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History and Heritage

Explore the fascinating history and personalities of St James’s, including Ottobah Cugoano, William Blake and the bombing of the church in May 1940 – with much more featured in our interactive online tour

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Ottobah Cugoano

Quobna Ottobah Cugoano

A new plaque commemorating the 250th anniversary of the baptism of Quobna Ottobah Cugoano at St James’s Church was dedicated on 20 August 2023 during the Sunday service. Cugoano was one of the most prominent abolitionists of the time and a significant but largely forgotten figure in the history of Black Britain.

In addition, a new permanent artwork to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the baptism of Quobna Ottobah Cugoano at St James’s Church will be unveiled on 20 September 2023.

Detail of a 1784 engraving of Ottobah by Richard Cosway © Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Quobna Ottobah Cugoano (to give him his full name) was born around 1757 in that part of west Africa that we now call Ghana. Ottobah belonged to the Fantes (‘the leavers’) who were the section of the Akan people that left to set up a new, more northerly, settlement at Mankassim. The Fantes still thrive to this day, with one of their recent prominent figures being Khofi Annan. At the age of 13, Ottobah. was kidnapped by slave traders while playing in a field with around eighteen to twenty other children. They were all seized and then shipped to the West Indies. At the end of the arduous journey, Ottobah was sold to a plantation owner in Grenada and, in his book, he wrote vividly of the brutality and cruelty that was meted out to the slaves. Hard labour, beatings and lashings were commonplace all against a background of abject hunger.

Fortunately for Ottobah, his time in the plantations was limited when he was bought by an English merchant in 1772 and brought to England. He gained his freedom that same year, as a result of the Somersett Case which some people misinterpreted as an abolition of slavery in England. He was indeed fortunate to be freed because he didn’t live long enough to see slavery actually abolished by parliament.

Now in London, Ottobah learned to read and write. He adopted a Christian faith and was baptised at St James’s, taking the name John Stuart. By 1784, he had been employed as a servant by the royal artist Richard Cosway and his wife, Maria. This connection brought Ottobah into contact with prominent figures of the time, including the poet William Blake, who was himself baptised in St James’s as an infant in 1757.

Ottobah soon became one of the leaders of London’s African community. Along with Olaudah Equiano, he was very active in the ‘Sons of Africa’ group which condemned the practice of slavery and campaigned for its abolition. They lobbied public figures and wrote regularly to the newspapers.

In 1786, Ottobah and fellow campaigner Wiiliam Green, played a key role in the rescue of Henry Demane. Demane, a kidnapped black man, was set to be shipped back to the West Indies. Ottobah and Green contacted Granville Sharp (a well-known and well-connected abolitionist). Sharp intervened and Henry Demane was removed from the ship before it sailed. The following year, Ottobah published his book. It was the first British publication in which an African argued for the end of the slave trade and the freeing of all slaves. Ottobah steered clear of too much autobiography and instead focused on a largely religious and philosophical line of argument. He was, of course, writing to engage a white and sceptical audience.

Four years later, in 1791, Ottobah publish a shortened version of his book specifically for the ‘Sons of Africa’ in which he showed some support for British attempts to help freed slaves to return to Africa and he also called for the establishment of schools in Britain specifically for African students. He travelled extensively around Britain to promote the ideas contained within the book.

Thereafter, we have no further information about Ottobah. We have no record of his death nor where he was buried. What we do know, is that he was a man of grace who spoke with passion and determination. Africans, he wrote, ‘are born free, and are brought up with as great a predilection for their country, freedom and liberty, as the sons and daughters of fair Britain.

 

This short biography of Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, who was baptised here at St James’s Church on the 20 August 1773, was researched by Trevor Lines (Church Warden 2020-2023)

William Blake

William Blake was baptised at St James’s in 1757 and lived most of his life in nearby Soho. His poem ‘London’ is a damning portrayal of eighteenth century London. Blake’s anger and outrage infuses every word and every image.

In partnership with the Poetry Society, we invited five contemporary poets – Sophie Herxheimer, Joseph Coelho, Ankita Saxena, Ruth Awolola and Natalie Linh Bolderston – to reflect on Blake and his relevance now.

The Bombing of St James’s Church

2020 marked the 80th anniversary of the bombing of St James’s Church during the Second World War. 

In this video, Mary Lambert, whose father was rector at the time, recounts the events of that night and her own memories of St James’s Church through the remainder of the war, as well as its eventual rebuilding and reopening.

Explore with our virtual tour

Take a 360° interactive virtual tour of St James’s Church with stimulating original commentary by our community, clergy and renowned experts.

Virtual Tour

The Archive of St James’s Church, Piccadilly

Only some church archives are kept on site at the church. Other records are held at two other sites, The City of Westminster Archives Centre and the London Metropolitan Archives.

For details download The Archives of St James’s Church – revised April 2023 PDF

Enquiries to Administrator@sjp.org.uk