In the 1770s, a talented black man – born a slave, mid-Atlantic, on a ship – whose friends included the artist Thomas Gainsborough, the writer Samuel Johnson, and the Duke and Duchess of Montagu, set up a gro- cery store on King Charles Street. Ignatius Sancho’s impressive address book didn’t shield him from the worst that fellow Londoners had to offer. They frequently vented ‘their prejudices against his ebon complexion, his African features, and his corpulent person’. But his talents did enrich his ability to defend himself. In one incident, a pair of passers-by, identifiable by their attire as ‘a young Fashionable and his friend’, said loudly, and rudely, as they encountered Sancho, ‘Smoke Othello!’ In response, a friend recalled, Sancho blocked the young Fashionables’ path and ‘exclaimed with a thundering voice, and a countenance which awed the delinquent, “Aye, Sir, such Othellos you meet with but once in a century,” clapping his hand upon his goodly round paunch. “Such Iagos as you, we meet in every dirty passage. Proceed, Sir!” ’
Sancho’s grocery opened with a push of a wicket door, and a little tinkling bell – a scene still familiar in so many independent and quirky retailers today. A customer walking in would have found a black couple – Sancho and his wife Anne, who came from the Caribbean – sitting in the corner, with some of their six children, Sancho writing or stocktaking perhaps, while Anne would chop sugar. As a grocer, Sancho relied on products from the West Indies like sugar and rum, which has led some to discount his role as an abolitionist. But here was the first African writer whose prose was published in English, and who used his influential letters to assert a black British identity in writing. Like so many people with dual identities – Sancho was after all born to an enslaved African mother – Sancho commanded his mixed heritage expertly, to strategically position himself in an argument. When, in his letters, he needed to criticise African complicity in the slave trade, Sancho was not ‘an African’ but British, or ‘a resident’ of Britain. But when he wanted to insert himself in the thorny question of the American war of independence, he was anything but. Then he became an outside observer, deploying the signature ‘Africanus’, to distance himself from a British identity and sidestep accusations of partisanship. Confronted with a racist Londoner in an alley, he was ‘an Othello’ – the embodiment in the white imagination of a black man. To have mixed African, Caribbean and British heritage in eighteenth- century Britain was to be in a precarious predicament – but that didn’t mean it was without its opportunities, for a man sufficiently intellec- tually skilled to use it to his advantage.
Sancho would surely have known his own black contemporaries, some of whom would have been just as conspicuous for their high- profile political campaigning. One was Olaudah Equiano, who was baptised in St Margaret’s Church, just in front of Westminster Abbey, only two months after the Sanchos got married there. Equiano, author of An Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, the African, published in 1789, was perhaps the best- known black abolitionist of his time. An Interesting Narrative is now acknowledged – its original fame having been almost completely forgotten for more than a century – as ‘the most important single liter- ary contribution to the campaign for abolition’. It details his remarkable life story, born in what is now Nigeria, kidnapped aged eleven, enslaved in Virginia, taken to England while still a child, transported back across the Atlantic to the Caribbean where he was finally able to save enough money to purchase his freedom, before travelling around the world – narrowly avoiding re-enslavement – and finding his calling in the abolition movement gaining momentum in London.
Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano, another former slave originally from Ghana, together founded the world’s first pan-African organisa- tion, Sons of Africa, in 1787. Sons of Africa was dedicated to securing an end to the slave trade; but unlike other abolitionists, for these men it was not a pastime, but a calling inspired by their own survival instincts. It was ‘pan-African’ because, as one scholar puts it, ‘they organised alongside other Africans, irrespective of their region or country of origin, to solve a common problem. They realised that theirs were shared destinies, their fates bound together, and that by joining forces they were more likely to change the fate of other Africans.’
