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Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, also known as James Albert, (born ca. 1705 - 1775) 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 the late 1760s. 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. 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 in 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 seventeenth 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]

Until the recent discovery of an obituary, the Narrative was the only significant source for the life of Gronniosaw.


Gronniosaw was probably 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. He was bought by an American in Barbados and resold to a Calvinist minister in New York. There he was taught to read and brought up as a Christian. When the minister died, he chose to stay with his widow, and subsequently their orphans, until he was left without support.

Gronniosaw then enlisted as a cook with a privateer, and later as a soldier in the British army. 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 a Christian, presumably Dissenting, lawyer, who employed Gronniosaw in building work. Moving to Norwich, they again fell on hard times. Once again, they were saved by the kindness of a Dissenter, a Quaker who paid their rent arears. A daughter died and was refused burial by the local clergy, 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. There he worked on his life story, with the help apparently of a secretary from nearby Leominster. Until recently, nothing was known of his later life.[2]

However, Chester local historian Terry Kavanagh has discovered a short obituary in the 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.'


  1. The Signifying Monkey, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr, Oxford University Press, hardcover, pages 133-140
  2. Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, Pluto Press, London, 1984, ISBN 0 86104 749 4, p.89-91.

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

fr:Ukawsaw Gronniosaw

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