Ottobah Quobna Cugoano was a Ghanaian abducted as a child and trafficked to Britain who rose above the horrors of slavery to become a famous abolitionist, working for the freedom and dignity of his fellow enslaved people.
Quobna Cugoano’s story begins in the heart of Africa, in what is present-day Ghana, where he was kidnapped along with a group of children from his homeland at the tender age of 13.
This brutal abduction marked the beginning of his life as a slave, as he was subsequently transported from Cape Coast to Grenada on a slave ship. For years, he toiled on a plantation in the Lesser Antilles, robbed of his freedom and separated from his family.
In a twist of fate, Cugoano’s life took a hopeful turn when he was purchased in 1772 by Alexander Campbell, a Scottish plantation owner, who brought him to England. It was in England that Cugoano found a lifeline to freedom and education. Here, he learned to read and write, skills that would later empower him to become a vocal advocate for the abolition of slavery. On August 20, 1773, he was baptized at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, under the name “John Stuart.”
By 1784, Ottobah Cugoano secured employment as a servant in the household of the esteemed artists Richard and Maria Cosway. Through his association with the Cosways, Cugoano had the privilege of engaging with prominent British political and cultural figures of the time.
Cugoano’s transformation into an outspoken advocate against slavery became most evident through his association with the “Sons of Africa.” This group of educated Africans living in Britain, including the famous Olaudah Equiano, fervently opposed the practice of slavery. They used their voices and writings to condemn the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and call for its immediate abolition.
In 1787, possibly with the assistance of his friend Olaudah Equiano, Cugoano published a powerful and influential work titled “Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species.” In the book, he passionately argued for the abolition of slavery and the immediate emancipation of all enslaved individuals. His writings called for enslaved people to escape their bondage, even advocating the use of force to prevent further enslavement.
Cugoano’s narrative reached some of the most influential figures of his time, including King George III, the Prince of Wales, and Edmund Burke. However, despite their opposition to slavery, the royal family remained hesitant about the abolition of the slave trade.
In 1791, Cugoano published a shorter version of his book, addressing it to the “Sons of Africa.” His last known letter, also from 1791, mentioned his travels to promote his book and lamented the enduring prejudice based on complexion.
Tragically, Ottobah Cugoano disappears from the historical record after 1791, leaving behind a legacy of advocacy and a remarkable journey that serves as an enduring symbol of adaptability and the unwavering fight for justice.