African writers and Black thought in 18th-century Britain

By 1780, Britain had a Black population of at least 20,000 people. S I Martin describes how four writers, taken from Africa as children and sold into slavery, grew up to write works that challenged British ideas about race, called for African brotherhood and demanded the abolition of the slave trade.

Britain’s involvement in slavery and the slave trade

In the last quarter of the 18th century Great Britain was the largest trader of human lives between Africa and the plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean. Almost one million enslaved Africans in the British Caribbean worked about 3,000 hours a year. The result was 3,000 million hours of free labour producing sugar, cotton and coffee. The population of England at that time numbered only five million people.

Classified as property, the enslaved had no more rights than livestock or inanimate objects. Uprisings and rebellions were frequent and inevitable. The slave owners feared the revolutionary power of violence. They equally feared the power of ideas. The vast majority of them were opposed to the idea of slaves being taught to read and write, and laws were passed throughout the West Indies which criminalised those activities.

The World Described by Herman Moll, 1708‒20

18th-century European map of Africa, with coloured lines dividing the continent

This 18th-century European map of Africa shows the Western coastal region – here archaically termed ‘Negroland’ and ‘Guinea’. The coastline has been divided into zones labelled ‘Grain’, ‘Ivory’, ‘Gold’ and ‘Slave Coast’, illustrating how Europeans classified the enslaved as commodities.

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A General Chart of the West India Islands, 1796

Map published in 1796 of the Caribbean region, colour-coded to show which colonies were controlled by Britain, France and Spain

This is a map published in 1796 of the Caribbean region. It is colour-coded to show which European country controlled which colonies. The British colonies have pink around their borders, the French blue and the Spanish yellow.

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Meanwhile, in Europe, politics, science and religion were being transformed by a movement known as the Enlightenment, which generated new philosophies based around a retreat from faith and a reliance on reason and the observable world. Enlightenment thought, in principle at least, promoted the ideals of democracy, liberty and equality for all. However, at a time when the slave trade was one of the main engines of Britain’s economy, these ideas in fact led Europeans to reclassify the human family with themselves at the top and Africans at the bottom, by which process White became synonymous with human. Both the French and American revolutions (1789–99; 1775–83) made it very clear that some political freedoms were the preserve of White people exclusively, and that African calls for brotherhood would be ignored.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

Painted depiction of the allegorical figures of France breaking her chains and Fame under the eye of God sit atop the Déclaration, which is associated with a red Phrygian cap, a snake biting its tail and a laurel wreath

On 26 August 1789, the French National Constituent Assembly issued the Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen) which defined individual and collective rights at the time of the French Revolution. Painted by the artist Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier (1738–1826), this depiction of the Déclaration celebrates these rights as a crowning achievement of the French Revolution.

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Usage terms © Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet
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The African and Black presence in Britain: New writing, ideas and challenges to slavery

Despite these restrictions on Black social mobility and education a handful of African writers living in Britain introduced Black thought into the English language for the first time and began to challenge the degraded notions of human diversity prevalent during this period.

Africans had been in Britain during the Roman occupation, and had been a visible and continuous presence since the mid 16th century and the start of the country’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. Whereas earlier arrivals had mostly been domestic servants of one rank or another, the 18th century saw a remarkable spike in population and an expansion of roles Black people occupied. By the 1780s Britain had a Black population of at least 20,000. Whether beggars or businessmen, seamen or soldiers, publicans or poets, writers or runaways, the Black population’s fortunes were subject not only to the ups and downs of British commerce but also to the spread of new ideas.

Minuets, Cotillons & Country Dances by Ignatius Sancho

Printed title page from Minuets, Cotillons and Country Dances by Ignatius Sancho, containing the text 'composed by an African'

Before he became famous as a letter writer, Ignatius Sancho was a composer and aspiring actor, as well as a shopkeeper. Sancho wrote four books of songs and lively dance music, including this collection of Minuets, Cotillons & Country Dances.

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The pre-eminent cause of the day was the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade. A determining element of this movement was the involvement of African men and women living in Britain who, for the first time, gave first-person testimony to the horrors of slavery and began to organise and publish.

If we consider the work of four 18th-century writers we can see how they not only addressed the question of slavery, but also how their journeys to literacy in their youth produced different styles and approaches to tackling the issue.

Olaudah Equiano: Autobiography and writing about the horrors of a slave ship

Olaudah Equiano was born around 1745. He was from the Ibo people of what is now Nigeria. He was kidnapped by slave traders as a child and survived the journey to Barbados in the hold of a slave ship. He was taught to read in London at the age of 12 by the family of his then master Captain Michael Pascal, but his interest in books had begun earlier:

I had often seen my master and Dick employed in reading; and I had a great curiosity to talk to the books, as I thought they did; and so to learn how all things had a beginning: for that purpose I have often taken up a book, and have talked to it, and then put my ears to it, when alone, in hopes it would answer me; and I have been very much concerned when I found it remained silent.

