Reference Entry

Cugoano, Ottobah ca. 1757–ca. 1803 African abolitionist in Britain who published an autobiographical book arguing against British racism and participation in the transatlantic slave trade.

Leyla Keough

in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition

Published in print January 2005 | ISBN: 9780195170559
Cugoano, Ottobah ca. 1757–ca. 1803 African abolitionist in Britain who published an autobiographical book arguing against British racism and participation in the transatlantic slave trade.

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Ottobah Cugoano was born in Ajumako, Ghana, and was abducted by slave traders in 1770. Horrified by the atrocities he experienced on the Middle Passage voyage, he exclaimed, “Death was more preferable than life, and a plan was concerted amongst us, that we might burn and blow up the ship, and to perish all together in the flames.” Though the plan was thwarted, the radicalism that marked the effort remained a theme in Cugoano’s life. Cugoano was bought by a white man in the West Indies and in 1772 was taken to England, where he learned to read and write and was baptized. His whereabouts are unknown until 1786, when he and another black man informed the abolitionist lawyer Granville Sharp of the unjust treatment of a slave tied to a mast by his owner. At the time, Cugoano worked for the court painter of the Prince of Wales, a connection he used to plead for abolition in a letter to the prince. Cugoano expressed his abolitionist beliefs in his 1787 book, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species. Though many scholars assert that Cugoano did not write all of the text, according to literary critics Paul Edwards and David Dabydeen the book exhibits “an aggressive and often bitter urgency of tone” that suits what they call Cugoano’s “overt and assertive black radicalism.” In Thoughts and Sentiments, Cugoano used rational and objective methods to advance radical arguments for abolition. Cugoano felt that many slave traders worked in the name of Christianity but sought only personal profit. He cites Protestants as “the most barbarous slaveholders” and likens explorers, slave traders, and their governments to the Antichrist. He equated slaveholders with robbers and believed slave revolts to be a moral duty. Though he did not advocate anarchy, he admonished British law, the monarchy, and parliament for supporting the interests of the elite class involved in the trade, and prophesied divine retribution. In addition, Cugoano refuted secular and Christian claims of African inferiority as well as the assumption that ancient slave practices in Africa justified the trading of Africans. Cugoano proposed the abolition of the slave trade and emancipation of slaves, recommending that the British fleet enforce the ban on the coast of Africa. Maintaining that every British person was responsible for the cruelties of slavery, “unless he speedily riseth up with abhorrence of it in his own judgment, and, to avert evil, declare himself against it,” he suggested a day of atonement and fasting for all English people. Cugoano did not believe that the English would abolish slavery any time soon. So he proposed pragmatic improvements, such as humane treatment, the education of slaves in trades and Christianity, and freedom after seven years. Cugoano married an Englishwoman and continued letter-writing campaigns as a member of the Sons of Africa, a black British abolitionist organization. Little is known of his later life, though it is reputed that in 1791 he was working to find skilled laborers among black Loyalists in Canada to journey to Sierra Leone.

Reference Entry.  542 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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