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Ottobah Cugoano: The Pioneer of the Black Radical Tradition

Ottobah Cugoano, pioneered the Black radical tradition when he established his leadership of the British abolitionist movement in 1787 with the publication of his book, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species. Cugoano, born a Fanti, in West Africa, was about 30 years old, when he became the first English-speaking African historian of the Maafa (Atlantic slavery). 

Unlike other African writers before him, Cugoano, it seems, found it ‘impossible to emphasize the personal at the expense of the political.’ He wrote not to tell the story of his ‘bondage and freedom’ or ‘to fashion a public persona.’ Instead, he mastered the English language to articulate an alternative stream of thought in confronting racist discourses about Africans and the human trafficking of Africa’s people. 

Quobna Ottobah Cugoano was born around 1757 on the coast of present-day Ghana, in the Fante village of Agimaque or Ajumako. He wrote that he was kidnapped and sold into the Maafa in 1770 for “a gun, a piece of cloth and some lead.”  Cugoano was transported to Grenada and was enslaved there for nine months before he was “delivered from Grenada” by Alexander Campbell, a Grenadian plantation enslaver. Campbell took Cugoano to “various other parts of the West Indies,” before bringing him to Britain, in late 1772. Cugoano arrived in Britain just after the Somerset case, in which Lord Chief Justice Mansfield made his landmark ruling that James Somerset could not be removed from Britain by his enslaver. This ruling effectively declared that it was illegal for a British enslaver to forcibly remove a person in bondage from the country. Therefore, Cugoano could not be forced back to the West Indies. To ensure that he would never be sold into the Maafa again, Cugoano got baptized on 20th August 1773, as John Stuart at St James Church, Piccadilly. Baptism was one of the freedom pathways used by Africans in Britain to establish that they were not heathens and therefore could not be legally enslaved.

Cugoano then set his mind to learning to read and write. When Campbell perceived that he could write, he sent him “to a proper school for that purpose to learn.” By 1784, Cugoano was free and working as a domestic servant to the painters Richard and Maria Cosway, who were very well-connected to the leading figures of British and American society. Therefore, it is believed that through the Cosway, Cugoano came to the attention of the poet William Blake, who may have referenced Cugoano in his poem.

According to Vincent Bakpetu Thompson, author of Africans of the Diaspora: The Evolution of African Consciousness & Leadership in the Americas, there are three types of leadership that were developed by Africans during the Maafa: ‘the physical force leader,’ ‘the moral suasionist,’ and ‘the activist.’ The physical force leader was the man or woman who challenged bondage with arm uprisings. The moral suasionist was a leader whose actions were usually guided by the assumptions that the rulers of society could be induced or persuaded by reason and argument to modify, change, or abandon policies that seem detrimental to some or all sections of society. Suasionists are concerned with the way in which society’s values have been debased. They are also motivated by religious principles and their perception of what is right and wrong. The activist, however, is a leader who establishes organizations to quicken the pace of a desired change. Cugoano’s radical examination of the systems of enslavement is the reason Thompson has argued that he was an example of the overlapping among the three categories of leadership.   

Cugoano is first identifiable as a moral suasionist who wrote ‘one of the most thorough criticisms of the Maafa and empire in the eighteenth century,’ while appealing to the Christian beliefs of his readers. His writing complemented the antislavery protests by British abolitionists, through his role as ’the innocent but angry eye of the participant observer.‘ His polemic ‘was the first piece of [African] writing published in Britain which can be considered as both unequivocally political and unequivocally abolitionist.’

However, Cugoano began his leadership in abolitionism as an activist. In July 1786, he and a friend, William Green, went to Granville Sharp to appeal for Harry Demane. Sharp, who had defended James Somerset in 1772, was a leading abolitionist. Cugoano and Green informed Sharp that Demane had been tricked into going on board a slaver’s ship, where he was held against his will. Sharp obtained a writ of habeas corpus to remove Demane from the ship before it sailed.

A year before this joint political action, Cugoano and his friend, Olaudah Equiano had co-founded The Sons of Africa. The Sons was the first African political organization in Britain, focusing on abolition. The organization was formed before the British anti-Maafa London Committee led by Granville Sharp. The Sons worked closely with the London Committee in raising public awareness about Africa and the horrors of bondage and human trafficking. They attended meetings in Parliament, and public debates on slavery, and monitored the progress of the Abolition Bill. The Sons appealed to all sections of British society and also wrote to Queen Charlotte Sophia, seeking her compassion “for millions of African countrymen who groan under the lash of tyranny in the West Indies.”

Cugoano’s earliest known writing, however, is a letter he sent to the Prince of Wales in 1786, urging him to “consider the Case of the poor Africans who are most barbarously captured and unlawfully carried away from their own Country and cruelly enslaved by many under the British Government…” This was Cugoano’s first act of moral suasion and served as an introduction to his book published the following year in July 1787. An abridged version was published in 1791, addressed explicitly to his “Countrymen and brother Sufferers.”