When its first letter was published in the Diary newspaper in 1789, Sons of Africa had nine members – all former slaves evolving their own black British identities. They reviewed racist pamphlets by members of the plantocracy, like James Tobin in Nevis, who exploited a fear that lurked in the imaginations of the British – a technique that still feels familiar today – that a flood of black immigrants could find its way to Britain if slavery were abolished. Slavery was all that stood between England as they knew it, Tobin argued, and ‘the rapid increase of a dark and contaminated breed’. If Africans were so toxic, Equiano wanted to know, how come British planters and their overseers were so keen on raping and impregnating female slaves? The Sons of Africa disrupted the pro-slavery narrative and countered plantocracy propa- ganda at every available opportunity. Despite their transformative role in ending the slave trade, and all the symbolic and practical power of this black community asserting its collective media and political might, the influence of black abolitionists lay forgotten for more than a century, obscured under the cult of Wilberforce. I wonder how many of the people so familiar with Wilberforce’s name can with any ease recall the names or stories of those black abolitionists now.
Just as puzzling is the fact that we celebrate Britain’s role in abolition but forget Britain’s role in creating the slave trade in the first place. In 2010 the then prime minister, David Cameron, promoted, for example, as his favourite children’s book, Our Island Story – a 1905 children’s history book. His affection for the book was echoed by the then shadow education minister Tristram Hunt as his favourite history book of all time. The book, written by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall, was a staple for many of today’s British adults, described by a review in the Guardian as ‘feminist and progressive’ and reprinted in 2005 so that it could be distributed for free in all UK primary schools. It’s a classic example of our national amnesia. The first 460 pages mention nothing of slavery, until it finally appears in a chapter about the reign of William IV: ‘another great thing which happened during the reign of William IV was the freeing of slaves’. There is then a brief discussion of what slavery was. ‘In the old, rough, wild days no one cared about the sufferings of these poor, black people. They were only niggers, and made for work and suffering, and nothing was thought about it. But as time went on, people became less rough and more kind-hearted…’
G. M. Trevelyan, a hugely influential historian whose book English Social History – written in a deliberately patriotic tone during the Second World War and then widely taught in schools – took a similar approach. He wastes little time on four centuries of slave trading – ‘a horrible traffic’ – to which his volume devotes only one line. There is plenty, however, on abolition. ‘The movement for the abolition of negro slavery aroused passionate popular enthusiasm sometimes excessive in its sentiment for the dusky brother,’ British schoolchildren were taught. ‘The sentiment of humanity was now a great political force in politics,’ Trevelyan continues. ‘In 1833 it abolished slavery in the Empire at a cost of £20 million cheerfully paid by the British taxpayer.’
If abolition was a benevolent gift to passive Africans handed down graciously by posh white men, the companion myth is that black people forced into slavery just put up with it. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There were frequent and often kamikaze-like slave rebellions, more than two hundred of them at sea, over the four centuries of slave trading. Similar resistance manifested in countless acts of suicide by Africans who preferred death to enslavement, and in the establishment of whole runaway communities in islands like Jamaica. The first ever black republic – Haiti – was born out of a revolt led by former slaves, sometimes referred to as ‘the Black Jacobins’ for their pursuit of freedom and justice. The famous French abolitionist Abbé Henri Grégoire regarded the Haitian republic, not the United States of America, as the true custodian of liberty.
These developments did not go unnoticed in Britain. By the end of the eighteenth century, the tide was beginning to turn against the plantocracy, although the pro-slavery pamphleteers wasted no time in employing apocalyptic scenes from Haiti and Paris as a cautionary tale to anyone feeling tempted to rock the boat and free the slaves. The true reasons for Britain’s decision to abolish the transatlantic trade are complex, and scepticism towards the traditional narrative – that it was a result of humanitarian concerns – is nothing new. As the great Trinidadian writer C. L. R. James put it, ‘those who see in abolition the gradually awakening conscience of mankind should spend a few minutes asking themselves why it is man’s conscience, which had slept peacefully for so many centuries, should awake just at the time that men began to see the unprofitableness of slavery as a method of production in the West Indian colonies’.