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Redefining Humanity: Political Philosophy in African British Anti-Slavery Literature

Written by Charlie Horlick. Ottobah Cugoano's writing has been typically framed as a slave narrative, yet it is perhaps more than that. Part political economy, part meditation on morality, it should be integrated into the canon of eighteenth-century philosophy.

The categorisation of eighteenth-century African British writing has proved reductive in the past, too readily limiting the literature to the genre of “slave narrative”. Such a narrow definition misses the variety of intention, content, and context evident in the body of work, and risks rendering those black authors “producers of experience”, while white authors become “producers of theory”. The historiographical tendency, established by Paul Edwards, to focus on autobiography as the core theme of African British literature sought to demonstrate that such texts were effective in exploiting the sensibilities of the increasingly sympathetic middle-classes, thereby aiding the campaign for abolition. Certainly, many African British texts were significant is this regard. However, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano’s, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, denies such simple classification. Indeed, Thoughts and Sentiments represented a transition away from the use of moral sentimentalism towards an analytical engagement with political-economic discourse. As Bogues and others have demonstrated, Thoughts and Sentiments pays limited attention to Cugoano’s actual experiences of slavery because “the similar cases of thousands … are well known”. Instead, it concentrates on radical reinterpretations of Enlightenment philosophy, placing the issue of slavery in the midst of natural rights and liberties, justice, religious historicism, the role of reason, and the notion of a universal humanity. 

Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, baptised John Stuart in 1773, was born around 1757, in what is now Ghana, to a “companion to the [Fantee] chief”. He was captured and enslaved in Grenada in 1770 but was purchased as a servant in 1772 and brought to London. He eventually found work with Maria and Richard Cosway, both well-connected artists through whom he built an impressive contact-book, including George III, the Prince of Wales, Edmund Burke, Sir William Dolben, and Granville Sharp. Cugoano was one of the first African Britons actively engaged in the fight against slavery alongside Olaudah Equiano and the “Sons of Africa” who maintained the abolitionist struggle through letters to influential figures and newspapers. Collating his earlier thoughts and writings, Cugoano produced Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species in 1787, in which he refuted religious and secular pro-slavery arguments and demanded the immediate abolition of the slave trade and emancipation of all slaves. The direction of Cugoano’s socio-political agenda was clearly more radical than many of his contemporaries who, while perhaps calling for immediate abolition in private, never did so as Cugoano did. Indeed, where Equiano titled his work, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Thoughts and Sentiments eschewed such narrative and focussed on more conceptual, philosophical matters. 

Traditional histories of Cugoano’s work were disparaging however, suggesting that he had help from Equiano or others judging by the literary quality of his extant letters. Clearly, Cugoano borrowed liberally from the sources of information at his disposal and it is no great leap to suggest that his title was inspired by Thomas Clarkson’s 1786 Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African. Nevertheless, Carretta has addressed the issue of Cugoano’s “repetitive, imitative” rhetoric, explaining it as an aspect of the oral tradition and characteristic of political jeremiad. Moreover, rather than interpreting Cugoano’s collaborative work as an instance of individual shortcoming, it should be seen as an indication that he saw the abolition of slavery as a collective task. In much the same way that the stain of slavery applied to the whole of Christendom as a communal “evil of the first magnitude”, Cugoano believed the solution was one for the consideration and action of the whole of society. 

It is unsurprising that Cugoano’s work was “rhetorically cumulative” given its timely publication in the wider anti-slavery campaign. Despite the emergence of abolitionist agitation embodied by Granville Sharpe, John Wesley, and Anthony Benezet in the 1770s, the movement gained little traction, battling the weight of societal preconception and conditioning. The Quakers comprised the core of the small abolitionist body, canvassing mercantile and commercial interests for their support but to little avail given their lack of financial and informational networks. Indeed, other than Revd. James Ramsey’s writings and general scandal that followed news of the Zong massacre, there was little tangible evidence of a formal campaign before the late 1780s. However, 1787 proved a turning point in the fortunes of the anti-slavery lobby. The publication of Thoughts and Sentiments coincided with the foundation of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, the release of the Wedgwood Medallion, and an unprecedented exhibition of popular support. Just the following year, Sir William Dolben introduced his bill calling for regulation of conditions in the Middle Passage, no doubt helped through Parliament by the unprecedented force of popular pressure. 

