Ottobah Cugoano, also known as John Stuart (c. 1757 – after 1791), was an African abolitionist and natural rights philosopher from Ghana who was active in England in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Captured in present-day Ghana and sold into slavery at the age of 13, he was shipped to Grenada in the Lesser Antilles, where he worked on a plantation. In 1772 he was purchased by an English merchant who took him to England, where he was taught to read and write, and was freed following the ruling in the Somersett Case (1772). Later working for artists Richard and Maria Cosway, he became acquainted with British political and cultural figures. He joined the Sons of Africa, African abolitionists in England.
At the age of 13, Cuguano was sold into slavery and transported to Grenada to work on an island plantation. He worked in the Lesser Antilles until he was purchased in 1772 by an English merchant, who took him to England. That year, the merchant had Cuguano baptized as John Stuart; he was given his freedom in England following the decision in the Somersett Case (1772), which ruled there was no basis for slavery in English common law.
In 1784, Stuart was employed as a servant by the artists Richard Cosway and his wife, Maria. Through the Cosways, he came to the attention of leading British political and cultural figures of the time, including the poet William Blake and the Prince of Wales. Together with Olaudah Equiano and other educated Africans living in Britain, Stuart became active in the Sons of Africa, an abolitionist group whose members wrote frequently to the newspapers of the day, condemning the practice of slavery.
In 1786 he played a key role in the case of Henry Demane, a kidnapped black man who was to be shipped back to the West Indies. Cugoano contacted Granville Sharp, a well-known abolitionist, who was able to have Demane removed from the ship before it sailed.
In 1787, possibly with the help of his friend Olaudah Equiano, Cugoano published an attack on slavery entitled Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (1787). By now a devout Christian, he wrote work informed by that religion. His writing called for the abolition of slavery and immediate emancipation of all slaves. It argues that the slave's duty is to escape from slavery, and that force should be used to prevent further enslavement. The narrative was sent to King George III, the Prince of Wales and to Edmund Burke, a leading politician. George III, along with much of the royal family, remained opposed to abolition of the slave trade.
Four years later, in 1791, Cugoano published a shorter version of his book, addressed to the "Sons of Africa". In it, he expressed qualified support for the failed British efforts to establish a colony in Sierra Leone for London’s Poor Blacks (mostly freed African-American slaves who had been relocated to London after the American Revolutionary War. Other early settlers were Black Loyalists, also former American slaves, from Nova Scotia, who chose to move to Sierra Leone.) Cugoano called for the establishment of schools in Britain especially for African students.
Nothing is known of Cugoano after the release of his book.
- Bogues, Anthony (2003). Black Heretics, Black Prophets: Radical Political Intellectuals. New York: Routledge. p. 25-46.
- Henry Louis Gates, Jr, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism, Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 146-47.
- Harris, Jennifer. "Quobna Ottabah Cugoano", Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 2002, Detroit, MI: Gale Research Company, 2003.
- Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, London: Pluto Press, 1984, p. 101.
- Narrative of the Enslavement of Ottobah Cugoano, a Native of Africa, London: Printed for the Author and Sold by Hatchard and Co., 1825, online text at Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina.
- Resources for the study of Cugoano, Brycchan Carey Website
- Adam Hochschild, "The Unsung Heroes of Abolition", History, BBC, page includes engraving by Richard Cosway, possibly of Cugoano
- Selected Passages from Narrative of the Enslavement of a Native of Africa, Spartacus Educational