Voices in the campaign for abolition
Early publicationsOne 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.
Ignatius SanchoIn 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.
Publications arguing against the slave tradeIn 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.View images from this item (19)
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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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 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).
The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.