Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Amazing, pioneering African Briton - Ottobah Cugoano

"Is it not strange to think, that they who ought 
to be considered as the most learned and 
civilized people in the world, that they should 
carry on a traffick of the most barbarous 
cruelty and injustice and that many ... 
are become so dissolute as to think, slavery, 
robbery and murder no crime?”


So wrote Olaudah Equiano’s contemporary and comrade, Ottobah Cugoano, in giving an African view of the horrors of the slavery business in the last quarter of the 18thC. In his new biography Cugoano Against Slavery (Hansib 2014) Martin Hoyles demonstrates that Cugoano was an ‘amazing, pioneering African Briton’, who ‘deserves to be placed at the very centre of the history of the  anti-slavery movement’.

Very Readable Book

Martin has adopted the same approach as he used in his exceptional William Cuffay. The Life and Times of a Chartist Leader (Hansib 2012). Why exceptional? Because he has done much more than present what is known so far about Cugoano’s life. He sets him within the wider British and international context of slavery, and the anti-slavery movement supported by over 130 illustrations. His style is down to earth, not stuffed with impenetrable language or the distraction of footnotes. Like Cuffay this is a book for the general reader and a first class introduction to broader aspects of British history of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

From Kidnap to Freedom

The 13 year old Ottobah was kidnapped in West Africa in 1770, sold into slavery and shipped to Grenada. He was lucky to only endure the life of a slave on a plantation for a short while, as he was brought to England in 1772 where he gained his freedom. He learnt to read and write and was baptised with the name John Stuart. He became a servant to the painters Richard and Maria Cosway at Schomberg House in Pall Mall. A print survives showing them being served by an African servant – presumably Cugoano. It was at their home that he wrote his Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic and Commerce of the Human Species. This went into three editions in 1787 and then was translated into French in 1788. In 1791 he published a shorter version. Nothing is known about him after 1791 or the school for Afro-Britons he proposed to set up.

The anti-slavery movement

Hoyles sets Cugoano within the context of the anti-slavery movement. From 1786 he was lobbying against the slave trade working with Granville Sharp to free Harry Demane from being forced aboard a ship bound for the West Indies, and writing letters to key people. Hoyles discusses the role of William Wilberforce, rightly highlighting his campaigning limitations, hostility to the role of women in mass petitioning and the sugar boycott and to political reform radicalism, and his seeming dislike of meeting Africans. More important to the movement were Glanville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson. He highlights the popular radical petitioning campaign, in towns like Manchester and Sheffield, where the cutlers petitioned in 1789 against the trade wanting their goods to be traded in Africa for non slavery purposes.

He discusses the differences with some of the religious groups. While most  Quakers supported the anti-slavery cause, some like Samuel Galton were deeply involved in selling guns to slave-traders and providing finance for the business. Among Methodists George Whitefield supported it. Like John Wesley on the other hand Samuel Bradburn was opposed, the later saying  in 1792 that the 

‘Negroes have as a good a right to invade Great Britain, 
and make slaves of us, as we have to invade Africa
 and make slaves of them.’

Radical Support for Anti-Slavery

Martin argues the importance of anti-slave images like the drawing of the slave ship Brookes which ‘showed better than words the horrors of the middle passage’ and of poems and children’s books in spreading the message. From 1792 London and other Corresponding Societies campaigned against slavery alongside for universal suffrage and annual parliaments. Equiano was a member of the London Society and friend of its leader Thomas Hardy. Another member John Thelwall toured the country in 1794 and 1795. The followers of Thomas Spence, the radical reformer and pro-land nationaliser from Newcastle, advocated support for slave rebellion and emancipation. This sets the scene for details of some of the (at least) 57 major slave rebellions in the Caribbean between 1735 and 1834, particularly the success in and the formation of Haiti.

The Middle Passage and Ship Revolts

In exploring Cugoano’s life Martin draws on the Thoughts and on material that helps to add context such as the book by the slave owner Bryan Edwards the West Indies British colonies (1793): the slave forts and castles on and off the West African coast, particularly Cape Coast Castle, where Cugoano was held before shipment across the Atlantic and the experience of the terrible Middle Passage journey across the Atlantic; and the slave rebellions on the ships, especially as Cugoano was involved in an attempted one of the ship he was on.

He refers to the other set of victims of the trade, the ordinary seamen on the slave ships. One of these Edward Rushton went blind  when ophthalmia raged through his ship. He became an anti-slavery campaigner in Liverpool. In 1775 there was a dispute with slave ship owners over wages, leading to 2-3,000 sailors attacking the Liverpool Exchange building.

