ONE of the ways of coping with the prospect of a busy autumn is knowing that August is quiet. Certainly, in central London, the Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday office workers disappear altogether, to be replaced (for the first time, this year, since 2019) by millions of tourists from all over the world. One of my favourite occupations, as the whirl of crowds hits the streets outside my study (which is right on Piccadilly itself), is to sit and think “It’s like Piccadilly Circus round here.” Lame, I know — but I’m easily amused. . .
This year, however, St James’s has had a momentous August. On 20 August 1773 (which, that year, was a Friday), a 16-year-old, recently freed from slavery, was baptised at the font that still stands in the church today. This year marks the 250th anniversary of the of that young man, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano.
Trafficked from what is now Ghana, enslaved in Grenada and other unnamed Caribbean islands, and then shipped to London, where he was freed by his English master, as he wrote later, “I was advised by some good people to get myself baptised, that I might not be carried away and sold again.”
Such was the pernicious nature of the colonial statutes that it wasn’t, in fact, true that baptism saved a person from being enslaved again; but many believed that it was, and so baptism was thought to be a pathway to freedom. After all, a Christian wouldn’t enslave another Christian — would they?
AFTER being baptised in his parish church (he lived on Pall Mall), Cugoano attended services at St James’s, with his fellow abolitionist Olaudah Equiano (baptised in St Margaret’s, Westminster) and William Wilberforce MP. Having taught himself to read and write, Gugoano wrote a seminal and radical tract as part of his engagement with the abolitionist group Sons of Africa, in 18th-century London. 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, was published in 1787, and is still in print today.
What is made absolutely clear in this jeremiad is that all human beings, without exception, are created equal by God, and therefore must — must, without exception — be treated equally. There is explicit refutation of the “equal but different” argument that, in our own day, too, often masks unequal treatment in the hands of those who deploy it.
Cugoano is regarded by historians as the most radical opponent of slavery of his day. Always and everywhere, he says, and without exception, attempting to own another person is wrong.
WHAT has been important for the PCC and congregation of St James’s, as we have commissioned a stone tablet — which was dedicated on the anniversary itself (News, 25 August) — and art work from the outstanding Trinidadian artist Che Lovelace (which will be installed in September), is that this moment for the church is marked as honestly as possible.
There is a danger that, in celebrating this remarkable figure, a church such as St James’s, which, built in 1684, witnessed the proliferation of the transatlantic slave trade from the 1680s into the 19th century, can seek to launder its own reputation.
Alongside these commissions, therefore, research has been done into the specific links that the church had with the beneficiaries of slavery. Beside the 168 subscribers from the parish who funded the publication of Cugoano’s powerful abolitionist book were certain individuals who rented pews with funds almost certainly earned in plantations. Freed slaves, abolitionists, and anti-abolitionists sat in the same pews and drank from the same cup.
As a church, we continue to work out what this means for today’s congregation — which, like any public place of worship in a city, will, at any given service, embrace a similar range of people today. At our dedication service on the anniversary itself, a Ghanaian member of our congregation, a refugee, found strength in Cugoano’s story, and in reading his name chiselled for ever in the slate of the plaque.
I bind unto myself for ever
WRITING in the way that he did, in the context in which he lived and worshipped, makes it clear that Cugoano’s faith was able to withstand the rhetoric — and, more than that, challenge — of the fundamental assumptions of a social, economic, political, and theological system that was, to him, self-evidently wrong.
As a Christian, he saw what other Christians couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see — others who saw no incompatibility between their Christian faith and their involvement in the transatlantic chattel slave trade, and even deployed theological arguments in its defence.
So — alongside, of course, acting to end modern slavery (in which an estimated 46 million people are held today) — we face specific questions as a contemporary Christian community. In the spirit of Cugoano, we have found ourselves asking what theology is endorsed today which (as then) causes immense human suffering, instead of liberation and healing? What are we doing, the abolition of which our successors will celebrate with a service 250 years hence, while in their hearts asking themselves “What were they thinking?”
This summer, a young man aged 16 and his subsequent prophetic call to account have taught me that baptism is the foundational binding sacrament that can form fearless communities of faith, when promises taken by, or for, us become promises kept.
With Cugoano, and with the generations between us that live and have lived, I have found this August to be anything but quiet. I turn to Christ. I repent of my sins. I renounce evil.
The Revd Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, in the diocese of London.