Equiano would be unusually lucky, and he was eventually able to purchase his own freedom (for £40 in 1766). For most of his life he was a seaman, but he is best known as Britain’s first Black political leader and the author of the best-selling autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Published in 1789, his book gave the British public their first authentic account of the horrors of a slave ship. It was not a coincidence that his work was published at a time when the case for abolition was being made before Parliament.

I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat. I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me; but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables; and on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across I think the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely. (ch. 2)

The Life of Olaudah Equiano, second edition

Printed title page from the 1789 edition of The Life of Olaudah Equinao, with a facing portrait of Equiano who is in formal dress and holding a book

In his autobiography, Olaudah Equiano tells of his early life in Africa, his enslavement and how he gained his freedom.

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Drawing of the slave ship 'Brookes'

Drawing of the ship 'Brookes', showing enslaved Africans crammed into the hold of a slave ship, lying in rows. Printed in the book of Thomas Clarkson.

Drawing of the slave ship Brookes. Taken from: Thomas Clarkson, The history of the rise, progress, and accomplishment of the abolition of the African slave-trade by the British Parliament (London: Longman & Co., 1808).

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He was baptised at St Margaret's Church, Westminster, in February 1759, and his personal experience of Christianity would inform much of his message.

I might say my sufferings were great: but when I compare my lot with that of most of my countrymen, I regard myself as a particular favourite of Heaven, and acknowledge the mercies of Providence in every occurrence of my life. (ch. 1)

Ottobah Cugoano: Political activism, education and freedom

Equiano was also a prominent member of a Black lobbying group called the Sons of Africa. This was a body of politically active, London-based Black men who worked towards the abolition of the slave trade and greater civil rights for Black people in Britain. Sitting with him in this group was Ottobah Cugoano. Cugoano was born in what is now Ghana, from which he was captured at the age of 13. After enduring a brutal period of enslavement in Grenada, he was brought to England as a servant and given the name James Stewart.

After coming to England, and seeing others write and read, I had a strong desire to learn, and getting what assistance I could, I applied myself to learn reading and writing, which soon became my recreation, pleasure, and delight; and when my master perceived that I could write some, he sent me to a proper school for that purpose to learn. (ch. 2)

From an early age Ottobah Cugoano appeared to link his educational journey with the freedom of African people as a whole:

Since, I have endeavoured to improve my mind in reading, and have sought to get all the intelligence I could, in my situation of life, towards the state of my brethren and countrymen in complexion, and of the miserable situation of those who are barbarously sold into captivity, and unlawfully held in slavery.

Cugoano published his autobiography Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Human Species in 1787. It was the first book written by an African to demand the total abolition of the slave trade. It was also the first to press for reparations to African nations impacted by large-scale human trafficking.

Thoughts and sentiments on the evil and wicked traffic

Printed title page from Ottobah Cugoano's book, Thoughts and sentiments on the evil and wicked traffic of the slavery and commerce of the human species

This is the first British publication in which an African writer argues for an end to the slave trade and enslavement.

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Ignatius Sancho: Reading, literature and letter writing

Ignatius Sancho, a Black contemporary of Equiano and Cugoano, expressed the need for abolition in less politicised though equally powerful ways. Joseph Jekyll's biography, written two years after Sancho's death, claimed that Sancho was born on board a slave ship. He was brought to Britain as an infant and put to work as a household slave for a family in Greenwich, London. In common with most slave masters, the family discouraged his desire to read.

I am one of those people whom the vulgar and illiberal call ‘Negurs.’ – The first part of my life was rather unlucky, as I was placed in a family who judged ignorance the best and only security for obedience. (Vol. 1, letter 35, to Mr Laurence Sterne, July 1766)

Sancho’s quest for learning was supported by the Duke of Montagu, who encouraged him to borrow books from his extensive library. After running away from the Greenwich house and briefly working as a butler for the Montagus, he became a shopkeeper with premises and property in Westminster.

Portrait of Ignatius Sancho by Thomas Gainsborough, 1768

Painted portrait of Ignatius Sancho looking to the left, in formal dress including a red waistcoat with gold trim

The only known portrait of Ignatius Sancho, painted by Thomas Gainsborough in 1768, when he was employed as a valet by George Brudenell, the Duke of Montagu.

