Ottobah Cugoano

Born in the 1750’s in present day Ghana, Ottobah Cugoano was affiliated with African royalty and was abducted by African slave traders before being sold to Europeans at a fort near Cape Coast (possibly Cape Coast Castle). He survived the “Middle Passage” sailing from the West Africa across the Atlantic to the Caribbean Island, Grenada. There he worked as a slave on the plantations for a short period of time before being brought to England eventually obtaining his freedom.
In 1773, Cugoano was baptized and adopted the name “John Stewart” (or John Stuart). He worked as a servant for the popular artist Richard Cosway. It was during this period in the mid 1770’s that he wrote his powerful narrative "Thoughts and Sentiments", which was published in 1787. Cugoano was involved in the British abolition movement to end the slave trade as he corresponded with the influential British abolitionist Granville Sharp and fellow African abolitionist Olaudah Equiano. In 1791, he published the second edition of his narrative after which he disappears from historical record. Scholarship has yet to discover new documents that may reveal the further contributions he made to the abolitionist cause.

The Historical Significance of Ottobah Cugoano…

In 1787, a monumental event in world history took place: Quobna Ottobah Cugoano’s "Thoughts and Sentiments On the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Humbly Submitted to the Inhabitants of Great-Britain, by Ottobah Cugoano, A Native of Africa" was published.
What is important about Cugoano’s publication is that it was the first abolitionist narrative written by a former African slave in the English language. Other so called 'slave narratives', perhaps more appropriately referred to as 'freedom narratives' (to borrow from Paul Lovejoy), by individuals such as Ignatius Sancho and James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw appear earlier in the 18th century but none as outspoken and explicitly against the slave trade and slavery as Cugoano’s narrative. Thoughts and Sentiments was published two years before Olaudah Equiano’s bestseller "The Interesting Narrative" in 1789 yet it has received far less attention than Equiano’s narrative. This is partly a consequence of scholarship that questions the authenticity of Cugoano’s narrative and therefore diminishes its value as a reliable source. However, there are two schools of inquiry: one that believes he wrote his narrative and one that believes his narrative was quote ‘edited and improved’ (to borrow from Paul Edwards) by a fellow abolitionist or abolitionists, namely Olaudah Equiano.
What is for certain is that Cugoano’s narrative was clearly ahead of its time in its explicit call for not only the abolition of the British slave trade but for the abolition of the institution of slavery itself (a feat which would not be officially realized in the British Empire until 1838 – although remnants still persisted in the empire until the 1930s). Thoughts and Sentiments is a rhetorical masterpiece that methodologically debunks 18th century myths surrounding the subhuman nature of the African while leaving the European readership with no ethical alternative (based on religious, reasonable and property-ownership principles) but to act and abolish the slave trade and slavery.
From historical hindsight, Ottobah Cugoano’s narrative remains the product of a remarkable era characterized by the revolutionary ideological changes inherent in The American, French and Haitian Revolutions and the mass mobilization of public opinion in the British abolition movement. His narrative can be understood as an integral part of the body of abolitionist writings that were circulating in Britain and beyond in the 1780’s and 1790’s, which included works by Olaudah Equiano, Thomas Clarkson, Rev. James Ramsay and Granville Sharp to name a few. Questioning the authenticity of abolitionist writings such as Ottobah Cugoano’s narrative need not have negative connotations as his narrative more importantly offers 'insight into world history and the human costs of modernization’ (to borrow from David Brion Davis). Ultimately, "Thoughts and Sentiments" was an important contribution in the drive towards the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire.