In 1770 a 13-year-old African boy was kidnapped and sold into slavery while out playing in the woods, enduring the horrors of the Middle Passage and plantation life before being taken to London to work as a servant.
But a mixture of serendipity, intellectual vigour and sheer force of personality led Ottobah Cugoano to become one of the foremost abolitionists of his day, penning what was to become a milestone in anti-slavery literature.
Although Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species ran into at least three editions and was translated into French, Cugoano has become a footnote in history. It is this that prompted author Martin Hoyles to write Cugoano Against Slavery, a vivid exploration of his life and works in the context of the wider abolitionist movement.
“He was a revolutionary figure whose passionate and bold arguments against the slave trade were an original contribution to the campaign, yet most people haven’t heard of him,” he says.
One of the reasons for this is that Cugoano suddenly disappeared from view a few years after the book’s 1787 publication. “Although there is speculation that he could have returned to Africa, we may never know what happened to him,” concedes Hoyles, a retired lecturer living in north London.
However, Cugoano gives us a brief but fascinating glimpse of his life thus far at the beginning of Thoughts and Sentiments…, in particular the events of capture from what is today southwest Ghana, his deliverance from “that horrid and brutal slavery” in Grenada and his arrival in London, where he had the good fortune to be sent to a “proper school” to learn to read and write.
His second piece of good luck was to serve in the Pall Mall home of Richard Cosway, a leading court painter of the day whose 1784 etching of a black servant is assumed to be of Cugoano himself.
Thrust into high society just as the abolition movement was beginning to make its voice heard, Cugoano was soon rubbing shoulders with leading activists like Granville Sharp and Olaudah Equiano, and began a letter writing campaign, corresponding with the likes of George lll and Edmund Burke.
His book, which pre-dates Equiano’s famous slave narrative by two years and also includes an attack on the colonial conquest of the Americas, consists largely of rhetorical argument and religious commentary, challenging, for example, those biblical texts that were routinely trotted out as a justification for slavery, like the story of Ham.
“It is a very impressive work,” says Hoyles. “Considering that he had learned to read and write a language that was not his own only a few years earlier, he was amazingly well read.”
Cugoano – baptised in St Jame’s Church in Piccadilly as plain John Stuart – toured the country to promote the book, which also came out in an abridged version. But, sadly, after 1791 no more was heard of him, although Hoyles’ research reveals that he continued to be referenced by later political activists: “He was just an amazing man who deserves to be at the very centre of the history of the anti-slavery movement.”
Cugoano Against Slavery by Martin Hoyles is published by Hansib, £9.99
This article was first published in the Camden New Journal, October 30, 2014