From slavery to freedom: J. Gronniosaw's 'Narrative'

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Illustration from James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, 'A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, as Related by Himself', 1811 edition (Courtesy of The British Library Board)
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The first edition of Gronniosaw's narrative was published in 1772 in Bath and contains the earliest known firsthand account of what it was like for a black man to migrate to Britain.

Find two excerpts from Gronniosaw’s narrative below.

In Excerpt 1, Gronniosaw describes his first impressions and experiences of Britain and British people.

In Excerpt 2, Gronniosaw describes some of the hardships he and his family faced in Britain, detailing the time he spent in a village in Norfolk.

Note: the image above is an illustration of a scene from the 1811 edition of the text, which was produced over thirty years after Gronniosaw’s death, and it was not intended to accurately represent what he looked like.

From slavery to freedom: Britain’s transatlantic slave trade

From the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, over 12 million people were transported against their will from Africa to the Americas in the transatlantic slave trade. This huge forced migration was mainly financed by European merchants, and it was they who benefited financially from the exploitation of slave labour. Britain was a major player in this global market for slaves and slave-produced commodities, and much of the nation’s wealth was derived from slavery.

Before the full emancipation of the enslaved in the British West Indies in 1838, slavery lasted for life in most cases, and was passed down to one’s children. However, some of the enslaved were able to find ways of obtaining their freedom. Some were able to buy it, either for themselves or their families, by paying a lump sum to their ‘masters’. Others, like James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw (see main source above), were given their freedom when their owners died.

From time to time, other routes to freedom opened up. For example, when the United States of America declared itself independent from Great Britain in 1776, the British offered freedom to any enslaved people who would join the Redcoat army to fight against the Americans. This was a dangerous proposition for a slave – black soldiers were given the most dangerous missions, often as spies or scouts, and if they were caught they would be tortured and killed in ways that would be considered unthinkable for a white prisoner of war.

The British forces in the Americas had a history of using black soldiers, both free and enslaved. During the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), which arose out of a dispute over land in mainland North America between British and French colonists, many free black people in the British colonies, including James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, joined the Royal Navy. Life aboard a military ship was hard, and dangerous, but it provided a secure income, and it has been suggested that black sailors experienced less racial prejudice aboard ships than in land-bound occupations.

In his 1772 narrative, Gronniosaw describes his time fighting for the British infantry during the Seven Years War:

'I listed in the twenty eighth regiment of Foot, who were design’d for Martinico in the late war.—We went in Admiral Pocock’s fleet from New-York to Barbadoes; from thence to Martinico—When that place was taken we proceeded to the Havannah, and took that place likewise.' (Gronniosaw 23-24)

Crossing the Atlantic: Enslaved and formerly enslaved people in Britain

During the eighteenth century, thousands of enslaved and formerly enslaved people came to Britain from the Americas. Some of the enslaved were brought to Britain as domestic servants, or were given as gifts. Indeed, during the middle of the eighteenth century in Britain it was fashionable to have a black servant, who would be seen as exotic and unusual. However, for many enslaved black people in the Americas, fighting for the British was their only way out of slavery. Later in the century, it became far more common for black people to come to Britain after fighting for the Royal Navy in conflicts in the Americas, such as the Seven Years War (1756-1763), the American War of Independence (1775-1783), or the War of 1812 (1812-1815). 

When war ended, many black soldiers and sailors in the British military chose to emigrate to Britain rather than remain in the Americas. Some thought they would have better economic chances in Britain. Others, like Gronniosaw, had experienced racial prejudice as free black men in the Americas, and believed they would find better treatment in Britain:

'I had a vast inclination to visit ENGLAND, and wish’d continually that it would please Providence to make a clear way for me to see this Island. I entertain’d a notion that if I could get to ENGLAND I should never more experience either cruelty or ingratitude, so that I was very desirous to get among Christians.' (Gronniosaw 23)

However, migrants to Britain in the eighteenth century often faced both financial hardship and personal discrimination.

