5 Black Heroes of the Abolition Movement in Britain

British businesses and institutions amassed huge wealth through their direct involvement in slavery. By the late 18th century popular revulsion at the horrors of slavery was growing – fuelled by a vociferous and organised abolition campaign. Freed slaves, and men and women who had travelled to England from Africa, the Caribbean islands and America played a crucial role in the campaign to stop slavery.

This week, in the second episode of BBC TWO series Black & British: A Forgotten History, David Olusoga examines Britain’s role in the slave trade.

These are the stories of five fearless writers and campaigners who fought to abolish slavery 

Mary Prince: the first black woman to publish her life story
(c1788 – c1833)

mary-prince-plaque-flickr-crop
Mary Prince plaque, London © Open Plaques

Mary Prince became the first black woman to write and publish an autobiography in England. Her ground-breaking 1831 book brought to life the experiences of slaves living and working in Bermuda and Antigua for readers in England.

She had The History of Mary Prince transcribed while living and working at the home of abolitionist Thomas Pringle. She writes of being separated from her mother and siblings as a child, the savage beatings she suffered and the brutal working conditions in Bermuda. Her powerful writing sparked controversy and galvanised the anti-slavery movement in the years shortly before the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

Ottobah Cugoano: the first African to publically demand total abolition
(c1757 – after 1791)

ottobah-cugoano
Etching by Richard Conway, 1784, of the artist and his wife with a black servant, thought to be Ottobah Cugoano

Working as free man in England, influential writer and campaigner Ottobah Cugoano became one of the leaders of the African community in 18th century London.

Born in what is known as Ghana today, his book, Narrative of the Enslavement of a Native of Africa recounts in heartrending detail his terror at being kidnapped while playing near his home. He describes the horrific treatment meted out to slaves by plantation owners in Grenada.

With his 1787 autobiography, and his book Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, he was the first African to publicly demand total abolition and the emancipation of all slaves.

He sent his work to establishment figures, but members of the royal family including George III remained unconvinced of the case for abolition.

Olaudah Equiano: campaigner, writer and explorer
(c1745 –1797)

olaudah_equiano_frontpiece_from_the_interesting_narrative_of_the_life_of_olaudah_equiano
Portrait of abolitionist Olaudah Equiano via wiki commons

Writer, merchant, explorer, seafarer, campaigner: the extraordinary life of Olaudah Equiano.

His great contribution to the abolition movement was his autobiography, published in 1789. It was so popular it was translated into multiple languages and ran to nine editions. He travelled through cities in England, Scotland and Ireland promoting the book and speaking passionately for the cause of abolition.

His book relates his kidnap at around eleven years old from his home in present day Nigeria. It paints a vivid picture of his passage from Africa and the brutality of slavery in West Indies and Virginia. His work was instrumental in changing attitudes as readers saw the barbaric practice through his eyes.

He purchased his freedom in 1766 from a merchant in Montserrat. In his lifetime he travelled extensively through the Mediterranean, South and Central America and the Arctic. In London, he worked on the plans to form a settlement at Sierra Leone, as a safe place for freed slaves to live and work, and was a leading member of Sons of Africa, a campaign group that lobbied for abolition.

Ukawsaw Gronniosaw: author of the first book by an African author published in England
(c 1705 – 1775)

gronniosaw
Front page of Ukawsaw Gronniosaw;’s narrative.

Ukawsaw Gronniosaw’s autobiography of 1772 is considered to be the first book by a black author ever published in England. It tells of his enslavement and later life as a free man living in poverty in Colchester and Kidderminster.

He was born and lived in Borno (or Bournou) in present day Nigeria. At the age of 15 he was taken and sold into slavery by a Gold Coast merchant, purchased by a Dutch captain for ‘two yards of checked cloth’ and then eventually by a Calvinist minister in New York.

His book’s ambivalent attitude towards slavery separates it from the work of Cugoano and Equiano. It’s often read as a Calvinist devotional text, and set against the context of the financial support Gronniosaw and his family depended on from influential figures in the Calvinist network – many of whom were criticised for owning slaves.

His work was an important inspiration for key figures who were to follow and write their own stories – prominent activists like Olaudah Equiano.

Louis Celeste Lecesne: a fugitive who proved his innocence
(c1796 – 1847)

NPG 599; The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840 by Benjamin Robert Haydon
The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840 by Benjamin Robert Haydon oil on canvas, 1841 NPG 599 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Louis Celeste Lecesne fled penniless to England after a secret committee on the island of Jamaica exiled him to St Domingo.

It’s said that he and his wife’s brother John Escoffery, alone and separated from their families, sold their watches to make their way to England to try and clear their names.

In London, he fought a celebrated libel trial to establish his innocence. Well-known abolitionist Stephen Lushington spoke for him in the House of Commons. His case was successful, and Parliament ruled the two men were allowed to return to Jamaica and should be compensated.

Lecesne went on to work for the abolitionist cause alongside campaigners like Zachary Macaulay and in 1840 he attended the first world Anti Slavery Convention – and appears in the 1841 painting of the meeting by Benjamin Haydon (left hand side, behind the woman in a bonnet)

 

Header image: The ‘Am I not a Man and a Brother’ logo used by the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, by Josiah Wedgewood 1787.

We’ve been collaborating with the BBC on its new season Black and British, which celebrates the achievements of black people in the UK and explores black culture and heritage.

Our partnership with the BBC is just one of the initiatives we’re working on to make sure the contribution of diverse communities including LGBTQ, black and minority ethnic groups, disabled and women to our nation’s historic places is recognised.

Further Reading

Blog readers can get 20% off any books from the Historic England bookshop. Use code BLOG16 at the checkout.

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