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Inspiring anti-slavery hero emerges from shadows

Martin Hoyles's biography of radical campaigner Ottobah Cugoano debunks the Wilberforce myth, says Sue Turner

Cugoano Against Slavery, by Martin Hoyles (Hansib, £9.99)

MENTION the ending of the slave trade and William Wilberforce or even Olaudah Equiano may spring to mind.

But few will be familiar with Ottobah Cugoano even though he was the most radical campaigner for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery itself.

Martin Hoyles's biography of Cugoano launches straight into a debunking of the myth that Wilberforce led the campaign to end slavery, stressing that the abolitionist believed that slaves were not ready for freedom.

Nor did he relish meeting black people and he was adamant that women should not be allowed to agitate.

He repulsed the support of radicals and opposed extra-parliamentary activity such as the sugar boycott and was against working-class emancipation in England.

This was at a time when news of revolts onboard slave ships and in the plantations of the West Indies regularly reached the public, who were increasingly horrified at their violent repression.

Having relegated Wilberforce to the sidelines, Hoyles describes the broad nature of the anti-slavery movement, from Church of England and quaker abolitionists to secular radicals up and down the country who were organising petitions to Parliament and public meetings attended by thousands.

In the 1780s there were around 10,000 black people in Britain - mostly in London, Liverpool and Bristol - and they too were active, particularly Ottobah Cugoano.

Cugoano, a Fante from the coastal area of present-day Ghana, was kidnapped at 13 and sold into slavery in Grenada.

After two years he was brought to England as a servant and in 1787 published his Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species.

A campaigning treatise rather than a "slave narrative," it nevertheless contains harrowing autobiographical details of his kidnap, the journey to Grenada and life on the plantation.

Hoyles quotes liberally from this book and drawing on fascinating anecdotes, facts and figures to set Cugoana's experiences in a wider political and economic context.

The latter makes an articulate assault on all the justifications for slavery at the time, emphasising the common humanity of all people and declaring that slavery and Christianity are incompatible.

His argument that it is a slave's duty to escape and use force to prevent further enslavement shows him to have been more outspoken than his contemporaries. Calling for a naval blockade of west Africa and punishment for slave owners were also unusual demands for the time.

Cugoano, the first African writing in English to demand the total abolition of the slave trade and slavery, went on to attack European colonialism in the Americas and its treatment of indigenous peoples. In Britain, he argued for better wages and full employment for both men and women.

He became the spokesperson for millions of slaves, writing with the authority of someone who had lived in three continents, thus giving an almost unique perspective on one of the most important human rights campaigns in the country.

With this richly illustrated and lively book Hoyles has brought Cugoano out of the shadows of anti-slavery history to the central position he deserves.


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