Ottobah Cugoano

Son of Africa

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 5

Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species is a book written by abolitionist Quobna Ottobah Cugoano in 1787.

The book condemns the practice of slavery and demands the immediate abolition of the slave trade and emancipation of all enslaved peoples. Cugoano also details his own personal journey as a young child who was captured and sold into slavery.

Cugoano, born in Agimaque, Gold Coast (present-day Ajumako, in Ghana), was thirteen years old when he was captured.

Recounting his journey to the coast, Cugoano explains how his kidnappers, armed with pistols and cutlasses, tried to reassure him that their intentions were to return him to his family, and the sudden realisation when he got to the coast that his captors had sold him into a life of enslavement.

"I saw many of my miserable countrymen chained two and two, some handcuffed, and some with their hands tied behind... I asked my guide what I was brought there for, he told me to learn the ways of the browfow, that is, the white-faced people. I saw him take a gun, a piece of cloth, and some lead for me..."

Cugoano goes on to explain the conditions on the coast and the vile treatment shown to his fellow natives. After some time on the coast, Cugoano and his fellow captives were shuttled into the main ship to be exported.

Cugoano explains the conditions on the ship, how men were chained and stuffed in holes and how women were viciously raped by white sailors. The conditions were so grim that there was a mutual agreement amongst the enslaved that life like this was not worth living

"... when we found ourselves at last taken away, death was more preferable than life; and a plan was concerted among us, that we might burn and blow up the ship, and to perish all together in the flames: but we were betrayed by one of our own countrywomen, who slept with some of the headmen of the ship, for it was common for the dirty filthy sailors to take the African women and lie upon their bodies..."

On arrival in Grenada, Cugoano was forced to work on a sugar plantation where he further describes the horrors of chattel slavery:

"Being in this dreadful captivity and horrible slavery, without any hope of deliverance... beholding the most dreadful scenes of misery and cruelty, and seeing my miserable companions often cruelly lashed, and, as it were, cut to pieces, for the most trifling faults; this made me often tremble and weep..."

Cugoano was extremely fortunate to have his time on the plantation cut short. He spent, in his own words, eight to nine months in captivity before he was brought by an Englishman and taken to England in 1772. There he discovered and pursued a new passion.

"After coming to England, and seeing others write and read, I had a strong desire to learn, and getting what assistance I could, I applied myself to learn reading and writing, which soon became my recreation, pleasure, and delight..."

Cugoano's time in England saw him take an active role in the abolitionist cause, alongside other well known Africans in Britain at the time, including Olaudah Equiano. On top of his personal experiences, Cugoano addresses several themes in his work, including his views on being betrayed by his fellow countrymen and sold into a life of enslavement.

"... I must own, to the shame of my own countrymen, that I was first kidnapped and betrayed by some of my own complexion, who were the first cause of my exile, and slavery; but if there were no buyers there would be no sellers.

Cugoano also addresses the idea of slavery in Africa versus slavery in the so-called New World and highlights the differences in both modes of slavery.

"So far as I can remember, some of the Africans in my country keep slaves, which they take in war, or for debt; but those which they keep are well fed, and good care taken of them, and treated well; and as to their clothing, they differ according to the custom of the country. But I may safely say, that all the poverty and misery that any of the inhabitants of Africa meet with among themselves, is far inferior to those inhospitable regions of misery which they meet with in the West-Indies, where their hard-hearted overseers have neither Regard to the laws of God, nor the life of their fellow-men."

Cugoano is often credited as the first African to openly condemn the enslavement of Africans and its benefactors, as well as demand its abolition. Cugoano's legacy as an abolitionist is sometimes lost in the focus on other European and American abolitionists, but Cugoano represents a generation of African abolitionists who were not idle, but incredibly active in bringing down the tyranny of slavery.