by Eric M. Washington.
In the context of the English-speaking Atlantic World during the 18th century, many of the oppressed were African enslaved persons. During this time more enslaved Africans became Christians partly because of the Great Awakening. There is evidence from the mouths and pens of enslaved African Christians that the gospel that they heard and the Christianity that they believed was from a Reformed perspective. My focus is on an enslaved African James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw who published his A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw in 1772 in London.
James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw wrote one of the earliest, if not the earliest English-language slave narrative. Gronniosaw was born in the kingdom of Bornu, a major West African kingdom in what is now Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon. He gives his audience no date or year of birth for West African societies didn’t mark time by years or months. W. Shirley who wrote the preface to the work reckoned that Gronniosaw was sixty in 1772, and had been captured when he was fifteen. So Gronniosaw would have been born ca. 1710, and captured ca. 1725. Gronniosaw’s grandfather was the king of Bornu, which, of course, made him a prince.
Gronniosaw’s enslavement came through a bit of subterfuge. A merchant from the Gold Coast who traded in Bornu convinced Gronniosaw, his parents, and his grandfather that living with him on the coast would serve him well. The trader assured Gronniosaw and his family that he would return. That never happened, of course. Gronniosaw was sold to a Dutch ship captain on the coast of Africa. After surviving the Middle Passage and arriving in Barbados, the captain sold him to a man from New York City. So he ventured from Barbados to New York City where he was a house servant. Then, a minister named Freelandhouse purchased Gronniosaw. In the minister’s household, Gronniosaw learned about God, and to pray. Gronniosaw accompanied his master to church each Lord’s Day. During sermons, Gronniosaw became convinced of his sin.
This post originally appeared on Meet the Puritans: Where the Dead Still Speak, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelical’s voice of Puritan and Reformed theology.
Eric Michael Washington is assistant professor of history and director of African and African Diaspora Studies at Calvin College. He is primarily interested in studying the African American church from its development in the late 18th century through the 19th century, and individual Christians, primarily Calvinists. He also has a growing academic interest in the growing “Black and Reformed” movement in North America.