Even though he was only on Grenada for a short while Cuguano saw the cruelty inflicted on slaves, even for practising Christianity. Such cruelty was written about in 1784 by Rev. James Ramsay, who had spent 19 years on St. Kitts  The slave system on Grenada is summarised leading to Fedon’s rebellion in 1795/6.

The Sierra Leone Experiment

In the section on Cugoano’s Thoughts and Sentiments Martin weaves into discussion his clear views on why West Indian slavery and the conditions of the British workers were not the same, on the role of Africans in the trade, and on European colonisation and suppression in the Americas. Like Equiano he was initially in favour of the Sierra Leone scheme for Africans in Britain to settle there but then predicted disaster because it was sited in an area of active slave trading. The sad story of the settlement’s fate is then told.

Those Responsible for the Slavery Business

For Cugoano there were two groups of people particularly responsible for slavery, ‘the men of eminence and power’ and the clergy who justified it. In addition to his own letters to the King, the Prince of Wales and politicians like William Putt and Edmund Burke, he was joint signatory with Equiano and others as the ‘Sons of Africa’. Martin  discusses the differences of views between William Pitt and Charles Fox – the former seeing the abolition of the slave trade as a blow to the French, and Fox who believed the trade was a crime.

Common Humanity and Free Labour

Cugoano believed in our common humanity and descent and that God created the variety of mankind. His ultimate goal was the abolition of slavery, but he knew this would take time. He argued that free was more productive than slave labour, and that if sugar might cost more under free labour it was a price worth paying. But free labourers must be paid fair wages, and there should be full employment. He saw the potential of developing non-slave trading with Africa, a point also argued by James Field Stanfield in his Observations on a Guinea Voyage (1788).

1820s Remembrance of Cugoano

We do not know whether he lived to see the abolition of the official British involvement in the slave trade in 1807, or saw the growth of the anti-slave ownership campaign from the 1820s. In that new African British voices were active like the Spencean Robert Wedderburn with his book The Horrors of Slavery dedicated to Wilberforce. Knowledge about Cugoano did not die. In 1824 the year that the African American Ira Alridge was playing Othello at the Royal Theatre, Cugoano’s short biographical piece in his Thoughts was included in Thomas Fisher’s The Negro Memorial, or, abolitionist’s Catecism. He is also mentioned in the Newcastle Courant the same year, which has significance because of the strong anti-slavery movement on Tyneside. In 1825 his Thoughts are mentioned in the Morning Chronicle

Hansib Publications

The book is available from Hansib. 



Broadview Press Book 

While Cugoano is mentioned in many studies of the anti-slavery movement and the black presence in Britain the only other recent study of him was published in Canada
Thomas Clarkson and Ottobah Cugoano: Essays on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, edited by Mary-Antoinette Smith (Broadview Press, 2010).

There is also a detailed page about him on Brycchan Carey’s website at http://www.brycchancarey.com/cugoano/index.htm. Brycchan is one of those who Martin acknowledges for his help and advice.

Broadview Press is an independent Canadian academic press. Its publications include the following novels which seem little known in Britain.

·       The Clockmaker. Thomas Chandler Haliburton. Ed. Richard A. Davies. (2014). 1835-5 novel which was highly controversial, particularly for its treatment of women and black Canadians.
·       Hamel, the Obeah Man. Cynric R. Williams. Ed. Candice Ward & Tim Watson. (2010). Novel set against the backdrop of early nineteenth-century Jamaica, and tells the story of a slave rebellion planned in the ruins of a plantation. Though sympathetic to white slaveholders and hostile to anti-slavery missionaries, it presents a complex picture of the culture and resistance of the island's black majority. 
·       The Woman of Colour. Anonymous. Ed. Lyndon J. Dominique (2007). Novel of a black heiress's life immediately after the abolition of the British slave trade.
·       Bug-Jargal. Victor Hugo. Trans. & ed. Chris Bongie (2004). Novel about the Haitian Revolution.
·       Guanya Pau. A Story of an African Princess. Joseph Jeffrey Walters. Ed. Gareth Griffiths & John Victory Singler. (2004). The first book of long fiction by an African to be published in English, this novel tells the story of a young woman of the Vai people in Liberia. Guanya Pau, betrothed as a child to a much older, polygamous man, flees her home rather than be forced into marriage, and the novel recounts her subsequent efforts to reach the Christian community where the man she loves awaits her. Walters died in 1895.


Further details at https://www.broadviewpress.com/

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