Ottobah Cugoano

Ottobah Cugoano (ca. 1757-ca. 1803) was an African of Fanti origin from the Gold Coast in present-day Ghana. He became a prominent figure among the free Africans of late-18th-century London and in 1787 published an attack on slavery and the slave trade.

Ottobah Cugoano was born near Ajumako and grew up in the household of the Fanti chief Ambro Accasa, ruler of Ajumako and Assinie. Cugoano was enslaved as a youth, taken to Grenada in the West Indies, and from there brought to England, where he was freed.

Educated while a slave and converted to Christianity, Cugoano soon emerged as a leader of opinion among the free Africans of London, where he corresponded under the adopted name of John Stewart, or Stuart, and became familiar with the abolitionist leaders Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson. Cugoano was a friend of Olaudah Equiano, with whom he collaborated in representing African interests.

Cugoano's book, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery, was an impressively sustained intellectual assault which demolished the popular theological and biblical justifications for slavery and invoked the universality of the Christian God and His ethic, the equality of all men. It appealed to the humanitarian ideals of Enlightenment Europe and asserted the human right of Africans to freedom and dignity in the pursuit of their own destiny. Following the ideas of Adam Smith, Cugoano argued the economic insanity of slavery, previewing the later popular views of a "legitimate" commerce to replace the "illegitimate" slave trade. He proposed the outright manumission of all slaves 7 years or more in the colonies, the instruction of the rest in preparation for freedom, and a naval blockade in West Africa.

Several authorities believe that Cugoano's theological arguments were coached by Clarkson or Sharp, while his friend Equiano may have helped revise his book's first draft. Nevertheless, the work probably remains essentially a product of Cugoano's own thoughts and feelings, an articulate African's response to the impact of European expansion.

Very little is known of Cugoano's later career. In 1791 he was involved in Clarkson's scheme for recruiting Africans living in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to Sierre Leone. The same year he published a shorter version of Thoughts and Sentiments, in which he gave notice of intent to establish an African school in London. The Italian-Polish patriot Scipione Piattoli knew Cugoano during his London years (ca. 1800-1803), and the French writer Henri Grégoire says Cugoano married an English woman. Beyond this, Ottobah Cugoano left no further record.

Further Reading on Ottobah Cugoano

Cugoano's work, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (1787), was reissued in a second edition by Paul Edwards, entitled Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery (1969). Edwards added an informative introduction and appended five previously unpublished manuscript letters by Cugoano that are helpful in determining the authorship of Thoughts and Sentiments. The most useful and informative modern treatment of Cugoano is by Robert July, The Origins of Modern African Thought: Its Development in West Africa during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1967), who considers Cugoano an important precursor of 19th-and 20th-century African thought. Prince Hoare, Memoirs of Granville Sharp, Esq. (1820), contains some letters from Cugoano and references to his relationship with Sharp. Christopher Fyfe, in A History of Sierra Leone (1962), agrees with Paul Edwards and doubts that Cugoano is the sole author of Thoughts and Sentiments.