When we think of 18th century writers of African descent who lived and worked in Europe, Olaudah Equiano comes to mind. Well, there were others. This anonymous piece I found while rummaging through the digital collection of Black Orpheus at my school’s library mentions a few other names.
In case you were wondering, Black Orpheus is an Ibadan-based literary journal founded in 1957. In the early 60s, Wole Soyinka came on board as co-editor. It’s long defunct, but, in its heyday, it published some the leading writing from Africa and the Caribbean and featured writer such as Achebe, Tutuola, Cesaire, Amiri Baraka (then Leroy Jones), and so on.
Africans were not unusual in eighteenth century England; indeed there were so many of them who had come up via the West Indies, that they were given the name of “St. Giles Black Birds”, since they congregated around St. Giles Circus. Most of them were employed in the households of prominent people and were simply chattels; three managed to become more than this and wrote and published during their lifetime.
Little, in his Negro in Britain, quotes a letter that the Duchess of Devonshire sent to her mother in which she referred to her servant as “a cheap servant” whom she “will make a Christian and a good boy.” This attitude, partly a mixture of ideological paternalism and domestic necessity, was the basic actuality of what was called humanitarianism:
In turning to the eighteenth century we discover that one of the broader aspects of the thought of this period was that of humanitarianism. In a sense it was merely one of the aspects of the romanticism of the period; and its over-all aim was to make the best of all possible worlds in which to live.
This accounts in large measure for the concept of the century–they could see the African as partly savage and partly noble. The Africans who wrote also saw themselves in just this same way.
Among the better known servants who lived during this period were Soubise and Francis Barber. Soubise was apparently something of a fop. Henry Angelo wrote of him.
Fancying he was admired by the ladies, he boasted much of his amours and his epistolary correspondence.
It was the intention of Soubise’s employer to send him to University but he apparently proved to be too superior and they changed their minds. Soubise then went to teach fencing in India and he died there. Francis Barber, on the other hand, was Dr Johnson’s servant. He came to England in 1750.
Johnson sent him to school and taught him Latin, and in a letter dated 25th September, 1770 he wrote to Francis Barber:
I am very well satisfied with your progress, if you can really perform the exercises which you are set… Let me know what English books you read for your entertainment. You can never be wise unless you love reading. [note]
The more liberal at the time would have liked to believe that the African, if given the chance, would be able to become a cultured man. There were a few who believed that he was even capable of writing; some, however, doubted this, and around Francis Williams, an African who had been educated at Cambridge and who had returned to Jamaica, this argument raged. Hume thought:
In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one negro as a man of parts and learning but ’tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments.
Edward Long, on the other hand, conceded that he did write and “was fond of a species of composition in Latin” [note] but added this warning about an example of his verse that Long quoted:
To consider the merits of this specimen impartially we must endeavor to forget in the first place that the writer was a Negro; for if we regard it as an extraordinary production, merely because it came from a Negro, we admit at once the inequality of genius which has been before supposed and admire it only as a rare phenomenon.
It is against this background that the literary contributions of Ignatius Sancho, Ottobah Cogoano and Culadah Equiano can best be understood.
They were all West Africans who had been enslaved and who had only managed to get to England as servants. That they survived is a testament to their fortitude. That they could write at all proves considerable ability.
Sancho was the first to be published. His Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African was published in 1782, two years after he died. In the Introduction we are told something of Sancho’s biography. He was born in 1729 on a slave ship; his mother died soon after and his father committed suicide. He was baptised at Cartagenia and given the name Ignatius, Sancho being added afterwards. At the age of two he came from the West Indies to England and was given to two sisters. The Duke of Montagu liked him and used to give him books; when he died, Sancho became a butler in the Duchess’s household until her death. After this, we are told, he lived a wild life; then he returned to Montague House but illness forced him to retire in 1773. By then he had married and he started a small grocery store in Westminster. After his death one of his six children carried on the business and, indeed, edited the fifth edition of his letters in 1803.
He was well known in polite and literary circles. He was an acquaintance of Garrick’s as we can tell from his correspondence, and wrote to, and admired Sterne. From his letters one can glimpse the personal nature of the man–his sense of humour, his love for his family, his concern with the predicament of his fellow Africans. One sees also something of his raw love of life and his conceit.
Slavery is only one of the concerns in his letters; in a letter to Sterne he thanked him for condemning slavery in one of his sermons and thought “that subject handled in your striking manner would ease the yoke (perhaps) of many.”
In another letter to a friend he condemns the “most diabolical usage of my brother Negroes.” But he did not sentimentalize his African past, as some of his contemporaries did. He wrote about the “horrid cruelty and treachery of the petty kings–encouraged by their Christian customers.” [note] He could frequently write in a detached way about another African and an acquaintance! so, in a letters, he warns a friend in India about Soubise’s coming:
If he should chance to fall in your way, do not fail to give the rattle-pate what wholesome advice you can; but remember, I do strictly caution you against lending him money upon any account, for he has everything but–principle.
