Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Book Review: Fighting Slavery in the Eighteenth Century

Cugoano Against Slavery
By Martin Hoyles
216pp paperback
Hansib 2015

Martin Hoyles is that relatively rare thing, someone who produces solidly researched books with appropriate academic apparatus but ones that can be read with profit by a general reader too. References are included in the text rather than foot or end noted and there is a comprehensive bibliography.

His latest book is about one of the leading but also one of the least well known black figures in eighteenth century England. It looks further into work he focused on with his last volume on the black Chartist leader William Cuffay, around the history of black Britons, the fight against slavery and for equality.

Ottobah Cugoano was born in 1757, sold into slavery when he was 13 in 1770 and gained his freedom when he came to England in 1772. We know of Cugoano primarly because he wrote and published an anti-slavery book, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species in 1787. He produced an edited version in 1791 after which nothing further is known of his life.

Hoyles has an important  take on the fight against slavery and the slave trade. He argues that ‘it is important to remove Wilberforce from centre stage’. He suggests that two other men, Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson, were more important but the key was the mass movement which led to a national campaign against slavery.

The campaign organised a boycott of sugar, a key element of the slave trade, which Hoyles notes was
supported by hundreds of thousands of people.

However, Hoyles emphasises that black resistance to the slave trade, both in places like Grenada, where Cugoano was set to work after being kidnapped and on slave ships themselves, where poor conditions often led the deaths of slaves, and indeed ordinary sailors too, was central to motivating the campaign.

While William Cuffay’s father had come to Britain as a cook on a British Navy ship, Cugoano found a different route to freedom. In Grenada he came to ‘work’ for an English bourgeois, Alexander Campbell, as his personal slave. Campbell took Cugoano to England as his personal servant.  A legal victory (the Mansfield ruling) won by Sharp meant that, in effect, Cugoano was not a slave once on English soil.

Cugoano’s book is based partly on his own personal experiences in Grenada and partly on the arguments then current in the anti-slavery movement. Hoyles suggests that Equiano helped in the editing of the book.

Cugoano was a Christian. He had been baptised at St James’s Church, Piccadilly by the Rev. Thomas Skinner.  The arguments of the Bible influenced his thought but along with Equiano he was also an activist in London dealing with practical issues of the slave trade and the anti-slavery campaign.

Hoyles writes of Cuguano’s involvement in an attempt, partially successful, to set up a settlement for former slaves, Freetown in Sierra Leone. It was far from unproblematic but there is some evidence that it did work to some extent.

It was perhaps however the strength of Cuguano’s anti-slavery writing that had the most impact. As Hoyles notes he was almost alone in calling not just for action on the slave trade but also for the total abolition of slavery. That of course is something that still has to be campaigned for now.

The book concludes that Cuguano has remained very largely hidden from British history. When Lambeth Council named some buildings after prominent black figures in 1985 it provoked the Daily Mail to question who exactly Cuguano might be.

As Hoyles notes both Cuguano’s writings and the cause he fought for remain very much current questions in 2015. The book contains many interesting pictures and maps and is an important volume for anyone seeking to find out the realities of British history, beyond what ‘great and good’ white men did or often, did not, do.

Keith Flett
From LSHG Newsletter #54 (January 2015) 

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