Narrative of the Enslavement of a Native of Africa (1787)

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I

O T T OBA H C UG OA N O

Narrative of the Enslavement of a Native of

Africa (1787)

From the fifteenth century through the nineteenth, Europeans—most significantly the Dutch and the

English—carried an estimated 10 to 12 million Africans across the Atlantic Ocean in the largest forced

migration in world history. The harrowing experience aboard the slave ships was referred to as the

“Middle Passage,” so called because it was the second of a three-part journey: ships would carry gold and

European manufactured goods to trade to Africans for slaves; then, laden with men, women, and children,

the ships headed westward across the Atlantic; having deposited their “cargo” in the Americas, the ships

would return to Europe carrying American agricultural products such as sugar, rice, and tobacco.

Of the millions of people forced to endure the experience of enslavement and the Middle Passage, only a

very few left behind firsthand accounts. One of them was Ottobah Cugoano (ca. 1757–?), an African born in

present-day Ghana who was captured and enslaved at the age of thirteen. Surviving the Middle Passage,

Cugoano experienced the brutal working conditions on a sugar plantation on the Caribbean island of

Grenada. Taken to England by his master in 1772, Cugoano taught himself to read and write, converted to

Christianity, and took the name John Stuart. After his emancipation, he spent much of the next two

decades fighting for the abolition of slavery. His story, published as Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil

and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, first appeared in 1787. Four years

later, in 1791, Cugoano published another edition of his work. After this, Cugoano, like most of the untold

millions of other Africans ensnared in the international slave trade, disappears from the historical record.

From The Negro’s Memorial, or, Abolitionist’s Catechism (London: Hatchard and Co., and J. and A. Arch,

1825), 120–27 of appendix.

was early snatched away from my native country, with about eighteen or twenty more boys and

girls, as we were playing in a field. We lived but a few days’ journey from the coast where we

were kidnapped, and as we were decoyed and drove along, we were soon conducted to a factory,

and from thence, in the fashionable way of traffic, consigned to Grenada. Perhaps it may not be amiss

to give a few remarks, as some account of myself, in this transposition of captivity.

I was born in the city of Agimaque, on the coast of Fantyn:1 my father was a companion to the chief

in that part of the country of Fantee, and when the old king died I was left in his house with his family;

soon after I was sent for by his nephew, Ambro Accasa, who succeeded the old king in the chiefdom of

that part of Fantee, known by the name of Agimaque and Assinee. I lived with his children, enjoying

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peace and tranquillity, about twenty moons, which, according to their way of reckoning time, is two

years. I was sent for to visit an uncle, who lived at a considerable distance from Agimaque. The first

day after we set out we arrived at Assinee, and the third day at my uncle’s habitation, where I lived

about three months, and was then thinking of returning to my father and young companion at

Agimaque; but by this time I had got well acquainted with some of the children of my uncle’s hundreds

of relations, and we were some days too venturesome in going into the woods to gather fruit and

catch birds and such amusements as pleased us. One day . . . we went into the woods, as usual but we

had not been above two hours, before our troubles began, when several great ruffians came upon us

suddenly, and said we had committed a fault against their lord, and we must go and answer for it

ourselves before him.

Some of us attempted, in vain, to run away, but pistols and cutlasses were soon introduced,

threatening, that if we offered to stir, we should all lie dead on the spot. One of them pretended to be

more friendly than the rest, and said that he would speak to their lord to get us clear, and desired that

we should follow him; we were then immediately divided into different parties, and drove after him.

*  *  *

I soon became very uneasy, not knowing what to do, and refused to eat or drink, for whole days

together, till the man of the house told me that he would do all in his power to get me back to my

uncle; then I eat a little fruit with him, and had some thoughts that I should be sought after, as I would

be then missing at home about five or six days. I inquired every day if the men had come back, and for

the rest of my companions, but could get no answer of any satisfaction. I was kept about six days at

this man’s house, and in the evening there was another man came, and talked with him a good while

and I heard the one say to the other he must go, and the other said, the sooner the better; that man

came out and told me that he knew my relations at Agimaque, and that we must set out to-morrow

morning, and he would convey me there. Accordingly we set out next day, and travelled till dark, when

we came to a place where we had some supper and slept. He carried a large bag, with some gold dust,

which he said he had to buy some goods at the sea-side to take with him to Agimaque. Next day we

travelled on, and in the evening came to a town, where I saw several white people, which made me

afraid that they would eat me, according to our notion, as children, in the inland parts of the country.