Occasionally, as in a letter to Soubise, he becomes sanctimonious, and sometimes one wonders if he did not completely forget that he was an African. He recommends a Mr. B as:
a merry, chirping, white tooth’d…and light little fellow with a woolley pate–and face as dark as your humble…..I like the rogue’s looks or a similarity of colour should not have induced me to recommend him.
Sancho showed himself interested in the political matters of his day. He did not like the American war and wrote frequently to the press about it. Under the name of “Africanus” he wrote to the General Advertiser outlining at times various improbable schemes. He was obviously well-known and was caricatured in the anonymous Memoir and Opinions of Mr. Blenfield (1790). Little adds that Sancho wrote verse and music and that some of his poetry was published in 1803. He also mentions that Sancho wrote two stage pieces for the theatre.
Less the artist but the greater documentarian was Ottobah Cugoano whose Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species was published in 1787. His book is partly biographical and partly propagandistic. It tells the story of how he was captured and sold into slavery. He was taken to England from the West Indies; there he applied himself “to learn reading and writing, which soon became my recreation, pleasure and delight.”
His later description of the rigours of his capture and the middle passage is suspect, if only because he admits that he was only two when it happened, and one wonders to what extent he was dependent on another source for his information:
I saw many of my miserable countrymen chained two and two, some handcuffed, and some with their hands tied behind.
His injunctions frequently have the heavy sententiousness of biblical exhortations, as for instance when he is denouncing the slave-trade:
It is surely to the great shame and scandal of Christianity among all the Heathen nations that those robbers, plunderers, destroyers and enslavers of men should call themselves Christiana, and exercise their power under any Christian government and authority. I would have my countrymen understand that the destroyers and enslavers of men can be no Christians; for Christianity is the system of benignity and love, and all its votaries are devoted to honesty, justice, meekness, peace and goodness to all men.
This method of writing frequently causes him to attitudinise and in his description of his misery at being captured he combines a personal predicament and an externalised woe:
All my help was cries and tears and these could not avail; nor suffered long till one succeeding woe and dread swelled up another. Brought from a state of innocence and freedom, and in a barbarous and cruel manner, conveyed to a state of horror and slavery. This abandoned situation may be easier conceived than described.
Like Sancho he too makes the point about the chiefs being bad:
Though the common people are free, they often suffer by the villainy of their different chieftains and by the wars and feuds which happen among them.
But, unlike Sancho, his desire to strike attitudes often makes him seem anti-European. He advances this theory about the origins of the English:
Many of the Canaanites who fled away in the time of Joshua, became mingled with the different nations, and some historians think some of them came to England as far back as that time.
But occasionally he can achieve something of the private warmth of Sancho, as in his discription of his capture while out hunting birds and the confusion that followed. The language here white still having a biblical ring about it, nevertheless expresses bewilderment:
Next morning there came three other men, whose language differed from ours, and spoke to some of those who watched us all the night, but he that pretended to be our friend with the great man, and some others, were gone away.
Indeed the whole style of the book varies so much between the “experienced accounts” of the author and his exhortations against the slave trade, that one is tempted to suggest that the simpler, more actualistic accounts are probably his and the long diatribes against slavery the work of probably some well-intentioned hack, or if his own, heavily dependent on some secondary material. Indeed Cugoano does mention Ramsay’s “An Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of the African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies”, Clarkson’s “Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species” and an Historical Account of Guinea. In addition he makes frequent references to and quotations from the Bible and much of his imagery owes its origin to the Bible. In fact he admits that his account is partly experiential and partly derivative:
What I intended to advance against the evil, criminal and wicked traffic of enslaving men are only some thoughts and sentiments which occur to me, as being obvious from the scriptures of divine truth, or such arguments as are chiefly deduced from thence, with other such observations as I have been able to collect. [note]
Equiano on the other hand draws more on his own recollected experiences. This was in itself an achievement, for most of the anti-slavery, as well as the pro-slavery propaganda of the time was written by Englishmen, and this is also true of the expression of the anti-slavery campaign in imaginative literature. Day’s “Dying Negro” is a good example here; the dying Negro makes a long impassioned speech in which he says:
And thou, whose impious avarice and pride
Thy God’s blest symbol to my brows deny’d,
Forbade me of the rights of man to claim
Or share with thee a Christian’s hallowed name,
Thou, too, farewell!–for not beyond the grave,
Thy power extends, nor is my dust thy slave.
As we have seen with Cugoano, sentimentalising of the African predicament was all in order; it was the greater craftsman who sought to get away from this, even though it might make him into an unpopular writer.
