Peckard, Equiano and the Aboliltion of the Transatlantic Slave Trade – Part I

The Magdalene College Archives have been supporting the important project to rename a bridge in Cambridge after Olaudah Equiano, one of the foremost eighteenth-century abolitionists. At a ceremony on 31st October 2022 a plaque renaming the Riverside Bridge in honour of Olaudah Equiano was unveiled. In this post, we examine the friendship between Equiano and Peter Peckard, Master of Magdalene and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. In our next post, we record Peckard’s contribution to the abolitionist debate.

Plaque on the Olaudah Equiano bridge, Cambridge

The Revd Dr Peter Peckard, DD, was Master of Magdalene, 1781-1797. An active theologian and teacher, and a major benefactor to the College, Peckard was a figure of national importance as a pioneer-leader of the campaign to abolish the transatlantic slave trade. But his significance in the story extends further, notably as the friend and supporter of Olaudah Equiano. A former slave, Equiano was one of the foremost abolitionists.

Portrait of Peter Peckard

In about 1787, Peckard received a letter from Equiano, signed with the latter’s slave name, Gustavus Vassa.  The letter requested an interview with Peckard, who agreed to it, perhaps because his interest was aroused by the fact that Equiano (who had bought his freedom in 1766) had worked as a slave on plantations in Virginia, where the Ferrers — Peckard’s father-in-law’s family — had been involved.

Letter from Olaudah Equiano to Peter Peckard, c.1787 (Magdalene College Old Library FP 2273)

Equiano expressed his gratitude for his reception in Cambridge in a letter
to the ‘Printer of the Cambridge Chronicle’ (Frances Hodson of Green Street, Cambridge). The letters of Equiano are available on the substantial Equiano Society Database.

Having received particular marks of kindness from the Gentlemen of the University, and the inhabitants of this town, I beg you to suffer me thus publicly to express my grateful acknowledgements to them for their favours. I have been more particularly delighted with that fellow–feeling they have discovered, for my very poor and much oppressed countrymen. Here I experience true civility without respect to colour or complexion. Nor have even the amiable fair–sex refused to countenance the sooty African. These acts of kindness and hospitality have filled my grateful heart with longing desires to see these worthy friends on my own estate, where the richest produce of Africa should be devoted to their entertainment: they should there partake of the luxuriant Pine-apple, and the well savoured virgin–palm–wine. And to heighten the bliss, I would burn a certain kind of tree that would afford us a light, as clear and brilliant as the virtues of my guests. Such shall be our joy, if it please God I am ever restored to my lost estate, and meet these my friends in my native country.

I am, Sir,
Your humble Servant
The African.

CAMBRIDGE, July 30th, 1789.

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, London: J&J Robinson, 1793
(Queens’ College Old Library P.520(1)). Frontispiece, title page and page x reproduced by kind permission of the President and Fellows of Queens’ College, Cambridge.

With Peckard’s help, and armed with letters of introduction and commendation, Equiano was able to turn his autobiography into a best-seller: The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789). Later editions, and there were many, printed Peckard’s endorsement, written to the chairman of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, dated 26 May 1790. Peckard’s endorsement meant other prominent persons were also prepared to lend their names to it, including Clarkson. Equiano died a few months before Peckard. The interesting narrative has been rediscovered as a classic foundational text in the study of African history and in particular the fight against slavery.

Possibly through Peckard, in 1792 had Equiano met and married Susannah Cullem of Cambridgeshire. There were two children; but Susannah died in 1795 giving birth to the second; Equiano died on 31 March 1797, leaving the first child, Anna Maria, an orphan – she then died in July 1797 and was buried in the graveyard of St Andrew’s Church Chesterton (Cambridge). A prominent memorial was raised on the external north wall of the church, with a 16-line verse, probably written by Martha Peckard (who was well-known as a poet); presumably Peckard, just a few months before his own death, paid for this memorial, which includes a brief, sympathetic account of Equiano’s history, and a strikingly clear statement of the injustice of the slave trade and of the universality of God’s grace. The text on the memorial reads:

Near this Place lies Interred
Daughter of GUSTAVUS VASSA, the African
She died July 21 1797 Aged 4 Years

Should simple village rhymes attract thine eye,
Stranger, as thoughtfully thou passest by,
Know that there lies beside this humble stone
A child of colour haply not thine own.
Her father born of Afric’s sun-burnt race,
Torn from his native field, ah foul disgrace:
Through various toils, at length to Britain came
Espoused, so Heaven ordain’d, an English dame,
And follow’d Christ; their hope two infants dear.
But one, a hapless orphan, slumbers here.
To bury her the village children came.
And dropp’d choice flowers, and lisp’d her early fame;
And some that lov’d her most, as if unblest,
Bedew’d with tears the white wreath on their breast;
But she is gone and dwells in that abode,
Where some of every clime shall joy in God.

Memorial to Anna Maria Vassa, St Andrew’s Church Chesterton

by Professor Ronald Hyam (Archivist Emeritus),
with assistance from the Pepys Librarian, Dr M E J Hughes.

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