Ottobah Cugoano, also known as John Stuart (c. 1757 – after 1791), was an African abolitionist and natural rights philosopher he was born in Ghana in 1757 near Ajumako and was of the Fanti tribe.
At the age of 13, Cuguano was sold into slavery, he would later recalled: “I was snatched away from my native country,when I was young with about eighteen or twenty more boys and girls, as we were playing in a field. We lived but a few days’ journey from the coast where we were kidnapped… Some of us attempted, in vain, to run away, but pistols and cutlasses were soon introduced, threatening, that if we offered to stir, we should all lie dead on the spot.”
Cugoano was placed on a slave-ship bound for the West Indies. “We were taken in the ship that came for us, to another that was ready to sail from Cape Coast. When we were put into the ship, we saw several black merchants coming on board, but we were all drove into our holes, and not suffered to speak to any of them. In this situation we continued several days in sight of our native land. And when we found ourselves at last taken away, 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: but we were betrayed by one of our own countrywomen, who slept with some of the headmen of the ship, for it was common for the dirty filthy sailors to take the African women and lie upon their bodies; but the men were chained and pent up in holes. It was the women and boys which were to burn the ship, with the approbation and groans of the rest; though that was prevented, the discovery was likewise a cruel bloody scene.”
On his arrival he was sold as a slave to plantation owners in Grenada. According to Cugoano he was treated very badly: “Being in this dreadful captivity and horrible slavery, without any hope of deliverance, for about eight or nine months, beholding the most dreadful scenes of misery and cruelty, and seeing my miserable companions often cruelly lashed, and, as it were, cut to pieces, for the most trifling faults; this made me often tremble and weep, but I escaped better than many of them. For eating a piece of sugar-cane, some were cruelly lashed, or struck over the face, to knock their teeth out. Some of the stouter ones, I suppose, often reproved, and grown hardened and stupid with many cruel beatings and lashings, or perhaps faint and pressed with hunger and hard labour, were often committing trespasses of this kind, and when detected, they met with exemplary punishment. Some told me they had their teeth pulled out, to deter others, and to prevent them from eating any cane in future. Thus seeing my miserable companions and countrymen in this pitiful, distressed, and horrible situation, with all the brutish baseness and barbarity attending it, could not but fill my little mind horror and indignation.”
Ottobah Cugoano remained in the Caribbean until purchased by an English merchant. He was taken to England in 1772 where he was set free and was baptized “John Stuart” at St James’s Church, Piccadilly on 20 August 1773. Later he entered the service of the royal artist, Richard Cosway.
Cugoano became one of the leaders of London’s black community. In 1786 he played an important role in the case of Henry Demane, a black man who had been kidnapped and was about to be shipped to the West Indies as a slave. He contacted Granville Sharp, who managed to get Demane rescued before the ship left port. According to his biographer, Vincent Carretta: “Cugoano was one of the first identifiable Afro-Britons actively engaged in the fight against slavery. In 1786 he joined William Green, another Afro-Briton, in successfully appealing to Granville Sharp to save a black person, Harry Demane, from being forced into West Indian slavery. With Olaudah Equiano… he continued the struggle against slavery with public letters to London newspapers.”
Cugoano was taught to read and write. In 1787, and with the help of his friend, Olaudah Equiano, he published an account of his experiences, Narrative of the Enslavement of a Native of Africa. Copies of his book was sent to George III, Edmund Burke and other leading politicians. He failed to persuade the king to change his opinions and like other members of the royal family remained against abolition of the slave trade. In his book Cugoano was the first African to demand publicly the total abolition of the slave trade and the freeing of all slaves.
In Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (1787) he criticised religious and secular pro-slavery arguments and demanded the immediate abolition of the slave trade and emancipation of all slaves. He also called for punishments for slave owners, including enslavement by their former slaves.
Although one of the first pieces of writing by a black Briton about slavery, surprisingly few pages of the book are about Cugoano’s own experience. It mostly consists of religious and philosophical argument.
Cugoano was quite bold for his time, attacking the colonial conquest of the Americas as well as slavery. The book seems to have been widely read. It went through at least three printings in 1787 and was translated into French. In 1791, Cugoano travelled to ‘upwards of fifty places’ in Britain promoting a revised and condensed edition, contributing his voice and first-hand personal testimony to the campaign against the slave trade.
In 1793 Cugoano upset co-abolitionist William Wilberforce by describing him as a hypocrite when he refused to support the campaign to end slavery in the British Empire.
Very little is known of Cugoano’s later career. In 1791 he was involved in Clarkson’s scheme for recruiting Africans living in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to Sierre Leone. The same year he published a shorter version of Thoughts and Sentiments, in which he gave notice of intent to establish an African school in London. The Italian-Polish patriot Scipione Piattoli knew Cugoano during his London years (ca. 1800-1803), and the French writer Henri Grégoire says Cugoano married an English woman. Beyond this, Ottobah Cugoano left no further record.
The cause, date, and place of Cugoano’s death, and the date and place of his burial are unknown.” Images of Ottobah Cuguano were never found.
Further Reading on Ottobah Cugoano
Cugoano’s work, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (1787), was reissued in a second edition by Paul Edwards, entitled Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery (1969). Edwards added an informative introduction and appended five previously unpublished manuscript letters by Cugoano that are helpful in determining the authorship of Thoughts and Sentiments. The most useful and informative modern treatment of Cugoano is by Robert July, The Origins of Modern African Thought: Its Development in West Africa during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1967), who considers Cugoano an important precursor of 19th-and 20th-century African thought. Prince Hoare, Memoirs of Granville Sharp, Esq. (1820), contains some letters from Cugoano and references to his relationship with Sharp. Christopher Fyfe, in A History of Sierra Leone (1962), agrees with Paul Edwards and doubts that Cugoano is the sole author of Thoughts and Sentiments.