In our “Rethinking Romanticism” series, we ask leading scholars to propose new directions toward building inclusive and anti-racist fields of study. In today’s post, Julian Whitney discusses Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, the first African to argue for total abolition. Dr. Whitney contends that Cugoano, who was baptized “John Stuart” upon arrival in England, chose the title of “Christian” as an act of self-liberation. See more entries from this series here. To write for this series, contact us.
The Name Game: Ottobah Cugoano and the Title of Christian
Afro-British perspectives occupy an important role in the Romantic-era abolitionist discourse when it comes to the vexed issues of race, colonialism, and the African slave trade. By the end of the eighteenth century, the transatlantic slave trade generated racial boundaries between enslaved Africans and British citizens. Abolitionist debates focused on the immorality of chattel slavery and its perpetuation of ideals defending the racist belief of the natural inferiority of Black people. However, Black liberation was not only about a contest of attitudes and morals but also a battle over labels. The most significant of which was the question of what it meant to be Christian and how that label represented the moral imperatives of Black emancipation.
Abolitionist arguments routinely invoked the Christian faith to argue that Afro-Caribbean people were indeed human beings. This method was used, in part, as a rebuttal to Anglo-proslavery Christians who read into the Bible a “legal sanction of enslavement” to rationalize British superiority over the enslaved African peoples. Abolitionists made claiming one’s Christianity an ethical subject about differentiating between right and wrong and acknowledging the indisputable truth of African humanity. But Christian self-identification meant something greater to Afro-Caribbean abolitionists, a subcategory of the anti-slavery movement that understood being “Christian” as a value that could transcend categories of race and racism altogether. For them, being Christian meant subscribing to a radical philosophy of freedom that applied to the human species regardless of skin color. Quobna Ottobah Cugoano (1757—c. 1791), an Afro-Caribbean abolitionist from the Gold Coast in West Africa who was enslaved and brought to Grenada before being purchased and set free in England, viewed the label of Christian as an anti-racist title that could elevate Black people above the terminological shackles of race-based identification. His anti-slavery treatise Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (1787) promoted an understanding of the Christian individual as a radical warrior for an inclusive form of self-liberation.
Richard and Maria Cosway with Ottobah Cugoano, who was then their servant, at Schomberg House (1784)
Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of Slavery (hereafter shortened to Thoughts and Sentiments) is presented as a number of interconnected observations about the slave trade addressing topics related to colonialism, Christianity, race, education, and slavery law. In the work, Cugoano addresses slavery’s impact on Britain and its territories with a particular emphasis on its violation of biblical scripture. For him, being Christian meant taking a stand against the indefensible, as the opening lines help to confirm:
It is therefore manifest, that something else ought yet to be done; and what is required, is evidently the incumbent duty of all men of enlightened understanding, and of every man that has any claim or affinity to the name of Christian, that the base treatment which the African slaves undergo, ought to be abolished.
Cugoano establishes two cardinal concepts at issue in the opening passage – the moral foundations of Christianity and the idea that devoted Christians must also be enlightened and reasonable. He connects “men of enlightened understanding” with men who “claim…affinity to the name of Christian.” I argue that Cugoano’s linking of reason with religion proves that he understands the two concepts to be quite complementary. That is to say, one must be Christian to be reasonable and one must be reasonable to call oneself Christian. Cugoano’s thought process explains why he took issue with Britain’s defense of the slave trade. According to him, by defending the institution, Britain forsakes its Christian name and undermines the teachings of Christ. What Cugoano shows in his opening is that no enlightened nation, in good moral conscience, can self-identify as a Christian nation if it allows African enslavement. Here, Cugoano exposes the ethical dilemma of what it means to be Christian in a colonial paradigm that has, historically, relied on bigoted notions of racial hierarchy to maintain power and supremacy.
In order to combat pro-slavery attitudes about Christianity and declare his own ideal freedom, Cugoano characterizes his identity as not solely African or British, but rather Christian. Christianity was used by British planters and proslavery authors to justify African inferiority by applying moral meanings to the skin complexion of Black and white. References to skin color “derived from Christian semiotics,” with a focus on the restrictively racist categories of “pure white and sinful black.” By contrast, Cugoano is using the Christian name for the opposite purpose. The way he self-identifies as Christian beyond race is essential because he often uses his binomial background to bridge the gap between Afro and English perspectives. Much later in Thoughts and Sentiments, Cugoano announces that being Christian transcends nationality, geography, and ethnicity:
And Christianity does not require that we should be deprived of our own personal name, or the name of our ancestors, but it may very fitly add another name unto us, Christian, or one anointed. And it may as well be answered so to that question in the English liturgy, What is your name? – A Christian.
Cugoano embodies the experiences of two worlds, yet his decision to declare himself Christian reaches beyond both. While he takes pride in his personal and ancestral name, he invokes yet “another name… Christian, or one anointed” as his overall self-identification. In this act of critical self-naming, Cugoano represents personal freedom as being Christian. His Christian sense of self enables him to transcend all finite categories and, in turn, generate an identity for himself. In short, he derives personhood from a complete self-determination over his own “name.”
Elevating his Christian identity above race, nations, and ancestry enables Cugoano to embrace the true state of self-liberation that emerges from challenging racial labels and racist categories. He understands himself as an Afro-British – Christian – citizen who derives his freedom from God. He shows how the Christian title can redefine the emancipated African identity as holistically human.
Plaque erected in 2020 at Schomberg House in Pall Mall, London
 Stefan Wheelock, Barbaric Culture and Black Critique: Black Antislavery Writers, Religion, and the Slaveholding Atlantic (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016), 3.
 Cugoano himself was declared free by the Somerset v. Stewart British court case (1772), which adjudicated that the British Common Law did not support the institution of slavery on the mainland.
 Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, Thoughts and Sentiments on The Evil of Slavery (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 9-10. We see early on how Cugoano understands black emancipation to be a Christian problem with ethical and political ramifications.
 Roxann Wheeler, The Complexion of Race: Categories of Difference in Eighteenth-Century British Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), 2.
 Cugoano, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery, 110.
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