James Somerset and the Mansfield ruling 1772

Even after they arrived in Britain, the freedom of those who were formerly enslaved in the Americas was not necessarily secure. Former slaves in Britain could be captured by their old masters and forcibly shipped back into slavery in the Americas. Only with the Somerset case of 1772 was this practice effectively outlawed—though it still continued illegally for many decades afterwards. The Somerset case (also known as the 1772 Mansfield ruling) is commonly understood to have effectively made slavery illegal in England. Technically, this is not quite accurate. The ruling only prevented enslaved people from being forced to return to the Americas against their will. Nevertheless, the case was celebrated at the time as ensuring that enslaved people were emancipated as soon as they set foot in England.

The case came about when James Somerset, an enslaved man, escaped from his ‘master’, Charles Stewart, in England in 1771. Stewart had Somerset arrested and placed aboard a ship bound for the British slave colony of Jamaica. Somerset was able to contact the humanitarian lawyer and abolitionist Granville Sharp, who brought the case to trial in 1772. The case captured the imagination of the public, and a crowd gathered outside the court to hear the decision of the presiding judge, Lord Mansfield:

'No master ever was allowed here to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because he had deserted from his service, or for any other reason whatever; we cannot say the cause set forth by this return is allowed or approved of by the laws of this kingdom, therefore the black must be discharged.'

A similar case, Knight v. Wedderburn, ensured a similar effective change in law in Scotland in 1778.

The narrative of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw: Pro-Calvinist propaganda

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Book cover of the first edition of the Narrative, 1772 (Courtesy of The British Library Board)
 The Narrative of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, as Related by Himself, first published in Bath in 1772, contains the earliest known firsthand account of what it was like for a black man to migrate to Britain.

Gronniosaw (c.1710–1775) was born in the Borno region of Western Africa, in the area now known as Nigeria. He was tricked into slavery at around the age of fifteen, transported across the Atlantic, and eventually sold to a family in New York. Here he converted to Christianity and became deeply involved in Calvinist theology. After working for many years as a domestic slave, Gronniosaw was granted his freedom in his master’s will. He enlisted as a soldier for the British in the Seven Years War, and eventually came to Britain aboard a prisoner-of-war ship around 1764.

The publication of Gronniosaw’s Narrative was paid for by Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntington, who was the de facto head of the Calvinist connexion in Britain at the time. Her cousin, Walter Shirley, wrote a preface for the Narrative, setting it in the context of the Calvinist doctrines. While Gronniosaw ‘related’ the text, he was illiterate, and so it was dictated, probably to Mary Marlowe, a friend of Hastings. The text was first published in Bath by William Gye and Thomas Mills in 1772. Gye and Mills mostly printed religious texts for the Calvinist connexion, including the hymnbooks for Hastings’ churches. Bath was an important centre for Calvinism in Britain at this time.

Gronniosaw’s text was intended first and foremost as a ‘conversion narrative’, designed to illustrate God’s love and the benefits of converting to Calvinism. Perhaps disturbingly, it advocated the position that enslaving Africans was a positive thing, since it helped them to convert to Christianity. Calvinism held that one did not need to be free to be accepted into God’s love. This idea was disputed at the time, especially by the Wesleyan Methodists, and so Gronniosaw’s text was seen as an important piece of pro-Calvinist propaganda.

The publication proved relatively popular and went through several editions. A 1779 edition was published in Welsh in Aberhonddu, where the Countess of Huntington ran a theological college. Changes in the text’s long title give an indication of the increasing importance of religion in the way the text was marketed and read. Compare the 1772 first edition, A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, as related by Himself, to the 1790 third edition, Wonderous Grace Display’d in the Life and Conversion of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince.

Given that the main publishers and sellers of the Narrative had connections to British Calvinism, it is likely that most people who read the text in the eighteenth century were interested more in its religious message than what it could tell them about migrating to Britain.