The timing of the publication of Thoughts and Sentiments was auspicious for several reasons. Not only did Cugoano’s text lend authenticity to the claims of the abolitionists, the very fact that Cugoano was an educated black author undermined the purported hierarchy of races. At the time when Edward Long’s racist justifications were finding their feet, Cugoano’s work took on a symbolic significance as evidence of black capability and accomplishment. Cugoano’s text itself paid testament to the inconsistencies of pro-slavery literature by describing the “great advantages of some little learning” that he had received. Significantly, Cugoano extols the virtues of learning alongside his acquisition of liberty, becoming the first African British author to directly associate literacy with liberty. Moreover, gaining literacy meant Cugoano could read the growing body of anti-slavery literature, as well as engaging in the ‘white’ world of reason through Enlightenment debates concerning topics like monogenesis (the belief that humanity had a single origin), the existence of a Divine hierarchy, the essence of humanity, and the increasingly potent market forces of commercialism. 

Undoubtedly, Cugoano was well-versed in both religious and secular texts and much like his abolitionist contemporaries, Cugoano used biblical exegesis to frame slavery as a collective sin. For instance, using rhetorical questions to encourage self-reflection amongst his readership, Cugoano asks how slave holders could possibly think that the “Universal Father and Sovereign of Mankind will be well pleased with them, for the brutal transgression of his law”. Cugoano’s use of the phrase “Universal Father and Sovereign of Mankind” highlights that God will judge all of society, firstly emphasising the fact that apathy towards slavery is no defence, secondly pointing to Cugoano’s belief in naturally existing Divine Law and, perhaps most importantly, revealing his conception of a universal humanity. Tying these threads together reveals Cugoano’s commentary on the state of the nation. He observes the history and development of modern nations through the lens of “theologically-orientated historicism” to show that Western nations, especially Britain, are suffering moral decay concomitant with the rise of rapacious commercialism. Cugoano is “astonished” to consider that such an evil as slavery is “committed amongst Christians” despite being “contrary to all the genuine principles of Christianity”. As Wheelock notes, Cugoano described the trajectory of societal development in Europe as a decline into an “apostate form of Christianity”. This is clear in the distinction made between the “genuine principles” of Divine Law, and that form of Christianity which turns a blind eye to the brutal reality of slavery, “countenanced and supported by the government of sundry Christian nations”. 

Engaging with the theological immorality of slavery enabled Cugoano to speak to the emerging humanitarian sensibilities of middle-class Britain, evident in the arguments propounded by groups such as the Teston Circle. More than this however, in tussling with the religious dimension of slavery debates, Cugoano deals with more fundamental concepts such as the ‘Great Chain of Being’ which were used to defend enslavement. The ‘Great Chain’ describes the ‘natural’ hierarchical structure of society which supposedly reflects the Divine Order of Heaven. Using this as a framework, Enlightenment figures such as David Hume perceived Africans as less competent and thus deserving of lower status in the hierarchy of races. This notion was justified with reference to the theory of polygenesis which asserted that different races were created distinct from one another by God. Cugoano challenges this most fundamental basis of white superiority, describing the “specious pretence” that Africans are inferior as “without any shadow of justice and truth”. On the contrary, Cugoano identifies the principles of “justice and equity” as the “common right and privilege of all men”. As one creation under God, “external complexion, whether black or white, should be no excuse for them to do evil”. 

This is not a purely theological philosophy, however. Rather than only offering a moralised Christian reading of slavery, Cugoano uses scripture to offer evidence of universal humanity which can be utilised in the commercial sphere. In promoting his view of monogenesis, Cugoano does not only assert the superficiality of racial difference, he also proposes the notion of global citizenship. He uses the idea of universal citizenship to undermine the slavery-apologist argument that British labourers endure worse material conditions, by pointing out that even if that were true, it would call out for redress and levelling-up, rather than the maintenance of slavery. Gradations of suffering and exploitation do not justify its continuance. Instead, the intrinsic equality of all humanity demands equal treatment irrespective of distance from the metropole. 

