British businesses and institutions amassed enormous wealth through their direct involvement in slavery.
By the late 18th century, widespread revulsion at the horrors of slavery was growing, fuelled by a loud 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.
Here are the stories of 5 fearless Black writers and campaigners who fought to abolish slavery.
1. Mary Prince: the first Black woman to publish her life story
Mary Prince became the first Black woman to write and publish an autobiography in England.
Her ground-breaking 1831 book, ‘The History of Mary Prince,’ brought to life the experiences of slaves living and working in Bermuda and Antigua for readers in England.
She had the book 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 influential writing sparked controversy and galvanised the anti-slavery movement shortly before the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.
2. Ottobah Cugoano: the first African to publically demand total abolition
Working as a 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 his terror at being kidnapped while playing near his home in heartrending detail. He describes the horrific treatment meted out to slaves by plantation owners in Grenada.
With his 1787 autobiography ‘Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species’, Cugoano was the first African to demand total abolition and the emancipation of all slaves publicly.
He sent his work to establishment figures, but members of the royal family, including King George III, remained unconvinced of the case for abolition.
3. Olaudah Equiano: campaigner, writer and explorer
Writer, merchant, explorer, seafarer, campaigner: the extraordinary life of Olaudah Equiano.
His significant contribution to the abolition movement was his autobiography, ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano’, published in 1789.
It was so popular it was translated into multiple languages and ran into 9 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 the West Indies and Virginia. His work was instrumental in changing attitudes as readers saw the barbaric practice through his eyes.
Equiano 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 in 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.
4. Ukawsaw Gronniosaw: author of the first book by an African author published in England
Ukawsaw Gronniosaw’s autobiography of 1772 is considered 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 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 inspired key figures to follow and write their own stories, including prominent activists like Olaudah Equiano.
5. Louis Celeste Lecesne: a fugitive who proved his innocence
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. In 1840, he attended the first world Anti-Slavery Convention and appeared in the 1841 painting of the meeting by artist Benjamin Haydon on the left-hand side, behind the woman in a bonnet.