Ottobah Cugoano, also known as John Stuart, was an African abolitionist who played a prominent role in the fight against slavery in England during the latter half of the 18th century. Born in present-day Ghana around 1757, Cugoano was kidnapped by slave traders at the age of 13 and later shipped to Grenada. In 1772, he was taken to England by an English merchant, where he gained his freedom and became an influential figure in the abolitionist movement.
Early life and enslavement
Ottobah Cugoano was born in Africa in about 1757 in a politically well-connected family. However, this did not prevent his kidnapping by slave traders while playing in a field with other children. He later recalled the harrowing experience, stating that some of the children attempted to run away but were threatened with pistols and cutlasses.
Cugoano was placed on a slave ship bound for the West Indies, where he experienced brutal conditions onboard. In his own words, he described the sailors taking advantage of African women while the men were chained and confined to small spaces. He also recounted a plan to burn and blow up the ship, which was ultimately foiled by one of their own countrywomen.
Upon arrival in the Caribbean, Cugoano was sold as a slave to plantation owners in Grenada. He witnessed the extreme cruelty inflicted upon his fellow slaves for even the most trivial offences, such as eating a piece of sugar cane. This brutality, along with the inhumane living conditions, filled his mind with horror and indignation.
Journey to England and freedom
In 1772, Ottobah Cugoano was purchased by an English merchant who took him to England. There, he was set free and given the name “John Stuart” upon his baptism at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, on 20 August 1773. He later entered the service of the royal artist Richard Cosway and started living with the Cosways at Schomberg House in London.
During his time at Schomberg House, Cugoano became acquainted with prominent British political and cultural figures, such as the Prince of Wales, Edmund Burke, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Joseph Nollekens. It is believed that the Cosways supported Cugoano’s anti-slavery campaign, as their residence was mentioned as a location where copies of his book could be obtained.
Involvement in the abolitionist movement
Ottobah Cugoano became one of the leaders of London’s black community and joined the Sons of Africa, a group of African abolitionists. In 1786, he played a crucial role in the case of Henry Demane, a black man who had been kidnapped and was about to be shipped to the West Indies as a slave. Cugoano contacted Granville Sharp, a prominent abolitionist, who managed to rescue Demane before the ship left the port.
According to his biographer, Vincent Carretta, “Cugoano was one of the first identifiable Afro-Britons actively engaged in the fight against slavery.” He continued to work alongside other abolitionists, such as Olaudah Equiano, writing public letters to London newspapers to further the cause.
Literary works and public advocacy
Ottobah Cugoano was taught to read and write. In 1787, with the help of his friend Olaudah Equiano, he published an account of his experiences titled Narrative of the Enslavement of a Native of Africa. Copies of the book were sent to George III, Edmund Burke, and other leading politicians. However, he failed to persuade the king to change his opinions, and the royal family remained against the abolition of the slave trade.
In the same year, Cugoano also published Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species. In this work, he criticised religious and secular pro-slavery arguments, demanded the immediate abolition of the slave trade, and called for the emancipation of all slaves. He even advocated for punishments for slave owners, including enslavement by their former slaves.
In 1793, Cugoano denounced William Wilberforce, a prominent abolitionist, as a hypocrite for refusing to support the campaign to end slavery in the British Empire.
Later life and disappearance from historical record
In 1791, it appears that Cugoano moved with Richard Cosway to a new address at 12 Queen Street (now Lumley Street) in Mayfair. The last known information about Cugoano is a letter he wrote in 1791, in which he mentioned travelling to promote his book to “upwards of fifty places.” Unfortunately, he found that “complexion is a predominant prejudice.”
At the time, Cugoano expressed a desire to travel to Nova Scotia to recruit settlers for a proposed free colony of African Britons in Sierra Leone. It is unknown if this idea was ever pursued. The cause, date, and place of Cugoano’s death and the date and place of his burial remain unknown.
Legacy and impact
Ottobah Cugoano’s life and works are a testament to the power of individual courage and determination in the face of adversity. As one of the first African-born abolitionists to demand the total abolition of the slave trade and the freeing of all slaves, his writings and advocacy played a crucial role in the eventual dismantling of the institution of slavery.
Cugoano’s story also highlights the importance of education and literacy in empowering marginalised communities to fight for their rights and dignity. His literary works continue to be studied and celebrated today, an enduring reminder of the need for vigilance against all forms of oppression and injustice.
Ottobah Cugoano’s life is a remarkable example of resilience, determination, and the fight for justice. Despite the immense challenges he faced, Cugoano used his experiences and newfound freedom to advocate for the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of all slaves. His writings and activism played a significant role in the eventual dismantling of the slave trade. His legacy continues to inspire and educate future generations about the importance of fighting against oppression and injustice.