Ukawsaw Gronniosaw

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Ukawsaw Gronniosaw (1705 – September 1775), also known as James Albert, was a freed slave and autobiographer. His autobiography is considered the first published by an African in Britain.

The autobiography

Gronniosaw's autobiography was produced in Kidderminster in 1772.[1] It is entitled A Narrative of the Most remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, As related by himself.[2] The title page explains that it was committed to paper by the elegant pen of a young LADY of the town of LEOMINSTER. It was the first Slave narrative in the English language. Published in Bath, Somerset, in December 1772, it gives a vivid account of Gronniosaw's life, from his capture in Africa through slavery to a life of poverty in Colchester and Kidderminster. He was attracted to this last town because it was at one time the home of Richard Baxter, a 17th-century Calvinist minister whom Gronniosaw much admired.

The preface was written by the Reverend Walter Shirley, cousin to Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, who was the chief patron of the Calvinist wing of Methodism. He interprets Gronniosaw's experience of enslavement and his journey from Bornu to New York as an example of Calvinist predestination and election.

A reference to his white-skinned sister, his willingness to leave Africa as his family believed in many deities instead of one almighty God, the fact that the closer to a white European he became — through clothing but mostly via language — the happier he was, his description of another black servant at his master's house as a "devil", have led critics to the conclusion that the narrative is devoid of the anti-slavery backlash ubiquitous in subsequent slave narratives.[1][3]

Until the recent discovery of an obituary, and a manuscript letter written by Gronniosaw to Hastings, the Narrative was the only significant source for the life of Gronniosaw.


Gronniosaw was born in Bornu (now north-eastern Nigeria): he claims he was doted on as the grandson of the king of Zaara. At the age of 15, he was taken by a Gold Coast ivory merchant and sold to a Dutch captain for two yards of check cloth.[4] He was bought by an American in Barbados and resold to a Calvinist minister, Theodorus Frelinghuysen, in New York.[1] There he was taught to read and brought up as a Christian. Gronniosaw did indicate in his autobiography that he had a desire to go back to his family in Africa, but the minister denied this request and told him to focus on the Christian faith.[2] During his time with Frelinghuysen, he attempted suicide which he detailed in his autobiography.[5] When the minister died, he chose to stay with his widow, and subsequently their orphans, until he was left without support.

Gronniosaw traveled to the Caribbean where he enlisted as a cook with a privateer, and later as a soldier in the British army.[5] He served in Martinique and Cuba, before obtaining his discharge and crossing to England. At first he settled in Portsmouth, but, when his landlady swindled him out of most of his savings, was forced to seek his fortune in London. There he married a young English widow, Betty, who already had a child and bore him at least two more. They were forced by industrial unrest to look for work in Colchester, where they were saved from starvation by Osgood Hanbury (a Quaker lawyer and grandfather of the abolitionist Thomas Fowell Buxton), who employed Gronniosaw in building work. Moving to Norwich, Gronniosaw and his family again fell on hard times. Once again, they were saved by the kindness of a Quaker, Henry Gurney (coincidentally, the grandfather of Fowell Buxton's wife, Hannah Gurney) who paid their rent arrears. A daughter died and was refused burial by the local clergy on the grounds that she was not baptised, although one at last offered to allow her to be buried in the churchyard, but not to read the burial service.

After pawning all their possessions, the family moved to Kidderminster, where Betty managed to support them by working as a weaver. On Christmas Day 1771, Gronniosaw's remaining children, Mary Albert (aged six) Edward Albert (aged four) and newborn Samuel Albert were baptised in the Old Independent Meeting House in Kidderminster by Benjamin Fawcett, a Calvinist minister and associate of Selina Hastings.[1] At around the same time, Gronniosaw received a letter and a charitable donation from Hastings herself. On 3 January 1772, he responded by thanking her for her 'favour', which arrived 'at a time of great necessity', and explained that he had just returned from 'Mrs Marlowe's' in nearby Leominster, 'were I was shewed kindness to from my Christian friends'.[1] Shortly afterward, he began work on his life story, with the help apparently of an amanuensis from Leominster, possibly the 'Mrs Marlowe' he had mentioned in his letter to Hastings. Until recently, nothing was known of his later life.[6]

On 25 June 1774, Gronniosaw's fifth child, James Albert Jr, was baptised, again by Fawcett.[1] Chester local historian Terry Kavanagh has discovered a short obituary in the Chester Chronicle, dated 2 October 1775:

On Thursday died, in this city, aged 70, James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African prince, of Zoara. He left the country in the early part of his life, with a view to acquire proper notions of the Divine Being, and of the worship due to Him. He met with many trials and embarrassments, was much afflicted and persecuted. His last moments exhibited that cheerful serenity which, at such a time, is the certain effect of a thorough conviction of the great truths of Christianity. He published a narrative of his life. Chester St Oswald's Burial 28th Sept. 1775: James Albert (a blackm), aged 70.[citation needed]

Ukawsaw and Betty Gronniosaw are featured in the short animation entitled The Most Remarkable Particulars.[7]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f Hanley, Ryan (2015). "Calvinism, Proslavery and James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw". Slavery & Abolition. Retrieved 19 May 2016.
  2. ^ a b Gronniosaw, James Albert Ukawsaw (1772). A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, as related by himself. Bath, Somerset, England: W. Gye. p. 12.
  3. ^ Henry Louis Gates, Jr, The Signifying Monkey, Oxford University Press, 1988, pp. 133-40.
  4. ^ Gates, Henry Louis; Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks (2004). African American Lives. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 364. ISBN 9780195160246.
  5. ^ a b Fuentes, Marisa J., White, Deborah Gray (2016). Scarlet and Black: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. p. 61. ISBN 9780813591520.
  6. ^ Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, Pluto Press, London, 1984, ISBN 0-86104-749-4, pp. 89-91.
  7. ^ The Most Remarkable Particulars

Additional sources

  • Echero, Michael. "Theologizing 'Underneath the Tree': an African topos in Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, William Blake, and William Cole". Research in African Literatures. 23.4 (Winter 1992). 51-58.
  • Harris, Jennifer. "Seeing the Light: Re-Reading James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw". English Language Notes 42.4, 2005: 43-57.

External links

  • Works by Ukawsaw Gronniosaw at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Ukawsaw Gronniosaw at Internet Archive
  • Works by Ukawsaw Gronniosaw at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
  • A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, as Related by Himself, Bath: Printed by W. Gye, 1770.
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