20/11/202018th Century Anti-Slavery Campaigner awarded English Heritage blue plaque
- The first African to demand total abolition of slave trade
- Leader of Georgian London’s black community
- Earliest black figure to receive a London blue plaque
The anti-slavery campaigner Ottobah Cugoano has been honoured with an English Heritage blue plaque. The plaque marks Schomberg House at 80–82 Pall Mall, where Cugoano, a former slave himself, was employed as a servant by artists Richard and Maria Cosway. It was while living here in the 1780’s that Cugoano wrote the book, 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, one of the first black-authored anti-slavery books to be published in Britain, and – of its era – the most radical in its arguments.
Taking on a key argument used by apologists for slavery – the complicity of Africans in the trade – he invited his readers to imagine slave raids on Britain by African pirates "assisted by some of your own insidious neighbours, for there may be some men even among you vile enough to do such a thing if they could get money by it."
Elsewhere, he advanced the view that "the difference of colour and complexion, which it hath pleased God to appoint among men, are no more unbecoming than the different shades of the rainbow are unseemly to the whole … It does not alter the nature or quality of a man, whether he wears a black or white coat – whether he puts it on or strips it off, he is still the same man."
Schomberg House on Pall Mall was mentioned in the frontispiece of the 1787 edition of Thoughts and Sentiments as one of the places where copies of the book might be obtained – evidence of the Cosways’ support for their servant’s endeavours as an author and a campaigner.
English Heritage Blue Plaques Panel member, David Olusoga, said: "Ottobah Cugoano was a remarkable man, one who himself had known the horrors of slavery. Having survived he used words and arguments to fight against the slave trade and slavery. Cugoano was a true pioneer – the first African to demand the total abolition of slavery and one of the leaders of Georgian London’s black community. I am delighted that English Heritage is celebrating his life with a blue plaque."
Currently only 4% of the 950 plus Blue Plaques across the capital are dedicated to black and Asian figures from history. This is partly explained by the relatively low number of public nominations fulfilling the blue plaque criteria and by the all too frequent lack of historic records to establish a definitive link between the person in question and the building in which they lived. That we have these definitive links for Cugoano and that the historic building survives in a form that he would have recognised means that this is a very rare opportunity to honour a black Londoner of the 18th century. Ottobah Cugoano is now the earliest black figure to receive an official blue plaque.
A year after it became an independent charity in 2015, English Heritage established a BAME working group tasked with advising on diversity in the Blue Plaques Scheme. English Heritage’s Blue Plaques team and the BAME working group have since opened numerous cold-case reviews, including that of Ottobah Cugoano.
The English Heritage London Blue Plaques scheme is generously supported by David Pearl and members of the public.