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Literature


Black Writers

Around the middle of the 18th century, a number of Africans in Britain began writing books and corresponding with leading people in society. They were writing at a time when literacy was growing: many working people were encouraged to learn to read and write by an increase in newspapers and lending libraries. Most people, however, still read only the Bible. Men were usually better educated than women; and literacy was generally greater in urban areas (especially London) than in rural areas.

Portrait of 'Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African'  - opens new window
Olaudah Equiano
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Some Black servants were educated by their masters - such as Dr Johnson's servant and valet, Francis Barber, who attended a grammar school in Bishop's Stortford. Sometimes Black people learned English from their shipmates during long sea voyages. It is therefore not surprising to find a number of literate African and Asian people writing their memoirs in 18th-century Britain.

Having learned English, Africans and Asians were able to compile testimonies of their experiences in captivity and freedom. These impassioned protests were an essential tool for the abolition movement.

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Olaudah Equiano

Glossary - opens new windowEquiano, a former slave captured in Africa and put to work in the West Indies, published his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself, in 1789. It provides an insight into the Africa he knew as a boy: memories of loved ones left behind, their lifestyle, customs, music and culture. In his book, he narrates the story of his kidnap and enslavement and describes encounters in the West Indies with his fellow Igbo countryfolk. After its publication, Equiano travelled around Britain promoting his book and speaking out against the slave trade.

Letter from Gustavus Vassa, including Church of Scotland petition, bookselling and lost brooch/buckle - opens new window
Gustavus Vassa
Writes to a Friend (154KB)
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Ottobah Cugoano

Cugoano was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1770, at the age of 13. He worked in chain-gangs on a Grenada plantation. A few months after Lord Mansfield handed down his judgement in the Somerset case, Cugoano arrived in England, where he began writing letters to newspapers calling for the end of slavery. His book Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species was published in 1787, perhaps with help of Equiano.

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Ignatius Sancho

Another published African writer was Ignatius Sancho, who knew nothing of Africa, as he was born on the ship carrying his enslaved mother to the Americas. Sancho was sold to three London sisters who ill-treated him, but he soon found a patron in the kindly Duke of Montagu, who encouraged his educational development by lending him books. Sancho's writing reflects his confidence as a member of the society in which he circulated. He wrote at length about the commercial greed that maintained the evil of the slave trade, and deplored the involvement of Christian traders. Ignatius Sancho died in 1780, at the age of 50, leaving a wife and six children. His letters were published posthumously in 1782.

Portrait of Ignatius Sancho by F. Bartolozzi (after Gainsborough), 1781 - opens new window
Ignatius Sancho
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Asian Writers

Asian scholars published works about their experiences and perceptions of Britain, too. Early cultural encounters between Indians and the British were described in a number of books translated into English, which recount how the British were curious about skin colour and what they saw as ornate costumes.

Mirza Itesa Modeen praised Georgian London with its 'houses and parks of great beauty…inhabited by people of large fortune'. Ardaseer Cursetjee, a marine engineer, wrote The Diary of an Overland Journey from Bombay to England, published in London in 1840. The Journal of a Residence of Two Years and a Half in Great Britain, by two Asian shipbuilders, published in 1841, was aimed at offering guidance and advice to others intending to travel to Britain.


Black Women Writers

Very few examples of Black women's writing were published in Britain before 1850. Two exceptions were the poems of Phillis Wheatley and the slave narrative of Mary Prince.

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Phillis Wheatley

In 1761, when she was only seven or eight years old, Phillis Wheatley was brought to America from her birthplace in West Africa and sold into slavery. Her book, Poems on Various Subjects: Religious and Moral, was a first for Black women anywhere. When Wheatley visited Britain in 1773, her book was about to be published and the publicity campaign for it was in full flow. During her visit, she met a number of prominent figures, including the Earl of Dartmouth (Secretary of State for the North American colonies) and Granville Sharpe (the abolitionist). However, she did not meet her patron, the Countess of Huntingdon, to whom she had dedicated her book. Later that year, shortly after returning to America, Wheatley was freed; but after gaining her freedom, she continued to work for the same family.

Wheatley's poems are concerned with religious, moral and otherwise 'uplifting' subjects - but rarely refer to her life story, let alone slavery. Her poetry was quoted in contemporary publications, such as The Diary in 1789, and received acclaim from Thomas Clarkson (one of the leading figures of the British anti-slavery movement) and the British governor Thomas Hutchinson. Not all her contemporaries, however, held her in such high esteem. Thomas Jefferson, a former American president, who considered Blacks inferior to Whites, said of Wheatley that 'religion….produced a Phillis Wheatley but it could not produce a poet'. This statement, according to the historian Nancy Stepan, 'was intended to condemn the African's pretensions to the same mental capacity as Europeans'.

 

Letter from Phillis Wheatley's master - opens new window
'As to her writing,
her own curiosity led her to it'
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 Poem by Phillis Wheatley - opens new window
'On being brought from
Africa to America'
(poem by Phillis Wheatley)
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Mary Prince

If Phillis Wheatley avoided writing about enslavement, Mary Prince told her life story (published in 1831), including many experiences as a slave, to members of the Anti-Slavery Society in Britain. Her purpose was to convey to the 'good people of England what a slave suffered'. In her case she had endured severe floggings, that left her flesh 'deeply lacerated with gashes, deformed with boils from standing for many hours in salt ponds'.

Like Olaudah Equiano, as a slave-trade survivor and witness, Mary Prince, placed her personal experience at the heart of her writing. The voices of Black people in early modern England are rare, but through their publications these former slaves speak to us. We are given an opportunity to learn at first hand something of the cruelty of enslavement and, in some cases, to glimpse Africa through the eyes of children.

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References and Further Reading

Cugoano, O. (ed. Carretta, V.), Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery, London, 1999

Edwards, P. and Dabydeen, D., Black Writers in Britain 1760-1890: An Anthology, Edinburgh, 1991

Edwards, P. and Rewt, P., The Letters of Ignatius Sancho, Edinburgh, 1994

Reyahn King et al., Ignatius Sancho, an African Man of Letters, National Portrait Gallery, 1997

Shyllon, F., Black People in Britain 1555-1833, London, New York and Ibadan, 1977

Walvin, J., An African's Life: The Life and Times of Olaudah Equiano 1745-1797, London and New York, 1998


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