The remarkable story of “African prince” William Ansah Sessarakoo is at the heart of a new exhibition about London’s slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries at the Museum of London Docklands on West India Quay .
Born around 1736, Ansah was the son of John Correntee, head of Annamaboe, the largest slave-trading port on the Gold Coast.
In 1744, Correntee planned to send his young son to England to gain and education and inveigle his way into society so he could understand more about boosting trade. Ansah had learnt the language and customs of England at Fort William, the English base in the region.
However, the captain of Lady Carolina, David Bruce Crichton betrayed his trust and sold Ansah into slavery in Barbados, his family soon believing he was dead.
He was discovered four years later and Correntee petitioned the British to free his son. He was liberated by the Royal African Company, and transported to England where he was received as a prince in order to earn the good favour of Correntee and his lucrative trade.
The Royal African Company, which held a monopoly over the slave trade in West Africa, was founded in 1672 as a joint venture between the Duke of York, who was to become King James II, and merchants in London.
The company shipped cloth, guns and alcohol to West Africa in exchange for Africans who were then transported to Barbados and Jamaica. The company shipped more enslaved Africans than any other English organisation during the entire period of that trade – nearly 150,000 people.
Ansah eventually returned to Annamaboe, in modern day Ghana but his lavish London life was left far behind and became involved in squabbles and bribery, ending up as a slave trader himself. It is believed he died in his 30s.
However, the legacy of the Royal African was to inform the abolitionist movement, making society aware that Africans could be the equivalent of London’s own nobility.
In his memoirs, Ansah wrote: “Good sense is the companion of all complexions.” The justification from the trade moved from race to the alleged wrongdoing of the slaves.
The Royal African display aims to examine the workings of the slave trade through the life of Sessarakoo and will examine how the slave trade expanded as the Royal African Company’s monopoly collapsed.
Head of history collections Alex Werner said: “This is a very important story. This new display offers a new perspective and reveals the complex politics and bitter power struggle in London for the control of the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries.”
Co-curator Dr William Pettigrew said: “The Royal African Company was London’s most important contribution to the slave trade. Visitors will discover how the government used the Royal African Company to develop the trade in enslaved African human beings and how Londoners led the parliamentary campaign to end the Royal African Company’s monopoly.”
The Royal African, Museum of London Docklands, FREE, from Nov 25