In The Site of Memory, an essay by Toni Morrison, she wrote that narratives about bondage were written ‘to say principally two things: One: “This is my historical life – my singular, special example that is personal, but also represents the race.” Two: “I write this text to persuade other people – you, the reader, who is probably not [African] — that we are human beings worthy of God’s grace and the immediate abandonment of [the Maafa].” Although Thoughts and Sentiments shared some aspects of Cugoano’s life, it was not written as a biography, and he had to be persuaded “by some friends to add” biographical information about himself. Anthony Bogues, author of Black Heretics and, Black Prophets observed that Thoughts and Sentiments was different from other writings at the time which called themselves, “narratives,” “memoirs,” “the life of and confession of.” Cugoano’s book extends beyond the narratives of John Marrant and James Gronniosaw, whose life stories had been written for them, to include his conceptions of evil and his views on the relationship between natural liberty and natural rights. Both Gronniosaw’s and Marrant’s narratives had been published before Cugoano’s Thoughts and Sentiments. However, their narratives said very little about the injustices of bondage and were focused on their spiritual deliverance. Whereas, Cugoano used his narrative ‘as a pretext for an uncompromising critique of [the Maafa].’

Morrison’s second point was capitalized in Thoughts and Sentiments. Although the book attacks the Maafa and colonial conquest directly, and refutes the justification for bondage given by the “favourers of slavery,” it also aims to obtain sympathy and respect. Morrison further contends that the narratives written by Africans were frequently scorned as “biased,” “inflammatory,” and “improbable.” Therefore, African authors during the Maafa had to write narratives in a way that did not offend the reader by being too angry, or by calling the reader names. It is in this regard that one can call Cugoano a literary revolutionary as Thoughts and Sentiments was inflammatory; and did not shy away from calling the reader out and informing the reader that the blood of Africans “crieth for vengeance on their persecutors and murderers.”

Therefore, one can argue that Thoughts and Sentiments was a literary uprising or revolt.

It is within its pages that Cugoano’s physical force leadership is unleashed. He wrote directly to the enormous physical and psychological violence and “wickedness”, that Africans experienced in bondage and freedom. He showed that enslavement, imperialism, and colonialism were systems of domination that invoked the process of dehumanization and animalization of Africans. Of the dehumanization of African life, Cugoano wrote: “Our lives are accounted of no value, we are hunted after as the prey in the desert and doomed to destruction as the beasts that perish.” Even as a free African, he did not escape being regarded as non-human or subhuman, as the humanity of Africa’s people was being questioned in eighteenth-century religious debates in Europe. Additionally, Africans were classified as property, real estate, and chattel. 

Bondage for Cugoano was an activity that was rooted in stealing, kidnapping, and the selling of human beings, and was therefore against the common rights of nature, evil, and thus contrary to notions of justice, reason, and humanity. He, therefore, advocated for resistance against enslavement. According to Peter Fryer, author of Staying Power, Cugoano was the first writer in English to do so. Cugoano insisted that all Africans in bondage had not only a moral right but the moral duty to resist. He wrote: “If any man should buy another man…and compel him to his service and slavery without any agreement of that man to serve him, the enslaver is a robber, and a defrauder of that man every day. Wherefore it is as much the duty of a man who is robbed in that manner to get out of the hands of his enslaver, as it is for any honest community of men to get out of the hands of rogues and villains.”

Thoughts and Sentiments was successful although there seems to have been no official review of the book. It was reprinted three times in 1787 and was translated into French in 1788. It was sold by various London booksellers and could be purchased from the Pall Mall home of the Cosways, where he worked. Cugoano sent a copy of the book to the Prince of Wales, who was hostile to abolition, perhaps because he believed that “kings and rulers” had the power to prevent the trafficking and end enslavement.

At the end of the 1791 edition, Cugoano announced his intention to “open a school, for all such of his Complexion as are desirous of being acquainted with the Knowledge of the Christian Religion and the Laws of Civilization.” He also wrote a letter to Granville Sharp in 1791, mentioning that he had travelled to upward of fifty places and had experienced racial prejudice  This suggests that Cugoano had ‘toured the country,’ and had been ‘speaking out strongly against [the Maafa] and focusing attention on black people throughout the world.’ This is the last known writing of Cugoano.

Ottobah Cugoano stands at the beginning of the Black radical tradition. Although there were other voices before his, he was the first to write a book, documenting his radical thoughts in addressing the key issues of the Maafa, colonialism, and imperialism. Although he was influenced by the political ideas and anti-Maafa writings of other abolitionists at the time, ‘he developed his own radical perspectives on the issues confronting Africans in Britain, the West Indies, and Africa.’ He challenged the arguments about African inferiority, examined the damaging effect of the Maafa and colonialism; and corrected the distortion of Africa’s history. Cugoano’s commitment to look at ‘all forms of what he considers evil’ places his thought at the forefront of abolitionist writing of the 1780s.

He was unwavering in his insistence that the British should immediately end the Maafa. He proposed that they set aside days of mourning and fasting for being responsible for two-thirds of the forced migration of Africa’s people, at the time of his writing. Between 1662 and 1807 the British captured an estimated 3,415,500 Africans, who were taken from their homeland to the Americas primarily to develop and sustain a plantation system. Only 2,964,800 captives survived the journey from Africa to the Americas. 

