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  • From Sentiment to Security: Cugoano, Liberal Principles, and the Bonds of Empire
  • Jeffrey Hole (bio)

And as we hear tell of the kings of Europe having abolished, the infernal invention of the bloody tribunal of the inquisition, and the Emperor and others making some grand reformations for the happiness and good of their subjects; it is to be hoped also that these exalted and liberal principles will lead them on to greater improvements in the civilization and felicitation, and next to abolish that other diabolical invention of the bloody and cruel African slave-trade, and the West-Indian slavery.

Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, Thoughts and Sentiments (1787)1

The problems of what I shall call the economy of power peculiar to liberalism are internally sustained, as it were, by this interplay of freedom and security.

Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics (1979)2

Along with transatlantic authors Phillis Wheatley, Ignatius Sancho, Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, and Olaudah Equiano, as well as figures from the metropolitan center—John Wesley, Thomas Clarkson, James Ramsey, and Granville Sharp, among others—the Fante-born and former West Indian slave Quobna Ottobah Cugoano (baptized as John Stuart) intervened in Britain’s volatile debate over modern slavery and contributed to the emerging energies of late eighteenth-century abolitionism with Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, a work “humbly submitted to the inhabitants of Great Britain.” In 1791, he would publish the abbreviated, if not slightly altered, version “Addressed to the Sons of Africa by a Native.”3 Thoughts and Sentiments likens the transatlantic trafficking of humans to [End Page 175] “piracy” and “theft” and unequivocally calls for the total abolishment of slavery and the universal emancipation of slaves held in bondage.

Making use of both religious and secular discourse, Cugoano’s style of polemic exhibits prophetic jeremiad and biblical exegesis, contributes to natural rights philosophy and eighteenth-century climatology, comments on British jurisprudence and property law, and theorizes important transformations in colonial economics and the role British Empire has played in global commerce. With multiple gestures towards and invocations of “liberal principles”4—including the example cited in the epigraph of this essay—Cugoano entreats the British to redirect the efforts of its military power and use its naval dominance in the Atlantic to establish the conditions necessary for legitimate commerce and to enforce the abolition of the slave trade: “I would propose, that a fleet of some ships of war should be immediately sent to the coast of Africa, and particularly where the slave trade is carried on[,] . . . to intercept all ships that were bring[ing] [slaves] away” (100).

Cugoano’s work has received far less consideration than Equiano’s Interesting Narrative (1789) and other late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slave writing, and even less attention has been paid to the specific ways in which Cugoano’s argument for the abolition of slavery occasions important theoretical questions regarding the emergence and development of liberalism.5 Jeffrey Gunn has recently suggested that the “lack of scholarship” is because there is “very little information documenting Cugoano’s life.”6 Indeed, the challenge for those addressing Thoughts and Sentiments is that it pushes against established boundaries of genre and resists being reduced to matters of biography or a narrative about identity; moreover, it advances important, even difficult, questions for scholars whose work examines the relays between literature and philosophy within the intersecting field formations of legal, political, and economic theory. How, for instance, does Thoughts and Sentiments implicitly or explicitly theorize political change, and what forms of power are constitutive of change? How is abolitionism and emancipatory political discourse linked to, enabled, or even restricted by emerging ideas and practices of sentimentalism, liberalism, cosmopolitanism, and forms of global purview, including European and British imperialism? How does Cugoano draw on and imagine, moreover, the history and changing role of the British Empire (as an order of cultural and even military power) within late eighteenth-century global political–economic dynamics?

Intervening in a growing, yet limited, body of scholarship on Cugoano, which I outline a bit later, and drawing on disciplines linking the study of liberalism, slavery, and political theory, this...


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