London’s Black history is inextricably bound up with slavery. There are stories of displacement and cruelty, of people bought and sold as chattels, denied their past and any kind of future.
A further injustice is that, though there had been Black Africans in London since the Middle Ages (and in 1772 judge Lord Mansfield estimated there were 14,000 slaves in England in addition to free Black men and women), these powerful stories were effectively written out of English history.
Yet despite enormous barriers, a number of Black writers were active, writing down their horrific experiences – and their ambitions for a better future for their people – in the 1700s. A new publication, Power Writers*, uncovers and celebrates five African writers who came to London in the 18th century. Their work – and the journeys they took to deliver it – make extraordinary reading.
Ukawsaw Gronniosaw was born a prince in the city of Bournu, near Lake Chad, probably in 1710. An unhappy childhood in a family who decided Gronniosaw was insane, ended when he left to travel with a Gold Coast merchant. Suspected of being a spy, the boy escaped being beheaded by the furious king – instead he found himself sold into slavery.
His journeys took him to Holland, where he learned to read, embraced Christianity and educated himself with evangelical tracts such as John Bunyan’s The Holy War. Fetching up in London he took the name James Albert and settled in Petticoat Lane. His travels around England saw him meeting Benjamin Fawcett, a dissenting minister, and through him the Countess of Huntingdon. It was his new friends who were to publish A narrative of the most remarkable particulars in the life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniaw, an African prince, as related by himself in 1772. It was the first of the Slave Narratives, and opened the floodgates; over the next decades there would be hundreds more.
John Marrant’s experience was very different. An African, born free in New York in 1755, he was a gifted musician, master of the violin and French horn. But his life was changed forever when he attended a Methodist service, given by the celebrated preacher George Whitefield. A sceptic, who had gone along to disrupt the service, John was instead converted on the spot. He set to travelling around the US, preaching and converting Native Americans to Christianity.
Though born free, John was to lose his liberty in dramatic fashion. Press-ganged into the Royal Navy during the American War of Independence, he served his time and was eventually discharged in London. The Countess of Huntingdon once more lent a hand, arranging for the publication of A narrative of the Lord’s wonderful dealings with John Marrant…’. Marrant then settled in his new city, at 69 Mile End Road.
Increasingly, the narratives were allied to the abolitionist cause. Olaudah Equiano had been a child in what is now Nigeria, then a slave in America and the West Indies before becoming a free man in London. His narrative, first published in 1789, told an extraordinary story of achievement against enormous odds. After working on a Barbados plantation, he spent his teenage years in the Royal Navy, becoming a skilled seaman. He survived a shipwreck; taught himself to read, write and do accounts; saved £40 to purchase his freedom; settled in London working as a hairdresser; and became involved in the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor in London, based in Whitechapel.
But it was the narrative that was fuel to the abolitionists. It included the damning query ‘O, ye nominal Christians. Might not an African ask you, learned you this from God … Why are parents to lose their children’ a cruelty that ‘adds fresh horrors even to the wretchedness of slavery’.
Power Writers also looks at the work of Phillis Wheatley. Kidnapped from Senegal at seven, she was sold into a Boston family. At a time when many white Americans doubted the ability of Black people to learn to read and write, Wheatley became one of the most celebrated poets of her day.
And there is Ottobah Cugoano. Born in what is now Ghana, taken to Grenada and then England as a slave, he won his liberty and published one of the first overtly abolitionist tracts by an African in English.
Extraordinary and inspiring stories, and there are many hundreds more. They could change the way you view the history of our city.
*Power Writers is published by Tower Hamlets African Caribbean Mental Health Organisation, £4 from local libraries and Bow Idea Store, ISBN 1871593506