Thought for the Week – Seeing Cugoano

For Black History Month, Ekow Eshun, curator of Cugoano250, explores the life and legacy of Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, an abolitionist and former enslaved individual in the 18th century, shedding light on his
complex experiences as a Black person in London and how he used his writings to advocate for the abolition of slavery.

Background Shape
Church Window Mask

The only known portrait of Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, the abolitionist and former enslaved man, dates from 1784, the year he began working as a household servant for the court painters Richard and Maria Cosway. The etching, Mr and Mrs Cosway at their Pall Mall House (1784), by Richard Cosway, depicts the couple seated amid classical statuary in the ostentatious garden of Schomberg House, their London residence. To their right a peacock drinks water from a fountain. Cugoano hovers over the couple with a platter of grapes, dressed, according to a biographer of Cosway, ‘in crimson silk with elaborate lace and gold buttons’. If this etching was the only image of Cugoano that remained with us today we might know him as no more than a peripheral figure in the historical record, another Black servant captured glancingly in an artwork from the period. But Cugoano has left a more memorable portrait of his own behind. In 1787 he published Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species. The book was a memoir-cum-jeremaid that detailed his journey from enslavement to freedom. Its demand for an immediate end to slavery throughout the British Empire made it the most radical abolitionist text to date by a writer of African descent.

Richard and Maria Cosway and Ottobah Cugoano 1784

From Cugoano’s writing we know he was born in present-day Ghana in approximately 1757. At the age of 13, he was kidnapped by Africans, sold into slavery and transported to Grenada, where he was made to labour on a plantation before being bought by an English merchant and taken to Britain in 1772. The timing of his arrival was propitious. The same year, the landmark Somerset Case ruled that any enslaved person on English soil could not be forcibly sent back to bondage in the colonies. In London, he was able to assert his freedom and was baptised in 1773 at St James’s Church, Piccadilly, as ‘John Stuart – a Black, aged 16 Years’. For Cugoano, baptism was a transformational event. Even more than his legal emancipation, the ceremony signalled for him ‘that I might not be carried away and sold again’.

Here then are two different versions of Cugoano’s life, the artist’s etching and the self-penned memoir. While the former is clearly a partial view, the latter is not necessarily a complete picture either. Thoughts and Sentiments is more concerned with mounting the case against slavery than detailing Cugoano’s own experiences in bondage.

In Grenada, writes Cugoano, he beheld, ‘the most dreadful scenes of misery and cruelty’. For ‘the most trifling faults’ such as eating a piece of sugarcane his companions on the plantation were ‘cruelly lashed’ or ‘had their teeth pulled out to deter others’. But Cugoano passes by such experiences in only a few pages. It would be ‘needless’ to linger on all the

terrible scenes he endured, he writes. Instead, he devotes the book to an excoriating attack on slavery, calling for enslaved Africans in the Caribbean to exercise their moral right to rebellion against plantation owners. ‘The ‘enslavers of men are the servants of the devil’, he writes and ‘It is the duty of every man to deliver himself from rogues and villains if he can.’ Cugoano’s emphasis on the political rather than the personal is understandable.

By the 1770s the abolitionist cause in Britain was gathering pace but the end of slavery, eventually realised in 1807, was still some decades away. And like  other African writers of the time, most notably his friend Olaudah Equiano, who published his best-selling memoir The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano in 1789, Cugoano was likely conscious that dwelling too greatly on the ugly details of slavery risked repelling his white readers. As a consequence, Thoughts and Sentiments offers little clue to the texture of Cugoano’s ordinary life. Some details are known of the company he kept. He was an acquaintance of William Blake, the poet and artist, who also attended St James’s Church. Blake refers to him in passing in An Island in the Moon, his unpublished satire on Georgian society, as  one of the ‘black servants’ at the Cosway’s house. Through Richard Cosway, who was principal painter to the Prince of Wales, he probably met notable figures such as King George III, the Prince of Wales, the philosopher Edmund Burke and the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds. Along with Equiano, Cugoano was a leading member of the Sons of Africa, a group of Black activists living in London who submitted public letters to London newspapers advocating abolition.

As a work written by an African in Georgian London his book invites, but does not answer, the question: what was it like to live as a Black person in the 18th century metropolis? Situating Cugoano within the context of Black life in the capital brings into further focus the challenges he was required to surmount as an activist, a writer, and a free man striving to make his voice heard in the era of Empire and slavery.

Around 10,000 Black people lived in Britain in the 18th century, the majority of them based in London where they worked as household servants – footmen, valets, cooks and maids. Black servants or slaves were also coveted as exotic accessories for the wealthy.

The Duchess of Kingston was said to be devoted to Sambo, a six-year-old Black boy, whom she dressed in silks and seated beside her at the theatre. The darker the skin the greater the perceived value of the child as a complement to the paleness of a ladies’ complexion. “Wanted immediately a Black boy. He must be of a deep black complexion,” read a notice in Williamson’s Liverpool Advertiser in 1756. The role of enslaved children as curios and playthings during the period can be seen in a painting originally titled A Young Girl with Dog and Negro Attendant (1725) by Bartholomew Dandridge. The picture depicts a Black boy and a dog gazing at a white girl who is central to the image. Both wear the same look of guileless devotion. Both wear collars round the neck. Both are pets. Both are property.

Those not within households survived by their wits alone. Black people were singers, French horn players, bare knuckle boxers, acrobats, lion tamers, mendicants. Joseph Johnson, a former merchant seaman sang sea shanties at Tower Hill. Johnson was famous for his baroque get-up. He wore, fastened to his head, a scale model of the ship Nelson, complete with mast and rigging, and he swayed as he sung, to give the impression of a ship in motion on the sea. Pablo Fanque, the acrobat and rope-walker, was known as ‘the loftiest jumper in England’ for his ability to leap over a carriage with a pair of horses in the shafts, lengthwise.

