Crossings: African writers in the era of the transatlantic slave trade
- Article written by: Dr Marion Wallace
- Published: 12 Oct 2015
The transatlantic slave trade
Letter by Ayuba Suleiman Diallo
Diallo wrote this letter, in Arabic, probably while enslaved in Maryland after his capture on the coast of Senegal in 1731.View images from this item (1)
The Life of Olaudah Equiano, first edition
In his autobiography, Olaudah Equiano tells of his early life in Africa, his enslavement and how he gained his freedom.View images from this item (1)
Equiano eventually settled in England, where he became the leading campaigning figure among the Black population, which numbered several thousand. It was Equiano who brought the news of the Zong atrocity to the abolition campaigner Granville Sharp. The Zong was a slave ship from which, in 1781, 131 Africans were thrown into the sea and drowned in order to save water supplies for the crew and healthier captives on board.
Thoughts and sentiments on the evil and wicked traffic
This is the first British publication in which an African writer argues for an end to the slave trade and enslavement.View images from this item (1)
Equiano’s friend Ottobah Cugoano (c. 1757– after 1791) was the most outspoken of the 18th-century writers of African heritage. In his 1787 book he condemned ‘... that infamous and iniquitous traffic of stealing, kid-napping, buying, selling, and cruelly enslaving men!’ ‘No man can’, he declared, ‘with impunity, steal, kidnap, buy or sell another man without being guilty of the most atrocious villainy’.
Phillis Wheatley’s Poems
Phillis Wheatley was a literary prodigy who published this poetry collection aged about 19.View images from this item (11)
Another African author to publish in London was the prodigy Phillis Wheatley, who in 1773, at the age of about 19, brought out her collection of Romantic poetry. Wheatley, born in Africa and enslaved in Boston, Massachusetts, was helped by her ‘owners’ to pursue her vocation as a poet and allowed to travel to London.
Although her work is not explicitly political, it does contain telling comments and coded references. One of her poems, for example, celebrates Africa in a way very unusual for the time: ‘… And pleasing Gambia on my soul returns,/ With native grace in spring’s luxuriant reign,/ Smiles the gay mead, and Eden blooms again …’.
Wheatley returned to Boston to care for her ailing mistress, but it is likely that she only did so in exchange for a promise of emancipation, since she obtained her freedom shortly thereafter.
Ignatius Sancho (c. 1729–80), born on a slave ship and enslaved in London as a very young child, is another figure of some literary standing. A writer, composer, actor, art patron, family man and eventually the owner of an independent grocery business, Sancho was deeply involved in the cultural circles of his time, and his letters – then a popular literary form – were published shortly after his death.
Sancho is often seen as a conservative figure, but he was opposed to the slave trade, which he called ‘the unchristian and most diabolical usage of my brother Negroes’. Among his many correspondents he numbered Laurence Sterne, the author of Tristram Shandy, whom he asked to ‘give half an hours attention to slavery’. Sterne replied that he had already addressed the subject with a story he described as the ‘tender tale of the sorrows of a friendless poor negro-girl’. This appears in volume 9 of Tristram Shandy.
Abolition and emancipation
By the early 19th century, the struggle to abolish the slave trade was succeeding. Denmark ended its transatlantic slave trade in 1803, Britain in 1807 and France in 1818. At the same time, efforts to resettle those freed from enslavement had resulted in the foundation of several colonies in West Africa. These included Sierra Leone and Liberia.
The colony of Sierra Leone
The colony of Sierra Leone was founded in 1787 to provide a home to Africans freed from enslavement.View images from this item (1)
The slave system itself was maintained for a longer period, despite the frequent rebellions of enslaved populations and the surging political campaign for emancipation. In Haiti, Toussaint L’Ouverture led a successful uprising, becoming the first governor of the independent island in 1801.
In Britain, written accounts by those who had experienced enslavement at first hand continued to play a crucial part in raising public awareness. A rare autobiography dictated by a woman, Mary Prince (1788–1833), was published in London in 1831, stripping bare the the slave system in all its brutal detail.
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.
In British colonies, resistance came to fruition when, on 1 August 1838, enslaved people won their freedom. This day saw the end of a period of ‘apprenticeship’, which had effectively prolonged the system of enslavement even after it was made illegal in 1834.
The illustration below is dated 1834, but in fact it probably shows the celebrations outside Government House in Jamaica in 1838. It is published in a book by James Phillippo, a Baptist missionary, who recorded that the island was in ‘a state of joyous excitement’, people waving banners declaring ‘We are free!’.
Jamaica: its past and present state
The author of this book, James Mursell Phillippo, was a Baptist missionary in Jamaica who strongly opposed enslavement.View images from this item (1)
Emancipation was a huge victory, but not an unambiguous one. In British colonies, slave-owners, not the enslaved, received financial compensation. For most, emancipation spelled the beginning of further struggles against poverty and exploitation.