African anti-slavery campaigner honoured with blue plaque
An anti-slavery campaigner who was sold to Europeans for “a gun, a piece of cloth, and some lead” has been honoured with a blue plaque.
Ottobah Cugoano was kidnapped in 1770 while playing with other children in a field.
A decade later, while working as a servant in London, he penned a “radical” book calling for slavery’s immediate abolition and the emancipation of slaves.
Cugoano, the earliest black figure to receive an official blue plaque, was the first African to publicly demand total abolition of the slave trade.
Thoughts And Sentiments On The Evil And Wicked Traffic Of The Slavery And Commerce Of The Human Species was one of the first black-authored anti-slavery books to be published in Britain.
It took on a key argument used by apologists for slavery – the complicity of Africans in the trade.
He invited readers to imagine slave raids on Britain by African pirates, “assisted by some of your own insidious neighbours, for there may be some men even among you vile enough to do such a thing if they could get money by it”.
And he wrote that “the difference of colour and complexion, which it hath pleased God to appoint among men, are no more unbecoming than the different shades of the rainbow are unseemly to the whole …
“It does not alter the nature or quality of a man, whether he wears a black or white coat – whether he puts it on or strips it off, he is still the same man.”
The plaque is being installed by English Heritage at Schomberg House, 80–82 Pall Mall, where Cugoano worked as a servant.
Cugoano was born in a village on the coast of Ghana, then known as the Gold Coast.
After being kidnapped, he and other slaves were transported to the West Indies and he later told how desperate captives tried to sink the boat as they preferred death to life on board.
Cugoano is thought to have been brought to England by a prominent slave owner after a brutal period of enslavement in Grenada.
He decided “to learn reading and writing, which soon became my recreation, pleasure, and delight” but little is known of how he gained his freedom.
By 1784, he was employed as a servant and two years later he was campaigning against slavery and became a leader of Georgian London’s black community.
The English Heritage Blue Plaques Panel member, broadcaster and historian David Olusoga, said: “Ottobah Cugoano was a remarkable man, one who himself had known the horrors of slavery.
“Having survived he used words and arguments to fight against the slave trade and slavery.
“Cugoano was a true pioneer – the first African to demand the total abolition of slavery and one of the leaders of Georgian London’s black community. I am delighted that English Heritage is celebrating his life with a blue plaque.”
Schomberg House on Pall Mall was mentioned in the frontispiece of the 1787 edition of Thoughts And Sentiments.
The 18th Century campaigner disappeared from the historical record in 1791 and historians do not know if he died that year.
English Heritage says that only 4% of the 950-plus blue plaques in London are dedicated to black and Asian figures from history, partly because of a lack of historic records to establish a definitive link between people and the building in which they lived.
“That we have these definitive links for Cugoano and that the historic building survives in a form that he would have recognised, means that this is a very rare opportunity to honour a black Londoner of the 18th Century,” it said.