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Usage terms Thomas Gainsborough Ignatius Sancho, 1768 Oil on canvas, 73.7 x 62.2 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: © NGC Thomas Gainsborough Ignatius Sancho, 1768 Huile sur toile, 73.7 x 62.2 cm, Musée des beaux-arts du Canada, Ottawa. Photo: © MBAC

His love of literature stayed with him throughout his life, and he cultivated friendships with many of the leading artistic and cultural figures of the age, including the novelist Laurence Sterne. His Letters, posthumously published in 1782, shows him to have been a powerful but shrewd critic of the slave trade:

… I must observe your country's conduct has been uniformly wicked in the East – West Indies – and even on the coast of Guinea. – The grand object of English navigators – indeed of all Christian navigators – is money – money – money … But enough – it is a subject that sours my blood – and I am sure will not please the friendly bent of your social affections. – I mentioned these only to guard my friend against being too hasty in condemning the knavery of a people who bad as they may be – possibly – were made worse by their Christian visitors. (To Mr Jack Wingrave, 1778)

It is clear in this extract that Sancho is mindful of the prejudices held by some of his friends and correspondents, while still needing to broadcast the ugliness of enslavement. Despite his high-society associations, his ownership of property and his right to vote, Sancho was always aware of his African heritage:

I am Sir an Affrican – with two ffs – if you please - & proud am I to be of a country that knows no politicians – nor lawyers – no – nor Thieves (To William Stevenson, 1779)

The only surviving manuscript letters of Ignatius Sancho

Handwritten letter from Ignatius Sancho, dated April 1779

In this original letter, Sancho condemns English politicans and refers to his African heritage, writing, ‘I am Sir an Affrican – with two ffs – if you please – & proud am I to be of a country that knows no politicians – nor lawyers – no – nor Thieves’.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Record of Ignatius Sancho's vote in the general election, October 1774

List of names, addresses and occupations, including Ignatius Sancho's name

Ignatius Sancho is the first known person of African descent to vote in a British general election. This public record of the October 1774 vote lists Sancho as a tea dealer in St Margaret’s and St John’s parish in Westminster, London, alongside over 7000 other men.

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Ignatius Sancho died in 1782. His shop was taken over by his son William, who converted the premises to a printing and publishing business where he published the fifth edition of his father’s letters in 1803.

The only surviving manuscript letters of Ignatius Sancho

Printed portrait of Ignatius Sancho in formal dress, from a copy of his collected letters

The fifth edition of Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African (1803). William Sancho’s name is printed below the portrait of his father.

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Phillis Wheatley: Poetry and the role of the imagination

Shortly before Sancho’s death he mentioned in a letter the case of a young enslaved Black woman who had authored a collection of poems. He raised the point that none of the purchasers of her poetry had been moved to buy her freedom. He referred to her as a ‘Genius in Bondage’. The young woman was Phillis Wheatley, and her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London in 1773, when she was about 19. Wheatley, like Sancho and Cugoano, had been taken from Africa as a child. One of her poems, published in London five years after her death, illustrates the impact of her forced removal:

I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate,
Was snach’d from AFRIC’s fancy’d happy seat;
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parents’ breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no mis’ry mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belove’d;
Such-such my case; and can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

She had been sold to the family of John Wheatley, a lawyer in Boston, Massachusetts. The family, unusually for the time, encouraged her education. In 1772 she travelled with them to London, where a publisher was found for her growing body of work.

Phillis Wheatley’s Poems

Portrait of Phillis Wheatley sat writing at a desk, opposite the title page from her book Poems on various subjects, religious and moral, 1773

Phillis Wheatley was a literary prodigy who published this poetry collection aged about 19.

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Her best known and most controversial poem, ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’, was seized upon by pro-slavery individuals and groups who viewed it as a justification for human trafficking. They claimed that Phillis’s poem was an African voice seeming to give thanks for being removed from that continent and delivered into the knowledge of Christianity.

'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
‘Their colour is a diabolic die.’
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

Abolitionists, for their part, also supported Wheatley as they did other African writers, arguing that by their literary merit and Christian witness they were living proof of the slave trade’s immorality.

Phillis returned to the United States with the Wheatleys. Following an unhappy marriage to a free Black man she died in poverty in 1784, aged 31.

One of her less celebrated poems, ‘On Imagination’, perhaps offers the clearest insight into the inner world of these ‘unchained voices’. Here, Wheatley seems to capture their need to remake the world with words and to write their times and their people into existence:

Imagination! who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th' empyreal palace of the thund'ring God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th' unbounded soul.

This article is © S I Martin.

  • S I Martin
  • S I Martin was born in Bedford and has worked as a journalist for The Voice and Bulletin. He is the author of a novel, Incomparable World (1996), which tells the story of three black exiles living in 18th-century London; and a non-fiction title, Britain's Slave Trade (1999), published to accompany a television series screened on Channel 4.

    S I Martin lives in South London where he works as a researcher and writer of Black history. In 2007 his children's novel, Jupiter Williams, was published. It tells the tale of a boy who lives in the African Academy in Clapham, London, in 1800. His latest book is Jupiter Amidships (2009).