Blue plaque for anti-slavery campaigner Ottobah Cugoano

Recognition of 18th-century pioneer on London building is earliest for a black person

Ottobah Cugoano Blue Plaque
Ottobah Cugoano Blue Plaque Photograph: Lucy Millson-Watkins/English Heritage/PA

Ottobah Cugoano, an 18th-century anti-slavery campaigner who wrote the most radical abolitionist text of its time, has become the earliest black figure to receive a blue plaque.

The plaque on a building in Pall Mall, central London, aims to shine light on the remarkable and little-known story of a man described by the historian David Olusoga as a “true pioneer … the first African to demand the total abolition of slavery and one of the leaders of Georgian London’s black community.”

It follows cold case reviews of black and minority ethnic figures from history by an English Heritage working group tasked with getting more diverse representation in the scheme.

Cugoano was born near the coast of present-day Ghana where he was kidnapped in 1770 by slave traders. He was only 13, later writing: “I was early snatched away from my native country, with about 18 or 20 more boys and girls, as we were playing in a field … Some of us attempted, in vain, to run away, but pistols and cutlasses were soon introduced, threatening, that if we offered to stir, we should all lie dead on the spot.”

Schomberg House in London.
Schomberg House in London. Photograph: Lucy Millson-Watkins

He was forced on to a ship heading for the West Indies where he was sold to plantation owners in Grenada. After two years he became a servant to a prominent slave-owner and was taken to England where he was baptised, now 16, as John Stuart.

At some point he gained his freedom and by the mid-1780s he was employed as a servant to the fashionable painters Richard and Maria Cosway, working at their grand residence, Schomberg House, where the plaque celebrating Cugoano has now been placed.

A self-portrait etching by Cosway depicts him and his wife seated in their garden being fed grapes by Cugoano, dressed in crimson silk in imitation of footmen at the Vatican.

It was while living at Schomberg House that Cugoano wrote the book Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Humbly Submitted to the Inhabitants of Great Britain.

It was one of the first black authored anti-slavery books to be published in Britain and is regarded as the most radical in its arguments.

Cugoano took on the reasoning used by apologists for slavery, that Africans were complicit in the trade, by inviting readers to imagine slave raids on Britain by African pirates “assisted by some of your own insidious neighbours, for there may be some men even among you vile enough to do such a thing if they could get money by it.”

He advanced the view that “the difference of colour and complexion, which it hath pleased God to appoint among men, are no more unbecoming than the different shades of the rainbow are unseemly to the whole … It does not alter the nature or quality of a man, whether he wears a black or white coat – whether he puts it on or strips it off, he is still the same man.”

Schomberg House was mentioned on the frontispiece as one of the places the book could be obtained, suggesting that the Cosways supported Cugoano.

Olusoga, a member of English Heritage’s blue plaques panel, said: “Ottobah Cugoano was a remarkable man, one who himself had known the horrors of slavery. Having survived he used words and arguments to fight against the slave trade and slavery.

“I am delighted that English Heritage is celebrating his life with a blue plaque.”

Cugoano becomes the earliest black figure with a London blue plaque, joining a group of people that English Heritage acknowledges is too small. Only 4% of the 950 blue plaques across London are dedicated to black and Asian figures from history, a figure Olusoga has called “unacceptably low”.

English Heritage said it could be partly explained by the relatively low number of public nominations fulfilling the blue plaque criteria and “by the all too frequent lack of historic records to establish a definitive link between the person in question and the building in which they lived.”


Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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