Black British Literature

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Has its origins in slave narratives of the 18th cent., the most famous of which was Olaudah Equiano's The Interesting Narrative (1789), which became an instant bestseller, and sold in thousands to sympathizers of the Abolition movement (widely regarded by historians as the first mass philanthropic movement in Britain). Equiano describes his Ibo childhood; his kidnapping and enslavement in the Caribbean; his successful efforts to emancipate himself; and his subsequent travels in Britain and Europe as a free man. The story, with its descriptions of the brutalities of slavery, is a moving testimony to courage in the face of tragedy and despair; but Equiano expressed no resentment against his masters: indeed, it was the stress he placed on Christian forgiveness that engaged many of his readers. His strategy was to persuade people of the injustices of slavery by calm reasoning and appeals to the heart. He was also aware of the need to craft his writing, to use language vividly and with deliberate artistry, in order to prove that an African was just as capable of creative expression as any white man, and should therefore be accorded the same rights.

The first African to publish a book in England was Ignatius Sancho, whose Letters were published in 1782. Sancho was born in 1729 on board a slave ship crossing the Atlantic. His mother died soon afterwards and his father committed suicide rather than face a life of slavery. After being brought to England, Sancho was taken up by the duke of Montague, under whose patronage he acquired a classical education. He wrote poetry, two stage plays, and musical works, and became friendly with a number of distinguished figures of the day, including Gainsborough (who painted his portrait), L. Sterne, and S. Johnson. Sancho's letters, written somewhat in the style of Sterne, were enormously popular and cited by Abolition sympathizers as evidence of the African's intellect and humanity.

Other ex‐slaves living in England who also published their memoirs included Ukawsaw Gronniosaw (A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, 1770), Ottobah Cugoano (Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, 1787), John Jea (The Life, History and Unparalleled Sufferings of John Jea, African Preacher of the Gospels, 1814), and Mary Prince (The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, 1831). The achievement of such writers was all the more extraordinary given their difficult circumstances, and the fact that they were largely self‐educated. Where once black people had been packed in the holds of slave ships, by the end of the 18th cent. they had become articulate and creative, using the medium of print to establish a new strand of English literary culture. (See also slavery, literature of.)

Mary Seacole's Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacole in Many Lands (1857) provides a rare record of a black woman's experience of the male‐dominated world of the British Empire. Seacole, a self‐taught nurse, practised in her home country of Jamaica before travelling through Latin America, where she treated diseases such as cholera and yellow fever. She came to London in 1854 intending to volunteer for nursing duties in the Crimea, but was rejected because of her colour. Nevertheless, she set off for the Crimea, where she established a hospital for British troops. Seacole became a household name, and in 1857 a benefit festival in her honour was held in the Royal Surrey Gardens, attracting 40,000 people over four consecutive nights.


Subjects: Literature.

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