Updated: Oct 31, 2022
Black History Month UK 2022 'Sharing Journeys' campaign - exploring the lives of Britons with West African heritage
Quobna Ottobah Cugoano (usually known simply as Ottobah Cugoano) was born in the village of Ajumako (also spelled Agimaque) circa. 1757 on the coast of present-day Ghana. He was a Fanti, as he recounts in his anti-slavery book, “[I was born] at Agimaque, on the coast of Fantyn… in the country of Fantee” and his family was close to the local chief.
At the age of 13, he was seized with a group of children and sold into slavery. He later recalled: “[in 1770] I was early snatched away from my native country, with about eighteen or twenty more boys and girls, as were playing in a field. We lived but a few day’s journey from the coast where we were kidnapped... Some of us attempted, in vain, to run away, but pistols and cutlasses were soon introduced, threatening, that if we offered to stir, we should all lie dead on the spot."
After several weeks in captivity, Cugoano was eventually brought to a trading post. There, he sees "many of my miserable countrymen chained two and two, some handcuffed," and "several white people, which made me afraid that they would eat me, according to our notion, as children, in the inland parts of the country." Cugoano's African captor sells him for "a gun, a piece of cloth, and some lead," telling the new slave that he must "learn the ways of the browfow, that is, the white-faced people."
Cugoano and the other children were transported to Grenada in the Caribbean (then referred to as the Westindies) via the notorious ‘Middle Passage.’ He gives a harrowing account: "We were taken in the ship that came for us, to another that was ready to sail from Cape Coast. When we were put into the ship, we saw several black merchants coming on board, but we were all drove into our holes, and not suffered to speak to any of them. In this situation, we continued several days in sight of our native land.”
On board the ship there is "nothing to be heard but the rattling of chains, smacking of whips, and the groans and cries of our fellow-men... The slaves agree that death is "more preferable than life; and a plan was concerted amongst us, that we might burn and blow up the ship, and to perish all together in the flames: but we were betrayed by one of our own country women, who slept with some of the headmen of the ship, for it was common for the filthy dirty sailors to take the African women and lie upon their bodies; but the men were chained and pent up in holes. It was the women and boys which were to burn the ship, with the approbation and groans of the rest; though that was prevented, the discovery was likewise a cruel bloody scene."
After enduring the gruelling ‘Middle Passage’, Cugaono and his fellow enslaved Africans were sold to work on sugar plantations. In his autobiography, he writes of the brutality that he and his fellow enslaved Africans had to endure. "Being in this dreadful captivity and horrible slavery, without any hope of deliverance, for about eight or nine months, beholding the most dreadful scenes of misery and cruelty, and seeing my miserable companions often cruelly lashed, and, as it were, cut to pieces, for the most trifling faults; this made me often tremble and weep, but I escaped better than many of them. Describing in detail how enslaved Africans discovered eating sugar cane are “cruelly lashed, or struck over the face, to knock their teeth out." Others have "their teeth pulled out, to deter others, and to prevent them from eating any cane" even before they ever work in the fields.
Cugoano worked in a ‘slave-gang’ on plantations in Grenada and other islands for nearly two years in the service of their slave-owner, Alexander Campbell. He was brought to England by his ‘owner’ in late 1772. There is some dispute on how he obtained his freedom, but in his book, Cugoano says he was ‘freed’. It’s probably not a coincidence that this was during the year of the Somerset Case that ruled that any runaway enslaved person couldn’t be forcibly sent back to the colonies to be enslaved and sold again. On 20th August 1773, he was baptised as ‘John Stuart – a Black, aged 16 Years’ at St James Church, Piccadilly. He implies in his own account that the conversion to Christianity had been intended to stop him from being sold into slavery again, though it seems he did later develop a Christian faith that was authentic and meaningful to him.
It’s believed that in the intervening years before he was documented entering the domestic service of the Royal artist Richard Cosway in 1784 that he learned to read and write. He wrote: “[I set my mind] to learn reading and writing, which soon became my recreation, pleasure, and delight; and when my master perceived that I could write some, he sent me to a proper school for that purpose to learn.”
Cugoano developed close ties within the Afro-British community and befriended Olaudah Equiano and Ignatius Sancho. He became an active member of the Sons of Africa, an abolitionist group campaigning for the end of the Atlantic Slave Trade. In 1786, he played a key role in the case of Henry Demane.
Demane was a formerly enslaved Afro-Briton who was employed as a servant of Mr Jeffries of Bedford Street in London. Jeffries somehow duped Harry into going on board a slaver’s ship, where he was held against his will. News of his kidnapping was sent to Cugoano and another Black Abolitionist called William Green. Together they contacted the white abolitionist Granville Sharp to help in the freeing of Demane. Sharp secured a notice to remove Demane from the slaver’s ship, and William Green and the clerk who issued the notice removed him from the ship before it sailed. [Account taken from the Memoirs of Granville Sharp (1820) by Prince Hoare (1775-18340].
Through the Cosways, he came to the attention of leading British political and cultural figures of the time, including the poet William Blake and the Prince of Wales. When in 1787, it’s thought with the help of his friend, Olaudah Equiano, Cugoano published an attack on slavery entitled Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species. He sent copies to King George III, the politician Edmund Burke, and other leading British figures.
In it, he called for the abolition of slavery and immediate emancipation of all enslaved people. Unlike his predecessors, John Marrant and Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, whose life stories concentrated on the evils of the Atlantic Slave Trade. In his book, he argues that an enslaved person’s duty is to escape from slavery, and that force should be used to prevent further enslavement. Advocating for the punishment of slave owners, including enslavement by their former slaves. A radical act at the time, as no Black person had ever publicly announced that enslavement should be abolished out of fear of retaliation and the lack of faith that their voice would be heard. Cugoano was the first African to publicly demand the end of slavery and to challenge the racist attitudes of Europeans against Africans.
Some pretend that the Africans, in general, are a set of poor, ignorant, dispersed, unsociable people…This specious pretense is without any shadow of justice and truth, and, if the argument was even true, it could afford no just and warrantable matter for any society of men to hold slaves… which can be made better by bringing them away to a state of a degree equal to that of a cow or a horse.
Cugoano failed to persuade King George III to change his opinions on the Atlantic Slave Trade, and like other members of the royal family, the king remained against its abolition. Nevertheless, the book was a success and well received. In 1787, it was reprinted three times and was translated into French in 1788. Cugoano sold it mainly through subscriptions and the book sales provided him with a supplementary income to fund his radical politics through rioting, resisting arrest, and letter writing. In 1791, he published an abridged version with additional material, addressed to the ‘Sons of Africa’ in which he expressed deep concern for the proposed deportation of Black people from Britain.
Throughout the 1770s and 1780s, London’s small Black population increased significantly with the arrival of formerly enslaved African-American soldiers who had fought on the side of the British during the American Civil War. Deprived of the war pensions promised to them when they signed up to fight for the British, they were forced to work as servants to wealthy whites or were reduced to begging on the streets. Cugoano’s friend and colleague, Olaudah Equiano, took up their cause and backed a resettlement scheme to expatriate the Black Poor as they were referred to a newly established colony in Sierra Leone.
Cugoano questioned the validity of the Sierra Leone scheme writing: “[can it] be readily conceived that government would establish a free colony for them near the spot, while supports its forts and garrisons, to ensnare, merchandize, and to carry others into captivity and slavery.”
He organised protests against the deportation of London’s Black Poor and helped in disrupting and delaying the scheme. One can only assume that the public friendship between Cugoano and Equiano was severely tested. However, Equiano soon joined him in publicly condemning the programme after he was fired from his government role as Commissary Officer in March 1787.
In the new version of his book, Cugoano announces his intention to open a school for Afro-Britons. About 1791, he writes a letter to Granville Sharp expressing an interest in being part of the second attempt to establish a colony in Sierra Leone that was now targeting Black Pioneers from Nova Scotia in Canada.
After the failure of the first resettlement scheme, the organisers turned to Canada for new colonists at the suggestion of Thomas Peters (a Black Pioneer - formerly enslaved African Americans who fought on the side of the British during the War of Independence). Nova Scotia was home to about 3,000 Black Pioneers. They lived in terrible conditions in segregated societies and felt no loyalty to the land which had not welcomed them. It’s estimated that just under 12,000 Black Pioneers migrated to Sierra Leone in 1792. They help to create the colony at Freetown which grew into the country we have today.
Cugoano also talks about the prejudice he experiences while promoting his book in the UK in his letter to Sharp. He wrote: ‘in the last three months b[een] upwards to fifty places but, Complexion is a Predominant Prejudice’. His travels were perhaps a precursor to the anti-slavery lecturing circuit that would flourish in the coming years.
After 1791, Cugoano disappears from historical records. No record has been found of either Cugoano starting a school or participating in the resettlement scheme in Sierra Leone. Some historians speculate that he may have died sometime in 1791 or the following year in 1792.
In his introduction of the 1999 reprint of Cugoano’s book, historian Vincent Carretta writes: Of the four major writers of African descent – Ignatius Sancho, John Marrant, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, and Olaudah Equiano – whose works were first published in London during the 1780s, Cugoano remains the most radical and least familiar.
Cugoano argued for the end of slavery and the economic plundering of Africa. Advocated for the economic independence of Africa and its people, demanded reparations, and questioned the European perceptions of Africans. Questions that are still important today in the 21st century.
In November 2020, an English Heritage blue plaque honouring Cugoano was unveiled on Schomberg House in Pall Mall, London where he had lived and worked with the Cosways from 1784 to 1791.
Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species by Ottobah Cugoano with an introduction by Vincent Carretta (published in 1999)
Staying Power – The History of Black People in Britain by Peter Fryer
Why did Black Londoners not join the Sierra Leone Resettlement Scheme 1783-1815? By Michael Sivapragasam