of procuring happiness to millions, and be rewarded in the grateful prayers of themselves, and of their posterity.”

Although Equiano might have begun writing his “The Interesting Narrative…” in London’s Baldwin’s Gardens (number 53) near Grays Inn Road, from where he sent the petition to the Queen, he had moved to the house in Tottenham Street by the 25th of June 1788, according to an interesting article by Gene Adams, published in “Camden History Review Vol.29” (2005).  Tottenham Street is near Warren Street, where The Committee for the Relief of the London Black Poor was founded in 1786. It is also close to the former Tottenham Court Chapel founded in 1756 by George Whitefield (1714-1770), an American founder of Methodism, who had inspired Equiano. The chapel stood where the American church stands today. By 1774-5, Equiano was already a ‘Calvinist-Methodist’ Christian.

The house on Tottenham Street, which bears a plaque recording his stay there is undistinguished architecturally. Around the corner from it on the east side of the north end of Goodge Place, there is a fading mural, painted by Brian Barnes in 2000, which depicts Equiano with other local celebrities, all in 18th century attire. This is next to another mural depicting the nearby Post Office Tower and four women, two of whom are wearing Indian saris.

Equiano married an English woman, Susan Cullen, in 1792 from Soham in Cambridgeshire. They had two daughters, Anna Maria (1793–1797) and Joanna (1795–1857), who were both baptised in Soham i (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olaudah_Equiano#Marriage_and_family). The family lived in Chandos Street in London, where his youngest daughter died.  Susan died in 1796, aged 34, and Equiano the following year.

For many years after his death, it was not known where Equiano was buried. Eventually, it was discovered that he had been buried in the churchyard of Whitefield’s chapel, on the site of the present American church. Unlike many of the other corpses that had been buried there and then later shifted to a cemetery in Chingford in 1898, Equiano’s was amongst those which were not shifted and therefore must lie within the churchyard of the former Whitefield’s Tottenham Court Chapel (https://equiano.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/EQUIANO-Campaigner-MP1.pdf), probably near where I used to sit on a bench eating my kebab from Gigs. Looking at an old map, I found that the graveyard was a little to the north of where I used to munch my lunch.

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