Quobna Ottobah Cugoano: 18th Century Abolitionist Celebrated In Permanent Artworks

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 10 months ago

Last Updated 27 September 2023

Quobna Ottobah Cugoano: 18th Century Abolitionist Celebrated In Permanent Artworks

Check out what's going on for Black History Month 2023 in London.

Two colourful panels at the entrance to a church
The River, and Passage — two of eight artworks by Che Lovelace installed in St James's Piccadilly. Photo Stephen White & Co

Not all that much is known about Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, but we do know he was a determined and prominent abolitionist — and now a permanent artwork in central London marks his legacy.

Born in what is now Ghana in 1751, Cugoano was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery in the Caribbean. He later secured his freedom, and ended up coming to England, where he was baptised at St James' Piccadilly, the church where a new artwork by Trinidad-based artist Che Lovelace has now been installed.

A colourful canvas with abstract artworks of Trinidadian life
'Spirit' by Che Lovelace, at St James's Piccadilly. Image: Brendan Delzin
A painting showing people and turtles swimming
'Passage' by Che Lovelace at St James's Piccadilly. Image: Brendan Delzin

Lovelace has created a set of eight panels at the church's entrance; rather than being a direct tribute to Cugoano,  each of them is a bold, colourful interpretation of Trinidad's natural beauty, in which people share the clear waters with turtles, and hummingbirds flutter among the palm trees. The paintings, says Lovelace "straddle the boundary between magical realism, abstraction and the beauty of the natural world."

Etching of a young white couple in flamboyant 18th century dress being served fruit by Ottobah Cugoano
Though he won his freedom, Ottobah Cugoano was still a servant to the artists Richard and Maria Cosway — who he's pictured with here in this etching from 1784. Image: public domain

St James's also has a plaque dedicated to Cugoano, and when you're here, you can see the font at which he was baptised in 1773. The entry in the register reads: "John Stuart – a Black, aged 16 years", and would now be considered a highly derogatory turn of phrase, which also denies Cugoano the name he was given at birth.

The artist sits with some of the canvases
Che Lovelace in his studio. Photo Brendan Delzin

Says Lovelace: "Having the opportunity to be part of the legacy of Ottobah Cugoano is truly significant and meaningful. To see St James's Church, Piccadilly honour his name and what he stood for, is also to bear witness to an evolving story; one where our societies acknowledge and account for, not only the traumatic episodes of our shared histories; but also finds spaces and moments where the human potential for renewal, growth and transcendence is given importance and is truly celebrated."

Cugoano went on to write the book Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery, and joined the Sons of Africa, a group established alongside Olaudah Equiano and other former enslaved people, which denounced the evils of the trade.  

Find out visiting times, and special events about Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, on the St James's Piccadilly website.