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Memorial Plaque dedcated to Olaudah Equiano

About 300 people attended Monday night’s dedication in St, Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey, of a memorial plaque to Olaudah Equiano (c.1745-97), the leading black abolitionist. Equiano had been baptised at the Church in February 1759.

While people waited for the start of the service the Church organist played the ‘Trumpet Voluntary’ by John Stanley (1712-86) and Handel’s Organ Concerto in B flat. In the opening Bidding the Rector Rev Robert Wright quoting from Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights said that in dedicating the memorial, ‘we remember all those who are still denied their liberty, and those who work to give the gift of freedom to all people.’

Rev. Dr. Joel Edwards spoke about Equiano’s Spirituality and his conversion to committed Christianity after his near death experience in the Arctic. Given the importance of Equiano’s autobiographical book ‘The Interesting Narrative …’ as part of his campaigning around the country, and its inspiration still today, Asher Hoyles read her powerful poem ‘The Talking Book’ which ends:

‘That reading is a political act
I wish someone had’ve told me that
I wish I had’ve known of the sacrifices made
So that I could simply sit, turn the page.’

Jennette Arnold, the Chair of the Greater London Authority, read from Ephesians 4: 25-30 about putting away falsehood and speaking the truth. The Church Choir then sang Psalm 9:1-10 to music by John Goss (1800-80). Actor Burt Caesar read the passage from ‘The Interesting Narrative…’ about Equiano’s experience of being put up for auction in a slave sale, and his critique of the policy of splitting up families.

A summary of his life was then recounted by Vincent Carretta, Professor of English at the University of Maryland, whose researches have added so much more to our knowledge and understanding about Equiano.

Before the formal Dedication by Rev Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, everyone sang ‘Amazing Grace’ the hymn penned by John Newton (1725-1807), the former slave trader turned priest and abolitionist, set to music by the American John Rees (1828-1900). The London Seventh-Day Adventist Male Voice choir sang ‘Magnify, Rejoice’ by George Frederick Root (1820-95).

There were then prayers including for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery, the activists in the abolition movement, to Equiano, and ‘For the Africans whose names we do not know, who risked everything in pursuit of freedom and justice…’, and to those ‘who endure modern forms of slavery.’ The final prayer read by Sentamu was ‘for those who work for peace in the word, especially for those who work to redress the legacies of slavery, those committed to the work of healing and reconciliation among individuals and communities; for the eradication of prejudice and discrimination, so that all men, women, and children may be set free to live in security, and with dignity.’ A minute’s silence was followed by the Lord’s Prayer, after which the congregation sang ‘Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven’. The music ended with the Adventist Choir singing ‘Ye Gates’ by Andrew Thomson (1814-1901) arranged by Amzi Clarence Dixon (1854-1925). Afterward people stayed to look at the plaque, take photographs of it, and chat to those they knew. The plaque and the event was organised with the support of the Equiano Society.

Note: In October 1830 Dr Andrew Thomson, of St. George’s Edinburgh, the author of ‘Ye Gates’ spoke to 2,500 people for two and a half hours in the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms arguing why the abolition movement should move from gradual to immediate emancipation. The speech was subsequently published.

Reviewed by Sean Creighton

11 February 2009

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