Cugoano also requested that British ships of war be sent to the West African coast to conduct anti-slavery patrols. Yet, history did not give Cugoano the accolade he deserved, when from 1808, the Royal Navy formed the West Africa Squadron, to police the African coast. 

Cugoano’s radicalism could be the reason he is in the shadow of history, and is not celebrated in the story about British abolitionism.  

Meserette’s note

I was only 13 when I was given a new name, “Radical.” I had been engaged in a ferocious discussion with my friends and would not be swayed when an older youth decided to bestow the title on me. I immediately went to look up the meaning of the word, in my dictionary, because it was the first time I had heard it. However, I still could not grasp the meaning of it. Later, I learned what radicalism really was through the life of Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, and then I met Ottobah Cugoano. I first learned about Cugoano in the book, Staying Power by Peter Fryer. Cugoano, for me, was the first radical of the Atlantic world. He was a literary revolutionary and a powerful symbol of courage against oppression. Therefore, he was the subject of my 6000-word essay, for the MRes History of Africa and the African Diaspora, created and taught by Professor Hakim Adi. I have presented some of the information from my essay in writing Cugoano’s story for Kentake Page.

Also, the Maafa is how I prefer to name the 400 years of enslavement of Africa’s people. Rather than using the words, Atlantic slavery, slavery, or Black holocaust. Maafa, coined by Marimba Ani, is a Ki-Swahili word that means disaster, terrible occurrence, or great tragedy. Maafa refers to the trafficking and enslavement of Africa’s people and the sustained attempt to dehumanize us. The term, Maangamizi, coined by Maulana Karenga is also used. I have also found in my readings, that our ancestors refer to this dark chapter of our history as the “Time of Sorrow.”  

Finally, for ease of reading, I did not give the exact references in this article. Whenever another writer was quoted I use single quotation marks. Whenever I quote Cugoano, I use double quotation marks.

Source:

Hakim Adi, African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History (London: Penguin Books, 2022).

Hakim Adi, ‘The African Diaspora, ‘Development’ & Modern African Political Theory,’ Review of African Political Economy, vol. 29, no. 92 (2002), pp. 237–51. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4006813 (accessed 20 October 2022).

Hilary Beckles,and Verene A. Shepherd,  Saving Souls: The Struggle to End the Transatlantic Trade in Africans (Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 2007).

Stephen Best and Sadiya Hartman, ‘Fugitive Justice,’ Representations, vol. 92, no. 1 (2005), pp. 1–15. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.1525/rep.2005.92.1.1 (accessed 02 January 2023).

Anthony Bogues,, Black Heretics, Black Prophets: Radical Political Intellectuals (New York: Routledge, 2003).

Vincent Carretta, (ed.), Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery by Quobna Ottobah Cugoano (London: Penguin Books, 1999).

William R. Cotter, ‘The Somerset Case and the Abolition of Slavery in England,’ History, vol. 79, no. 255 (1994), pp. 31–56. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24421930 (accessed 15 October 2022).

David Eltis and James Walvin, The Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Origins and Effects in Europe, Africa, and the Americas (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981).

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and William L. Andrews, (eds.) Pioneers of The Black Atlantic: Five Slave Narratives from the Enlightenment 1772-1815 (Washington, D.C.: Perseus, 1998).

Jeffrey Gunn, ‘Creating a Paradox: Quobna Ottobah Cugoano and the Slave Trade’s Violation of the Principles of Christianity, Reason, and Property Ownership.’ Journal of World History, vol. 21, no. 4 (2010), pp. 629–56. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41060853 (accessed 2 January 2023).

Ryan Hanley, Beyond Slavery and Abolition: Black British Writing c.1770-1830 (London: Cambridge University Press, 2019)

Adam Hochschild, Bury The Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (London: Macmillan, 2005).

David Killingray, ‘Britain, the Slave Trade and Slavery: An African Hermeneutic, 1787,’ p. 125 https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/anvil/24-2_121.pdf (accessed 14 December 2022).

Katherine McKittrick, (ed.), Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human As Praxis (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).

Toni Morrison, ‘The Site of Memory’, in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, William Zinsser (e), (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 12995), pp. 83-102, (p.86.) https://blogs.umass.edu/brusert/files/2013/03/Morrison_Site-of-Memory.pdf (accessed, 13 Dec. 2022). 

Victor C. D. Mtubani, ‘The Black Voice in Eighteenth-Century Britain: African Writers against Slavery and the Slave Trade,’ Phylon (1960-), vol. 45, no. 2 (1984), pp. 85–97 . JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/274471 (accessed 29 September 2022).

Tacuma Peters, The Anti-Imperialism of Ottobah Cugoano: Slavery, Abolition, and Colonialism in Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery,’ The CLR James Journal, vol. 23, no.1/2 (2017), pp. 61–82. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26752147 (accessed 15 October 2022). 

Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

Vincent Bakpetu Thompson, ‘Leadership in the African Diaspora in the Americas Prior to 1860,’ Journal of Black Studies, vol. 24, no. 1 (1993), pp. 42–76. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2784541 (accessed 27 October 2022).

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