Additionally, having first revised Hume’s hierarchy of races, Cugoano adopts similar arguments to Adam Smith to demonstrate the adverse impact of slavery on economic performance. He states that slavery “greatly stops ingenuity and improvements, promotes idleness and wickedness … and drains the money out of the nation”. In this sense, rather than rejecting the harsh logic of commercialism exposed in the Zong Massacre, Cugoano regards free commerce and liberal-minded international trade as a natural extension of the mutual recognition and respect that should arise from the acceptance of universal humanity. Indeed, in something of a defence of benign imperialism, Cugoano advocates the active spread of Christianity and economic relations, but only in pursuit of the common good. For instance, when assessing the ambitions and intentions of colonial governors, Cugoano writes that all policy should be conducive to the “moral, temporal and eternal welfare of every individual”. His meditations on empire and slavery are thus founded as much in political economy as in Christianity. It seems that Cugoano engages religious arguments as a means of establishing the foundations of his universalist liberal philosophy and to demonstrate the importance of moral considerations in tempering the worst excesses of commercialism. 

Calling on both religious and secular sources of information, Cugoano employs persuasive rhetoric, compelling the reader to question their own stance on the issues he raises. More than this, Cugoano develops some of his arguments pertaining to universal humanity which he views as codified in Divine Law. In so doing, he questions the very definition of what it is to be ‘truly human’. Using these theological notions to expose cracks in the bedrock of pro-slavery arguments, Cugoano extends his analysis to show that not only are Africans competent, capable, and rational, they are valuable economic allies. Having obtained the advantages of liberty, learning and the Gospel, Cugoano sees the most effective way of sharing these “great advantages” as respectful, mutually beneficial engagement in morally tempered markets. Given the depth and significance of Cugoano’s theorising, Thoughts and Sentiments cannot simply be classified as a ‘slave narrative’. This is a deeply important work of political philosophy, concerning not only the abolition campaign, but the very nature and essence of humanity. 

Written by Charlie Horlick 

Bibliography 

Primary Sources: 

Cugoano, Ottobah, 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.” 1787. 

Long, Edward, The History of Jamaica Reflections on Its Situation, Settlements, Inhabitants, Climate, Products, Commerce, Laws and Government. Volume 2. Toronto: McGill-Queen’s University Press 2002. 

Smith, Adam. Wealth of Nations. London: Electric Book Company, 2000. 

Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, edited by Knud Haakonssen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 

Hume, David. “Essays: Moral; Political; and Literary,” edited by Eugene F. Miller. London: Liberty Fund, 1985. 

Secondary Sources: 

Bogues, Anthony. Black Heretics, Black Prophets: Radical Political Intellectuals. London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2003. 

Brown, Christopher Leslie. Moral Capital: Foundations of British AbolitionismChapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. 

Burton, Orville Vernon. “Debates Over Slavery and Abolition: An Interpretative and Historiographical Essay.” In Slavery and Anti-Slavery: A Transnational Archive. Cengage Learning, 2009. 

Carretta, Vincent. “Cugoano, Ottobah [John Stuart] (b. 1757?), Slavery Abolitionist and Writer.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Accessed: 15 February 2021. 

Carretta, Vincent. “Three West Indian Writers of the 1780s Revisited and Revised.” Research in African Literatures 29, no. 4, (1998). 

Carretta, Vincent, ed. Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996. 

Drescher, Seymour. “Abolitionism without Revolution: Great Britain, 1770s–1820s.” In Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 

Drescher, Seymour. “Public Opinion and Parliament in the Abolition of the British Slave Trade.” Parliamentary History 26 (2007). 

Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Fante Confederacy.“ Encyclopaedia Britannica, November 21, 2001. Accessed: February 19, 2021. 

Gates, Jr., Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.  

Hanley, Ryan. “Slavery and the Birth of Working-Class Racism in England, 1814–1833: The Alexander Prize Essay.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 26 (2016). 

Hole, Jeffrey. “From Sentiment to Security: Cugoano, Liberal Principles, and the Bonds of Empire.“ Criticism 59, no. 2 (2017). 

Levecq, Christine. Slavery and Sentiment: The Politics of Feeling in Black Atlantic Antislavery Writing, 1770-1850. Durham: University of New Hampshire Press, 2008. 

Rugemer, Edward B. “The Development of Mastery and Race in the Comprehensive Slave Codes of the Greater Caribbean during the Seventeenth Century.” The William and Mary Quarterly 70, no. 3 (2013). 

Wheelock, Stefan. Barbaric Culture and Black Critique: Black Antislavery Writers, Religion, and the Slaveholding Atlantic.  Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016. 

Wolloch, Nathaniel. “The Civilizing Process, Nature, and Stadial Theory.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 44, no. 2 (2011). 

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