Background Shape

Quobna Ottobah Cugoano

Quobna Ottobah Cugoano was born in around 1757 in the Fante village of Agimaque or Ajumako in what is now Ghana. When he was a teenager he was kidnapped, sold, and transported to Grenada.

His youth was spent as a shackled child labourer, and when he came to England in 1772 with the plantation owner Alexander Johnson, Cugoano swiftly sought baptism, aged around 15 years old,  with the name ‘John Stuart’ as a signal of his dignity before God and as an indication of his freedom (though, contrary to what many believed, baptism did not legally result in liberation from enslavement).

The next record of Cugoano is as a servant in the Pall Mall home of the artists Maria and Richard Cosway, and one of the only known images of Cugoano is from this period. William Blake, also baptised at the same font, was an exact contemporary of Cugoano and was aware of his work.

In the 1780s Cugoano joined forces with the Sons of Africa to fight for abolition and campaign on behalf of enslaved people. As part of a small and influential group including Olaudah Equiano and James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, Cugoano he argued that liberation from enslavement was a necessary task held both by enslaved people and their masters. Everyone, Cugoano asserted, has agency and power from within their own experience and circumstances, and can act in their own way to move towards life lived to the full as people made in the image of God. He believed that Christianity was, far from an obstacle to liberation, a necessary condition for liberation, and called strongly for conversion.

The full title of his book published in 1787 is ‘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’.

It is a strong challenge from a Christian to fellow Christians. At the time of his baptism in 1773, the Church of England was benefitting from its involvement in the slave trade. The Church of England didn’t own slaves by mistake or inadvertently or only because it made them money. There were (are still) theological assumptions that sought to counter the Genesis theology championed by Cugoano that insists all human beings, without exception, come from Adam and Eve, and so are irreducibly equal to one another and interdependent with Creation.

Based in this theology, it is not only unjust for one group of human beings to presume that they can own another group, it is blasphemous. This was Cugoano’s challenge, on theological and biblical grounds. Cugoano was a Christian who saw what others couldn’t or wouldn’t see and spoke out about it. He was the first African to call for the total abolition of the transatlantic slave trade across the world and for ever.