Lucy Winkett writes about why we will gather on Sunday 20 August to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Quobna Ottobah Cugoano’s baptism.
As many will know, the word ‘church’ doesn’t mean historic building or religious institution. It simply means ‘gathering’. Ekklesia, the Greek word from which we get the English word ‘church’ means essentially a ‘gathering of those summoned’.
On Sunday 20 August, St James’s Church will gather for the Eucharist as we do often, but on this day, we will gather not only as a crowd of people in our own time, but connected across centuries too. 20 August, which happens to be a Sunday this year, is the 250th anniversary of the baptism of Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, a prominent author and abolitionist in his own day, but a much under-appreciated figure now. On that day, we will celebrate the Eucharist, renew our own baptism vows, welcome a visiting preacher, the Bishop of Croydon, the Right Reverend Rosemarie Mallett, and a newly commissioned plaque will be dedicated by the font. Lunch will be served at 1pm for the whole congregation too. Please come along and be part of the community that honours Cugoano’s life and work.
The Right Revd Rosemarie Mallett, Bishop of Croydon
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.
Ottobah Cugoano baptised 20 August 1773
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.
The principle that one person can own another is still evident in society. There are many contemporary instances of the commodification of people: not least the increase in modern slavery, in the UK and around the world. But with the forced migration of people through climate change or war, making whole generations of people vulnerable to trafficking and abuse, this blasphemy is on the increase not reducing, despite legal abolition. Current estimates are that 46 million people are enslaved today. Wherever the principle that ownership of a person is allowed, or that the identity or personhood of a human being is exploited for profit, the assumptions that allowed the transatlantic chattel slave trade are evident and must be opposed at every opportunity.
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. In the spirit of Cugoano, the question for today’s church and society might be: “What is happening in society now, that in 250 years time, our successors might hold a service to celebrate the abolition of?” “What systemic injustice is operating that remains largely invisible or ignored by leaders and public alike? What wrongly held theological assumptions are causing suffering to any of God’s people today?
Ilse Boas (1925-2019) in the courtyard at St James’s
The stories that will intertwine on that day don’t end there. A member of St James’s congregation for over 25 years, Ilse Boas, died in 2019 aged 94. She had come to Britain on the kindertransport from Nazi Germany in 1939 aged 14, and all of her family were murdered in the Holocaust. Ilse started a new life in the UK, and was a prominent and active member of St James’s congregation until she moved into sheltered housing. Ilse was outspoken, fiercely defensive of the cause of the Palestinians, an amazing maker of marmalade and by her own admission a erratic driver! For those of us who knew Ilse, and I knew her only for a few years, her sharp intellect, rather piercing gaze and always honest reactions to sermons or prayers, gave her a bracing but always kind manner. It is Ilse’s legacy, left to St James’s, that has been used to create the plaque to Ottobah Cugoano. For this girl, who left Berlin alone in 1939, supporting people who had been displaced, trafficked, removed, was a priority.
I found a message from Ilse recently to me back in 2011. She wrote this:
Once upon a time I was a refugee – so now I support the Refugee Council. They have sent me a brochure headed “82% of Britons believe in protecting the most Vulnerable. Why doesn’t our Government?” I think the church should be aware of how a so-called Christian country is behaving. What can we do about that? What is the best way?
And on another occasion after the church celebrated her birthday with her after the service, she wrote this:
The love and community atmosphere was wonderful. It explains why St James’s has become “my community” instead of the family which I no longer have – haven’t really had since 1939.
Ilse’s story, Ottobah’s story, our stories are all interconnected in the sacrament that is baptism and in the gathering of those summoned by God to live as church in the world.
Please come on 20 August. The service is a meeting place and a sacred space in which to pray, in acknowledgement of our histories, and for the world today. And to commit once again to the vows made for us, or by us at our baptism. With Ottobah, Ilse, and generations of others, we place our hope and trust in God. In the face of the history of the 18th century transatlantic slave trade and the 20th century Holocaust, and mindful of so many contemporary injustices today, St James’s Church gathers at the altar of God, to pray for grace and courage to build communities of love and peace now, acknowledging too the complicity of Christian teaching in both catastrophes. Join us on Sunday 20 August as we gather to say the name Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, and listen to his voice, honouring too the life and witness of our dear friend Ilse Boas. In saying their names and honouring their stories, we find our own name and story in the baptism promise we repeat: I turn to Christ. I repent of my sins. I renounce evil.