From the mid 18th century, Africans and people of African descent – many of them former slaves – began to write down their stories. Brycchan Carey describes these writings and assesses their role in the abolition of slavery.
Slavery in the Atlantic world was more complex than history books can readily convey. Most enslaved people were forced to work as agricultural labourers, toiling long hours on sugar plantations or in cotton fields, but as time went on there was an increase in the number of enslaved skilled craftsmen and domestic servants, not just in the colonies but in the British Isles as well. Many of these craftsmen and servants learned to read and write, and a small number became free, sometimes through their own direct efforts and sometimes in recognition of their service; there were many slaveholders who saw no contradiction in freeing one or two favourite domestic servants while keeping hundreds of enslaved people to work on their land. From the mid 18th century onwards, Africans and people of African descent began to write down their own stories, at first in scattered paragraphs, poems and short pamphlets, but later in substantial publications that reached a wide audience.
One of the earliest of these publications was A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, A Negro Man. This short pamphlet was published in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1760. Hammon told his story of being cast away in Florida, held prisoner in Cuba for several years, escaping to Jamaica and then London, and returning to Boston after a series of remarkable coincidences. A few years later, in 1773, a young enslaved woman called Phillis Wheatley, who was also from Boston, published a collection of poems in London to great public interest. Like Hammon, Wheatley said little about slavery in her writing, but the fact that some Africans were producing sophisticated literature helped to convince an increasing number of Europeans that African people were the moral and intellectual equals of Europeans, and should not be enslaved.
In the United Kingdom in the 1780s, widespread disgust at colonial slavery turned to popular protest, and writing by Africans and former slaves was at the centre of the movement. The decade began with the publication of The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, An African (1782). Sancho was born into slavery, brought to London as a child slave in the 1730s, freed and then educated by the Duke of Montagu, for whom he later worked as a butler. He finally became the proprietor of a small shop in Westminster where he gathered around him a coterie of artists, writers and other culturally minded people. After his death in 1780, several hundred of his letters were collected by his friend Frances Crew and published, with, she said, ‘the desire of shewing that an untutored African may possess abilities equal to an European; and the still superior motive, of wishing to serve his worthy family’. Sancho’s sophisticated and entertaining letters covered topics from the arts to politics, from family life to street life, and became popular reading in the late 18th century, going through five editions by 1805.
Portrait of Ignatius Sancho by Thomas Gainsborough, 1768
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
Ignatius Sancho, 1768
Huile sur toile, 73.7 x 62.2 cm, Musée des beaux-arts du Canada, Ottawa. Photo: © MBAC
Publications arguing against the slave trade
In 1787, a group of men, mostly Quakers, founded the Committee for Effecting the Abolition of the African Slave Trade. This quickly became a powerful political force, and it inspired hundreds of publications arguing against the slave trade. One of these, published that same year, was Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Commerce of the Human Species by Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, a former slave who had been kidnapped from his native Ghana and taken to the plantations in Grenada before being brought to England, where he obtained his freedom. Thoughts and Sentiments was a powerful indictment of the Atlantic slave trade, but it was probably not widely read at the time.
The Life of Olaudah Equiano, second edition
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or, Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789): Equiano’s autobiography was published to coincide with the parliamentary debate on the slave trade.
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Two years later, Cugoano’s friend Olaudah Equiano published his important Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or, Gustavus Vassa, the African. This was a substantial work, in which the author told his life story in detail, starting with his upbringing in West Africa, his experience of being kidnapped and sold into slavery and his transportation to the Caribbean in the infamous ‘middle passage’ across the Atlantic. The book was published to coincide with the May 1789 parliamentary debate on the slave trade, and was clearly written to influence politicians and the public. But Equiano did not just write about his experience of the slave trade. He went on to describe a life full of fascinating incidents and adventures, including his experience in battle with the Royal Navy, the way in which he bought his own freedom and his part in an expedition to the Arctic. Equiano’s Interesting Narrative is still one of the most widely read slave narratives, enjoyed as much for its lively style and its vivid portrayal of 18th-century life at sea as for its testimony about a life breaking free from slavery.
The History of Mary Prince
This is the autobiography of Mary Prince, published in 1831, a book that laid bare the brutalities of the slave system.
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In 1807, the British government at last abolished the slave trade, but it was another quarter of a century before slavery itself was abolished throughout the British Empire. As part of the debate prior to emancipation, the Scottish abolitionist Thomas Pringle arranged publication of the life story of an enslaved woman from Antigua called Mary Prince. Unlike the earlier authors, Prince could not read or write herself, so her story was written down by Susanna Strickland and edited by Pringle. We shall never know how much of the book reflects Prince’s own voice and experience, and how much was changed by Strickland and Pringle, but the story of her early years in Bermuda and Grand Turk, the cruelty of her masters, and, especially, the harrowing accounts of working in salt pans where the environment was literally corrosive, were important in rousing public opinion against slavery. Parliament voted to abolish slavery in 1833, and this came into force in 1838.
Between them, Britton, Wheatley, Sancho, Cugoano, Equiano and Prince were powerful voices in the campaigns to abolish slavery and the slave trade. Their personal testimony was vital in communicating the harsh reality of colonial slavery to a British audience far from the plantations and slave ships. Although they were forgotten for over a century, their works are now once again available in print and on the Internet, inspiring a new generation of readers with the knowledge that freedom and human dignity will always win out over slavery and oppression.
 The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, An African, ed. by Frances Crew (London: J Nichols, 1782), preface to the first edition.
Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the 18th Century, ed. by Vincent Carretta, 2nd edn (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2004).
Kathleen Chater, Untold Histories: Black People in England and Wales During the Period of the British Slave Trade, c. 1660–1807 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009).
Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (1984), new edn with an introduction by Paul Gilroy (London: Pluto Press, 2010).
C L Innes, A History of Black and Asian Writing in Britain, 1700–2000, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).