This made me rest very uneasy all the night, and next morning I had some victuals brought, desiring

me to eat and make haste, as my guide and kidnapper told me that he had to go to the castle with

some company that were going there, as he had told me before, to get some goods. After I was

ordered out, the horrors I soon saw and felt, cannot be well described; I saw many of my miserable

countrymen chained two and two, some handcuffed, and some with their hands tied behind. We were

conducted along by a guard, and when we arrived at the castle, I asked my guide what I was brought

there for, he told me to learn the ways of the browfow, that is, the white-faced people. I saw him take

a gun, a piece of cloth, and some lead for me, and then he told me that he must now leave me there,

and went off. This made me cry bitterly, but I was soon conducted to a prison, for three days, where I

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heard the groans and cries of many, and saw some of my fellow-captives. But when a vessel arrived to

conduct us away to the ship, it was a most horrible scene; there was nothing to be heard but the

rattling of chains, smacking of whips, and the groans and cries of our fellow-men. Some would not stir

from the ground, when they were lashed and beat in the most horrible manner. I have forgot the name

of this infernal fort; but we were taken in the ship that came for us, to another that was ready to sail

from Cape Coast.2 When we were put into the ship, we saw several black merchants coming on board,

but we were all drove into our holes, and not suffered to speak to any of them. In this situation we

continued several days in sight of our native land; but I could find no good person to give any

information of my situation to Accasa at Agimaque. And when we found ourselves at last taken away,

death was more preferable than life; and a plan was concerted amongst us, that we might burn and

blowup the ship, and to perish all together in the flames: but we were betrayed by one of our own

countrywomen, who slept with some of the headmen of the ship, for it was common for the dirty

filthy sailors to take the African women and lie upon their bodies; but the men were chained and pent

up in holes. It was the women and boys which were to burn the ship, with the approbation and groans

of the rest; though that was prevented, the discovery was likewise a cruel bloody scene.

But it would be needless to give a description of all the horrible scenes which we saw, and the base

treatment which we met with in this dreadful captive situation, as the similar cases of thousands,

which suffer by this infernal traffic, are well known. Let it suffice to say that I was thus lost to my dear

indulgent parents and relations, and they to me. 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. From the time that I was

kidnapped, and conducted to a factory,3 and from thence in the brutish, base, but fashionable way of

traffic, consigned to Grenada, the grievous thoughts which I then felt, still pant in my heart; though

my fears and tears have long since subsided. And yet it is still grievous to think that thousands more

have suffered in similar and greater distress, under the hands of barbarous robbers, and merciless

task-masters; and that many, even now, are suffering in all the extreme bitterness of grief and woe,

that no language can describe .  .  . Being in this dreadful captivity and horrible slavery, without any

hope of deliverance, for about eight or nine months, beholding the most dreadful scenes of misery

and cruelty, and seeing my miserable companions often cruelly lashed, and, as it were, cut to pieces,

for the most trifling faults; this made me often tremble and weep, but I escaped better than many of

them. For eating a piece of sugar-cane, some were cruelly lashed, or struck over the face, to knock

their teeth out. Some of the stouter ones, I suppose, often reproved, and grown hardened and stupid

with many cruel beatings and lashings, or perhaps faint and pressed with hunger and hard labour,

were often committing trespasses of this kind, and when detected, they met with exemplary

punishment. Some told me they had their teeth pulled out, to deter others, and to prevent them from

eating any cane in future. Thus seeing my miserable companions and countrymen in this pitiful,

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distressed, and horrible situation, with all the brutish baseness and barbarity attending it, could not

but fill my little mind horror and Indignation. But I must own, to the shame of my own countrymen,

that I was first kidnapped and betrayed by some of my own complexion, who were the first cause of

my exile, and slavery; but if there were no buyers there would be no sellers. So far as I can remember,

some of the Africans in my country keep slaves, which they take in war, or for debt; but those which

they keep are well fed, and good care taken of them, and treated well; and as to their clothing, they

differ according to the custom of the country. But I may safely say, that all the poverty and misery that

any of the inhabitants of Africa meet with among themselves, is far inferior to those inhospitable

regions of misery which they meet with in the West-Indies, where their hard-hearted overseers have

neither Regard to the laws of God, nor the life of their fellow-men.

Thanks be to God, I was delivered from Grenada, and that horrid brutal slavery. A gentleman

coming to England took me for his servant, and brought me away, where I soon found my situation

become more agreeable. After coming to England, and seeing others write and read, I had a strong

desire to learn, and getting what assistance I could, I applied myself to learn reading and writing,

which soon became my recreation, pleasure, and delight; and when my master perceived that I could

write some, he sent me to a proper school for that purpose to learn. Since, I have endeavoured to

improve my mind in reading, and have sought to get all the intelligence I could, in my situation of life,

towards the state of my brethren and countrymen in complexion, and of the miserable situation of

those who are barbarously sold into captivity, and unlawfully held in slavery.

Study Questions

1. How was Cugoano enslaved?

2. What was Cugoano’s reaction to the first sight of Europeans? What did Cugoano experience aboard

the slave ship?

3. What became of Cugoano when he landed in the New World? How was his fate different from that

of the millions of other Africans who were forced into slavery?

4. What distinctions does Cugoano make between slavery as practiced in Africa and slavery in the

West Indies?

5. What does Cugoano’s writing reveal about the nature of his eventual education? about his intended

audience?