What does Gronniosaw’s narrative tell us about his experience of migration?

After arriving in Britain, Gronniosaw travelled to London, where he met his wife, a white textile worker named Betty. Together with their children, they later travelled around the country looking for work. Not only did migrants like Gronniosaw experience many of the hardships common to poor people in Britain at the time, but they also had to contend with racial prejudice.

In Excerpt 1 of the Narrative Gronniosaw meets with two very different responses from British people in Portsmouth. The woman who ‘kept a Public-House’ sees that Gronniosaw is unfamiliar with Britain and exploits him, defrauding him of his watch and his money. Her brother’s wife, on the other hand, sees that Gronniosaw is being taken advantage of, and takes him into her home. She offers to help him recover his possessions, and even proposes to use ‘rougher means’ to help him! In Excerpt 2, Gronniosaw relates that he has been helped by his friend Mr. Gurdney to find some work in a village near Norwich. But he is targeted by some local ‘inferior people’ who undercut him. When his young daughter dies, none of the local clergy will bury her. Clearly, this has more to do with the fact that she is black than the excuses that the clergymen give, though Gronniosaw himself seems hesitant to acknowledge this.

Religion, marriage and migration

Gronniosaw was a deeply religious man. He understands all of the difficulties he experiences through religion and prayer. When he leaves Portsmouth at the end of Excerpt 1, for example, he is not angry about being conned on his own account, but that he has missed the opportunity of finding some ‘Christian friends’. At the end of Excerpt 2, he and his family are forced to move away from Norfolk to Kidderminster as a result of the ‘ill treatment’ they received from the locals.

In Britain, Gronniosaw went through a two major religious rites of passage: baptism and marriage. Although the Yorke-Talbot opinion of 1729 had explicitly stated that baptism did not make slaves free, many black people in Britain still believed that being baptised offered some protection from being re-enslaved. Even though this became less pressing after the Somerset case of 1772, many free black people in Britain continued to have themselves baptised as a way of formally becoming part of the religious community.

Marriage was another important religious ritual that helped black immigrants to settle and put down roots in Britain. As many black migrants had come to the country after fighting in the military, men far outnumbered women. Among urban working-class communities, ‘mixed’ marriages, between black men and white women, were not uncommon, particularly in the latter half of the century. Nevertheless, there were often objections to such unions.

This passage from Gronniosaw’s Narrative relates to the mid-to late-1760s:

‘I waited on Doctor Gifford who took me into his family was exceedingly good to me. […] after I came to Doctor Gifford I expressed a desire to be admitted into their Church, and set down with them; they told me I must first be baptized; so I gave in my experience before the Church, with which they were very well satisfied, and I was baptized by Doctor Gifford with some others. I then made known my intentions of being married; but I found there were many objections against it because the person I had fixed on was poor. She was a widow, her husband had left her in debt, and with a child, so that they persuaded me against it out of real regard to me.—But I had promised and was resolved to have her; as I knew her to be a gracious woman, her poverty was no objection to me, as they had nothing else to say against her. When my friends found that they could not alter my opinion respecting her, they wrote to Mr. Allen, the Minister she attended, to persuade her to leave me; but he replied that he would not interfere at all, that we might do as we would. […] I firmly believed that we should be very happy together, and so it prov’d, for she was given me from the LORD. And I have found her a blessed partner, and we have never repented, tho’ we have gone through many great troubles and difficulties.' (30)


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Questions and Student Activities
  • What did Gronniosaw expect to find when he came to Britain? Did the reality match his expectations?
  • Are there any clear clues in the extract that the parson's refusal to bury Gronniosaw’s was daughter based on race? 
  • Why did Gronniosaw and his family move from place to place so often?
  • How did British people help Gronniosaw and his family?
  • Why do you think Gronniosaw gave his money and his watch to the woman in Portsmouth?