Ottobah Cugoano also known as Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, was an ex enslaved person who became free.
He was captured at the age of 13 in what is now Ghana, transported to Grenada, then ended up being taken to London in 1772, still just only 15. He ended up working for Richard and Maria Cosway as a servant in Schomberg House on Pall Mall, the Cosways were famous and well connected. We do not know exactly how Ottobah gained his freedom but he came to England in the year the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield made a ruling that no enslaved person who came to England could be sent back (the Somerset case).
He wrote a book about the horrors of enslavement called ‘Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, humbly submitted to The Inhabitants of Great Britain by Ottobah Cugoano, A Native of Africa’. As Ottobah stated in his book ‘I was early snatched away from my native country, with about 18 or 20 more boys and girls, as we were playing in a field’. In the frontispiece Schomberg House is mentioned as a place where the book could be obtained, suggesting the Cosways were supportive, he also wrote to newspapers as well as prominent individuals condemning the slave trade.
Ottobah was also involved in ‘The Sons of Africa’ along with people like Olaudah Equiano – see previous article, campaigning for the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
He attended St. James’s Piccadilly (designed by Sir Christopher Wren) close to Schomberg House where he had been baptised in August 1753. When he was baptised, he was given the name of John Stuart, his ethnicity was also recorded unlike that of white people, however he used his African name for the book.
It is likely that he was in the congregation with people who had a vested interest in the slave trade; some members however helped to fund the book including Joshua Reynolds, a founder member of the Royal Academy. Henry Jermyn gave £7000 to build the church in 1676; it is possible some of this may have come from investments in slave trade.
The 250th anniversary of the baptism of Quobna Ottabah Cuguano was commemorated in August 2023 at St. James’s church, very much an active church today. A plaque was unveiled by the Reverend Lucy Winkett, the Rector of St. James’s and the Bishop of Croydon Dr.Rosemarie Mallet (who also mentioned Ottobah Cuguano in a sermon she delivered at St.Paul’s cathedral in early September 2023). You can also see in the church foyer, a series of 4 artworks, painted by the Trinidadian artist Che Lovelace. These were commissioned by St James’s to mark the 250th anniversary.
A blue plaque was unveiled in November 2020, Cuguano becomes the earliest black man to have a blue plaque. Interestingly there are two blue plaques on Schomberg House, one for Ottobah Cuguano and one for Thomas Gainsborough who also lived there. There are now 1000 blue plaques in London, only 18 properties have more than one! Just 4% feature people from ethnic minorities.
City of Westminster guide.
All photos – Phil Scott