Learning about Britain’s Black Abolitionists

Saima Miah, University of Wolverhampton graduate

The theme of this year’s Black History Month is ‘time for change: action not words’. In this spirit, former SHS committee member Dr George Gosling reached out to some of his former students at the University of Wolverhampton to discuss what it meant to them to learn about Black British History during their studies. Here, Saima Miah, a History and War Studies graduate, shares her thoughts on learning about the African abolitionist Ottobah Cugoano. Her blog was featured on the University of Wolverhampton website.

Having studied History as part of a joint honours degree at the University of Wolverhampton, I was able to explore aspects of Black History throughout my course. Most notably, in my final year, I was able to look into the history of British abolitionism, allowing me to research historical figures significant to the movement. There tends to be a predominant focus on white abolitionists during this period, but I wanted to look beyond this scope, which brings me to the subject of this blog: Quobna Ottobah Cugoano.

Commonly referred to by his middle name, Ottobah Cugoano was a black abolitionist, active during the late eighteenth century. Born circa 1757 in Agimaque, Ghana, Ottobah Cugoano’s early childhood may be considered as one of peace, with his father being a companion to the Chief of Agimaque. However, following the Chief’s death, Cugoano was sent to live with his uncle for three months. As he was acquainted with the children, he often ventured with them into the woods. This ultimately led to Cugoano’s capture at the mere age of 13, along with up to twenty other children, being forced into a life of enslavement.

The beginnings of his enslavement saw Cugoano spend nine months in the British colony of Grenada before being sold to a man named Alexander Campbell and brought to England. During this time, there is speculation that Campbell was also a temporary owner of Olaudah Equiano, a significant black abolitionist and friend of Cugoano. While a servant under Campbell, Cugoano received an education and was baptised to ensure that he would never be re-enslaved; hence his baptised name, John Stuart.

In the mid-1780s, Cugoano was employed by famed artists, Richard and Maria Cosway. It was during this time that Cugoano emerged as a leading voice of African descent for the Abolition movement. His first known action in the movement came in 1786, with the help of William Green and Granville Sharp, when he aided and rescued Henry Demane from being forced into re-enslavement. The following year Cugoano published Thoughts and Sentiment on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species. This pamphlet remains a significant piece with regards to early abolitionist writings, using enlightened notions to pose a radical critique and demand the abolition of slavery as an institution.

By the end of the year, Cugoano was also a leading member of the Sons of Africa, which historian Ryan Hanley considers to be Britain’s first black political organisation. This group of free Africans promoted change by advocating for the end of colonial slavery and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Its members also aided individuals who were being subjected to illegal re-enslavement and petitioned to Parliament on many occasions regarding various issues surrounding slavery and aiding the black community. This was probably the peak in his anti-slavery activities, as there is little information available as to his activities and whereabouts after 1791. Nevertheless, Cugoano remains a prominent black abolitionist in the history of British abolitionism.

Looking into Cugoano was important to me. He was significant to British abolitionism but does not receive the recognition he deserves for his efforts. From the research I have conducted into Cugoano, I can simply admire him. He was kidnapped and forced into slavery at only 13 years old, working on sugar cane plantations until he was sold and taken to England. After overcoming his odds and receiving an education and being freed, he sought for reform and put his efforts to campaign against the very institution that he was sold into.

Ottobah Cugoano was the first African to publicly criticise the institution of slavery for what it stood for. His approach in doing so was considered radical as he made no attempt to downplay the inexcusable nature of slavery and what it had done to millions of individuals who were forcefully subjected to the confinements of this institution.

He serves as a prime example of this year’s theme for Black History Month: Time for Change: Actions not Words, as he recognised that action was needed for the reform that he and many others were advocating for. The true extent of his legacy is often undermined as he is overshadowed by other better-known abolitionists, which is why I wanted to shine a light on Cugoano and give him the recognition he deserves for his efforts towards abolition.

About the author: Saima Miah is a History and War Studies graduate from the University of Wolverhampton.

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