Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, also known as James Albert, is said to be the first published black author in Britain. His autobiography, A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, An African Prince, as Related to Himself, was the first slave narrative published in England.
Gronniosaw was born in Bornu (now north-eastern Nigeria) around 1710. He was a bright child with a natural affinity for monotheistic religion. He wrote, ‘it being strongly impressed on my mind that there was some Great Man of power which resided above the sun, moon and stars, the objects of our worship.’
His view alienated the young Gronniosaw from his parents and friends. At age 15, traders came to his village and offered to take him to the Gold Coast, where he would ‘see houses with wings’ and ‘white folks’; he eagerly accepted. The traders tricked him. he was taken to the Gold Coast and sold into slavery to a Dutch captain for two yards of check cloth.
Gronniosaw was purchased by a Dutch ship’s captain and taken to Barbados, where he was first sold to a New Yorker named Vanhorn, then to Theodore Frelinghuysen, an evangelical minister and friend of George Whitefield. Frelinghuysen ensured Gronniosaw was religiously educated, and Mrs Frelinghuysen introduced him to spiritual works by John Bunyan and Richard Baxter.
In his autobiography, Gronniosaw stated that he wanted to return to his family in Africa, but Frelinghuysen denied his request, telling him to focus on his faith. Gronniosaw attempted suicide while with Frelinghuysen. He was distressed over his perceived failings as a Christian.
When Gronniosaw’s master died in 1747, he became a free man. Still, he continued to work for Mrs Frelinghuysen and her children. Within four years, they all died. Gronniosaw made the decision to go to England to seek out Whitefield, who had been kind to him during his enslavement.
Gronniosaw enlisted as a cook with a privateer to earn money for his journey, then as a soldier in the 28th Regiment of Foot to pay for his passage to England. There he expected to meet other pious people like Frelinghuysen. After serving in Martinique and Cuba, he sailed to England after being discharged.
Initially, he lived in Portsmouth, but after his landlady cheated him out of most of his savings, he moved to London in search of a better life. There he married a young English widow, Betty. She was a weaver and a single parent. The couple had at least two children together. When Betty lost her job because of the financial depression and industrial unrest, the family moved to Colchester.
They were saved from starvation by the kindness of Quaker lawyer Osgood Hanbury (grandfather of abolitionist Thomas Fowell Buxton), who employed Gronniosaw as a builder.
When one of his daughters died, the local clergy refused to bury her because she was not baptised. Finally, a minister offered to bury her in the churchyard but refused to read the service. The family then moved to Norwich but again fell on hard times due to the building trade’s seasonal nature.
The family pawned all their possessions and moved to Kidderminster, where Betty got a job as a weaver to support them.
Shortly after he arrived in Kidderminster, Gronniosaw began work on his life story with the help of an author’s aide. Scholars have characterised Gronniosaw’s Narrative as a groundbreaking work written in English by an African. It was the first slave narrative published in England, receiving wide attention with multiple printings and editions.
In his Narrative, Gronniosaw does not overtly criticise slavery. Still, he points out the prejudices black people faced in Britain during the eighteenth century. Many black authors would condemn slavery more radically in the years following.
Gronniosaw’s Narrative is the earliest known example of a black person writing his life story long before slavery became a national issue. Gronniosaw is the first person to convey the first-hand experience of enslaved people’s spiritual lives and their suffering during transatlantic slavery to the British reading public. The book’s ambivalent attitude towards slavery separates it from the work of Ottobah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano.
Gronniosaw’s Narrative concludes with him still living in Kidderminster at the age of sixty. Nothing was known of his later life. The Chester Chronicle, however, published an obituary for Gronniosaw during the late twentieth century.
The article, from 2 October 1775, reads:
On Thursday [28 September] died, in this city, aged 70, James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, of Zaara. He left his country in the early part of his life, with a view to acquire proper notions of the Divine Being, and of the worship due to Him. He met with many trials and embarrassments, was much afflicted and persecuted. His last moments exhibited that cheerful serenity which, at such a time, is the certain effect of a thorough conviction of the great truths of Christianity. He published a narrative of his life.