Ottobah Cugoano, an 18th-century anti-slavery activist who wrote the most radical abolitionist text of his day, has become the first black figure to receive a blue plaque.
The plaque on a building in Pall Mall in central London aims to shed light on the remarkable and little-known story of a man described by historian David Olusoga as a “true pioneer … the first African to demand the total abolition of slavery and one of the leaders of the black community of Georgia in London “.
It follows reviews of cold cases of black and ethnic minority figures from history by an English Heritage task force tasked with obtaining more diverse representation in the scheme.
Cugoano was born near the coast of present-day Ghana, where he was kidnapped in 1770 by slave traders. He was only 13 years old and then he wrote: “They took me out of my native country early, with about 18 or 20 other boys and girls, while we were playing in a field … Some of us tried, in vain, to flee, but pistols were soon introduced and cutlasses, threatening that if we offered to move, we would all be dead on the spot. “
He was forced to board a ship heading to the West Indies, where he was sold to plantation owners in Granada. After two years he became the servant of a prominent slave owner and was brought to England, where he was baptized, now 16, as John Stuart.
At some point he gained his freedom and, in the mid-1780s, he was employed as a servant to the fashion painters Richard and Maria Cosway, working at their grand residence. Schomberg House, where the plaque celebrating Cugoano has now been placed.
A self-portrait recorded by Cosway It represents he and his wife sitting in their garden being fed grapes by Cugoano, dressed in crimson silk in imitation of the Vatican lackeys.
It was while living at Schomberg House that Cugoano wrote the book Thoughts and Feelings on the Wicked and Perverse Traffic in Slavery and the Trade in Human Species, humbly presented to the inhabitants of Great Britain.
It was one of the first anti-slavery books by a black author to be published in Britain and is considered the most radical in its arguments.
Cugoano adopted the reasoning used by slavery apologists, that Africans were complicit in trade, by inviting readers to imagine slave raids into Britain by African pirates “assisted by some of their own insidious neighbors, for there may be some men even among you vile enough to do such a thing if they could make money out of it. “
He advanced the point of view that “the difference in color and complexion, which God liked to name among men, is no more improper than the different shades of the rainbow are unseemly for the whole … It does not alter nature or the quality of a man, whether he wears a black or white robe, whether he puts it on or takes it off, is still the same man. “
The Schomberg House was mentioned on the frontispiece as one of the places where the book could be obtained, suggesting that the Cosways supported Cugoano.
Olusoga, a member of the English Heritage blue plaque panel, said: “Ottobah Cugoano was an extraordinary man, one who himself had known the horrors of slavery. Having survived, he used words and arguments to fight the slave trade and slavery.
“I am delighted that English Heritage is celebrating his life with a blue plaque.”
Cugoano becomes London’s first black figure with a blue plaque, joining a group of people that English Heritage recognizes is too small. Only 4% of the 950 blue plates in London are dedicated to black and Asian figures in history, a figure that Olusoga has called “unacceptably low”.
English Heritage said it could be explained in part by the relatively low number of public nominations that meet the blue plaque criteria and “by the too frequent lack of historical records to establish a definitive link between the person in question and the building in which she lived. “
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