William Ansah Sessarakoo, nicknamed “Cupid,” was a huge celebrity in London. His name was constantly in the newspapers and news magazines, and he was in great demand for gatherings, invited everywhere in high society. Poetry and plays were written about him, and he had been presented at court. All the ladies of fashion knew his story, and a famous biography had been written about him. Literary men and politicians commented on his life and experiences.
The year was 1749, and William Ansah was also known in England as “The Young Prince of Annamaboe.” At the height of his fame, the slave trade was booming, and he had come to England from the part of West Africa known as the Gold Coast—Ghana today—one of many free Africans who visited England to be educated in the 18th century.
Contrary to popular belief, Africans have been traveling to Europe as free men since the beginning of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. As early as the 15th century many West African envoys traveled to Europe to negotiate treaties and entice European traders to African shores.
In a well-documented example from the 17th century, King Tohonou of Allada (in modern Republic of Benin) sent a prominent member of his court, Don Matteo Lopez, a mixed-race prince who spoke both Portuguese and Fon, to the court of the “Sun King” Louis XIV in France. Some sources say Lopez was sent by King Tohonou to find out who was the bigger power between the Dutch and the French who were competing for business in his kingdom. He was expected to negotiate better trade between Allada and whichever of the European states was more powerful. Lopez arrived in Dieppe, France, in early December 1670 with 3 wives, and a number of attendants, and traveled from there to Paris, where Louis XIV received him at the Tuileries on the 19th of December. A large guard of honor was mounted for him, and he was put up “sumptuously” at the Hotel de Luynes. They discussed trade between France and Allada, and agreed upon increased trade between the two kingdoms.
There are numerous similar examples from the 17th century: a chiefdom called Asebu in modern Ghana sent ambassadors to Holland; a number of rulers from the Gold Coast themselves traveled to Europe and were received in Berlin in 1683. And the king of Commenda in the same area sent an envoy to France.
Africans were also sent to Europe for an education that would facilitate trade, the keeping of accurate business accounts, and translation between native and European languages. Royal Navy lieutenant John Matthews wrote in 1788: “Africans in most parts where the English trade, were desirous of sending their children to England to learn what they call white man’s book: a knowledge which they find necessary for carrying on trade. There are always several of these children in Liverpool, who are boarded and educated by the merchants and masters of ships trading to Africa.”
These young Africans returned and adopted the trappings of European life: clothing, style of houses and the food—European wines, beer, and venison served in plates with knives and forks and spoons. One of these, Signor Joseph who lived in the area that is now Sierra Leone, had visited America to conduct business, and had been educated in England and Portugal. He kept bees and had a chapel where he taught Africans the tenets of Christianity and how to read religious books.
Sometimes trading concerns like the English Company of Merchants Trading in Africa undertook to educate Africans such as the two boys named John Aqua and George Sackee. This was done to create better relations with African kingdoms. The boys went to school in England at considerable expense from 1753 to 1755. They got a proper Christian education, were “expensively dressed, housed and fed,” and their pocket money while in London was the then princely sum of 10 shillings and six pence a week each—that’s an eye-popping US$190 a week in today’s money (said to be more than two weeks wages for a skilled tradesman of the period) for two African boys of about 13 who had all their feeding, clothing, and housing needs taken care of. When they left for home, the Company complained that educating the boys had cost them £600 (approx. $US220, 000 today).
But these returned Africans seem to have adopted European behaviours in an eclectic way, taking what pleased them, while holding onto the African customs they preferred. For example, the mixed race African Big Man, Edward Barter, chief trader of the Gold Coast at Elmina in the late 1600s, married an English woman while being educated in England. He left her there, and, as the Dutch trader Willem Bosman complained, Barter claimed to be a Christian, was clearly knowledgeable about the religion, but he had more than 8 African wives and several mistresses. This was a common somewhat hypocritical complaint by visiting Europeans about the Africans educated abroad: some of the Europeans, after they had spent some time on the coast, also began to live with African wives and mistresses.
John Matthews adds, “…those black and Mulatto children (and there are not a few of them) who are sent to Europe for their education, on their return to their native country immediately reassume the manner of living, and embrace the superstitious customs and ceremonies of their countrymen.”
In the 1730s, the competition between France and England for preferential treatment by the Africans led France to send one of the sons of the Fanti King of Anomabu to France for an education. Not to be outdone, the English then undertook to send another son of King John Corantee to England, the previously mentioned William Ansah who became one of the most well-known and celebrated Africans who lived in England in the 1700s.
William Ansah’s trip to England did not begin auspiciously: the unscrupulous slave ship captain who agreed to take him to England, took him to Barbados and sold him as a slave. When William’s father, the powerful King of Anomabu, found out the boy’s fate through an African slave ship sailor who had visited Barbados, he was enraged, but was unable to do much about it because the treacherous ship captain died soon after the deed. The British government however, seeking to mend fences with Corantee, rescued William from slavery in Barbados, and took him to England for the education which his father had originally intended.
The hard to believe irony in all this is that the English public, at the height of Britain’s involvement in the slave trade, was deeply indignant that such base treatment as slavery could be meted out to an African prince. In an orgy of compensatory adulation, William was feted wherever he went. The famous literary lion Samuel Johnson wrote: “In our own time, princes have been sold, by wretches to whose care they were entrusted, that they might have an European education.” According to Gretchen Gerzina, British historian of black England, the English found William’s story irresistible, but their passion and indignation were only reserved for those they believed were “wrongly” enslaved.
To be continued in next post.
Presence and Prestige: A history of Africans in Europe before 1918 by Hans W. Debrunner.
Africa’s Discovery of Europe, 1450-1850, by David Northrup.
Africa Remembered: Narratives by West Africans from the Era of the Slave Trade by Philip D. Curtin
Black People in Britain 1555-1833 by Folarin Shyllon
A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea, Divided into the Gold, The Slave and the Ivory Coasts by Willem Bosman.
Memoirs of the Late Captain Hugh Crow by Hugh Crow
A Voyage to the River Sierra Leone by John Matthews
Black England: Life before emancipation by Gretchen Gerzina
Where the Negroes are Masters by Randy J. Sparks.