A group of poor Black beggars known as the ‘blackbirds’ gathered together in the warren of overcrowded houses and open sewers in the Seven Dials neighbourhood of Covent Garden. The most famous among them was Billy Waters, who cleaned the crossing outside the Adelphi Theatre in The Strand, clowning and singing and playing the fiddle as he did so. Widely called the ‘King of the Beggars’, Waters had a peg leg and wore a military-style bicorn hat festooned with ribbons and feathers. At the height of a song –  signature tune, Kitty, Will You Marry Me – he was liable to kick away his wooden leg and spin round on the spot, to the great amusement of onlookers. He was often seen in the company of fellow blackbirds like African Sal, who got about legless on a wheeled trolley, one-eyed Massa Piebald, and a dustman known as Nasty Bob.

Confined to the very margins of society, lacking money or education, some Black people resorted to robbery and prostitution to scratch a living. Ann Duck, a mixed race woman, was a  member of the notorious ‘Black Boy Alley Gang’ of Clerkenwell. In her own words, she ‘first became a servant at a bawdy house; then walk’d the streets on her own account; next commenc’d pickpocket’; and finally became a prolific street-robber. Her tactic was to pick up a man on the street and lead him to a house in Clerkenwell where she and a waiting ‘bully’ would rob the man and turn him back out on the street. She was arrested and tried 19 times, going in and out of prison, before being hanged at Tyburn in 1744.

To be sure, among the street performers and ne’er do wells there were some figures of prominence. The writer and composer Ignatius Sancho, a friend of the actor David Garrick and the author Laurence Sterne, had his portrait painted by Thomas Gainsborough and was the first black Briton to vote in an election and have an obituary published in the papers when he died in 1780. Equiano’s book, The Interesting Narrative, was so successful it went through nine printings, turning him into the wealthiest man of African origin in Britain. Although Cugoano’s Thoughts and Sentiments received much less attention than Equiano’s work, a letter written by him in 1791, mentions travelling to ‘upwards of fifty places’ to promote the book indicating there was a receptive audience for his writing. Despite their limited numbers the relative visibility of Black Londoners meant they were subject to periodic denunciation as an invading horde. As far back as 1601, Queen Elizabeth I professed herself ‘discontented’ at ‘the great numbers of negars and Blackamoores’ that had ‘crept’ into her realm’. In 1731, the Daily Journal complained in a similar fashion that, ‘tis said there is a great number of Blacks come daily into this city so that ‘tis thought in a short time, if they be not suppress’d the city will swarm with them’. The London Chronicle printed a reader’s proposal in 1765 for a tax on Black servants who “are become too abundant in this kingdom”. The truth was though that in a period when their fundamental right to own their personhood was not assured, the status of Black people in the capital was always marginal, always precarious.

How should we remember the life and words of Cugoano? Two hundred and fifty years after his baptism, St James’s Church has commissioned a dazzling quartet of paintings by Trinidadian artist Che Lovelace in Cugoano’s memory. Lovelace is an unabashed painter of the flora and fauna of the Caribbean and the artworks – The River, Passage, Spirit and The Vision of the Birds – offer thrilling invocations of light and landscape, and bodies in motion in sky and water.  Commemorating Cugoano by way of the Caribbean offers a kind of reckoning with the trauma of his childhood capture and transportation to Grenada. Cugoano only addressed his time on the plantations briefly but his short account is thick with emotion. It was, he wrote, a ‘pitiful, distressed and horrible situation’ that filled his mind with ‘horror and indignation’. A symbolic return to the Caribbean also identifies Cugoano as a prototypical figure of the African diaspora. A man whose personal history is shaped ‘by the movements of black people – not only as commodities but engaged in various struggles towards emancipation, autonomy, and citizenship,’ as the scholar Paul Gilroy puts it. And one who seeks, in an act of artistic expression like penning a memoir, ‘the means towards both individual self-fashioning and communal liberation.’

And Lovelace’s paintings are so abundant with life and colour that, in addition to acknowledging the fraught past, they also take us into the realm of the speculative. After 1791 Cugoano vanishes from the historical record and is thought to have died in that year or the next. But gazing at Lovelace’s richly imagistic paintings, I find myself conjuring a further chapter in Cugoano’s life. Here he is in a tropical somewhere, bathing in a lake and up among the palm trees. I see him ascending into the air with arms outstretched.  I see him unburdened of white domination. I see him free.

Ekow Eshun 

Ghanaian-British writer, editor and curator Eshun studied politics and history at the London School of Economics, where he began editing the arts and features section for the University’s weekly newspaper. He has been the editor of numerous magazines, including TankArena and Mined. He was Artistic and Executive Director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (2005-10), during which time visitors rose by 38%. He holds an honorary doctorate from London Metropolitan University and is Chairman of the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group, overseeing London’s most significant public art programme. He writes frequently for the GuardianIndependent on SundayThe Face and the Observer. He is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4 arts shows Saturday Review and Front Row. Eshun’s Orwell Prize-nominated memoir, Black Gold of the Sun: Searching for Home in England and Africa (2005) explores issues of race and identity. In 2016, he curated a group exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery, London exploring the identity of the black dandy, Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity. In 2017, he edited the publication Africa Modern: Creating the Contemporary Art of a Continent, which marked the opening of Cape Town’s Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa. He is also Chairman of Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group, and Creative Director of the arts space Calvert 22 Foundation, for which he has instigated an award-winning online magazine, The Calvert Journal.