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Ouladah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa was published in 1789. It was a very popular book and by 1794 had had eight English editions and one American. Equiano was forty-four when the book was published and was obviously caught up in the romanticising of the African; he even quotes from Day’s “Dying Negro”. Equiano traced his life back to the days of his childhood. He was not sold into slavery until he was twelve, after which he was taken to the West Indies and later became a servant in London. Like Cugoano he too refused to eat for several days after his capture and narrowly missed death in the Bahamas. At one time he was stranded
in the Arctic circle during an expedition to seek a North East passage to India. In 1787 he was appointed a “Commissary of provisions and Stores for the Black Poor going to Sierra Leone”–a testimony to his worth as a citizen.
He shows a more universal human compassion than either Sancho or Cugoano. During the voyage of the middle passage he describes how a white sailor:
was flogged so unmercifully with a large rope near the foremast, that he died in consequence of it; and they tossed him over the side as they would have done a brute. [note]
He is not free from idealizing his African past, and emancipationist though he was, he could still write that West Indian planters preferred the Ibos as they were full of “hardiness, intelligence, integrity and zeal”. [note] But like both of the others he criticizes the Africans who sold their tribesmen into slavery and exchanged “the price of their fellow creature’s liberty with as little reluctance as the enlightened merchant”. But he is without the censorious self-righteousness of Cugoano and writes respectfully of indigenous African religious rites, even though he was a Christian. He can write with a touching and humane tenderness, as for instance when he relates the story of how he was lost in the forest when trying to escape from his enslavers:
I heard frequent rustlings among the leaves and being pretty sure they were snakes, I expected every instant to be stung by them.–This increased my anguish, and the horror of the situation became now quite unsupportable. I at length quitted the thicket, very faint and hungry, for I had not eaten or drunk anything all the day; and crept to my master’s kitchen, from whence I set out at first, and laid myself down in the ashes with an unconscious wish for death to relieve me from all my pains.
Frequently he can write with an irritating sense of patronage, as when he describes the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight as “very civil”, but he was obviously a man who, in spite of his education away from his own culture, still managed to maintain a fierce energetic pride in his race:
Let the polished and haughty European recollect that his ancestors were once, like the Africans, uncivilised, and even barbarous.
In his account he writes with ease and dignity. His religion never obtrudes, although he must have been very Christian, for he even wanted to become an ordained minister of the Church of England and to go to Africa as a missionary. (He tells us however that the Bishop of London refused “from certain scruples of delicacy”).
Perhaps it was this essential humanity that endeared him to John Wesley, and Bready gives the account of how on his death bed Wesley asked two friends to read aloud to him from Equiano’s book. What frequently makes the style so easy is the sense of humor, absent in Cugoano and less bose in Sancho. For instance he laughs at his own unsophisticated gullibility when he first sees a watch in his master’s house in Virginia:
I was quite surprised at the noise it made and was afraid it would tell the gentleman anything I might do amiss.
On the ship when he first sees white people he speaks to his companions:
I asked them if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces and long hair. They told me I was not.
This is a sophisticated way of telling the traveller’s tales of cannibal orgies from a different point of view, and one feels that he was sufficiently integrated into English society to be able to take an occasional swipe at it. The Gentleman’s Magazine of April 1792 reported his marriage:
at Soham, co. Cambridge, Gustavus Vassa, the African, well known in England as the champion and advocate for procuring the suppression of the slave trade, to Miss Cullen, daughter of Mr. C of Ely, in same country.
By education, adoption and marriage he was of England, so when he writes, tongue in cheek, that by fourteen or fifteen he had seen so much terror that he “was in that respect at least, almost an Englishman,”he is stating more than half the truth.
All three of these writers were to a great extent absorbed in eighteenth century English society. This, paradoxically, helped to make them more completely themselves, for it was a century that was concerned with the great humanitarian fervor for emancipation.
But because their society encouraged them to extend themselves in this public way—to proclaim their most private tensions—one must ask just how genuine their responses were to the matters, which, though very close to them, nevertheless required certain kinds of stock responses.
One must therefore be wary of ascribing too much to them as individuals; they had to react in a certain way to these issues and this tended to mould their thought and to colour their language. Any knowing hack could have attempted to imitate them or indeed to re-cast or simply write whole passages. Consequently the edition of Sancho’s letters two years after his death, the long antislavery diatribes in Cugoano, and some of the more splendiferous effusions of Equiano and Cugoano, where they seem to have grown completely outside their skins, make one doubt their authorship at times, and at other times feel that perhaps they had attained an alarming degree of liberal emancipation.
But their heavy adherence to be Bible, their weighty sermonizing, and their care with the language, give us no reason to doubt that their writing was to a large extent genuine. They were expressing the thought and attitudes of liberal Englishmen which they had fully adopted.
Consequently they managed to create an interesting ancestor to the Kunstlerroman: not only giving an embryo life of the artist, but also exploring the significance of their own development within a foreign culture. In a very special way, they were privileged insiders who shared all of the licence but none of the prejudices of outsiders; this is why their work is a valid commentary on the entire cycle of eighteenth-century enquiry and resolution.
Originally published in Black Orpheus, no. 18 (October 1965) (Ibadan, Nigeria: Longmans of Nigeria, 1965). pp. 51-57