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.
Some Black servants were educated by their
masters - such as Dr Johnson's servant and
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.
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.
Writes to a Friend (154KB)
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.
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.
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.
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 to her writing,
her own curiosity led her to it'
'On being brought from
Africa to America'
(poem by Phillis Wheatley)
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.
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,
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