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James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw and Walter Shirley, 1725-1786
A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, as Related by Himself
Bath: Printed by W. Gye, 1770.

Summary

James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw was born around 1710 in Borno (spelled "Bournou" in the text), a city located in what is now known as Nigeria. In 1730, he was sold into slavery, taken to the United States, and purchased by a Dutch Reformed minister named Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen (spelled "Freelandhouse" in the text), who lived in New Jersey. Gronniosaw stayed with the family for over twenty years and was emancipated upon Frelinghuysen's death. He continued to work for the minister's widow and sons for several years, before later working as a cook on a privateer during the Seven Years War. He eventually enlisted in the British armed services to obtain passage to England. Once in England, he was baptized by a Baptist minister and, in 1763, he married a white woman named Betty. The couple faced employment difficulties and racial discrimination and struggled to support themselves and their children. Eventually, Gronniosaw dictated his narrative to an anonymous woman in hopes that the book's revenue would aid them financially. The narrative was published in 1770 and went through seven editions, but there is no information readily available regarding the publication's benefit to the family. From here, Gronniosaw and his family are lost to the public record.

The text's preface describes Gronniosaw's narrative as an "Account of [his] Life and spiritual Experience," which aims to answer the question of: "In what Manner will God deal with those benighted Parts of the World where the Gospel of Jesus Christ hath never reach'd?" (p. iii). Indeed, the bulk of the narrative focuses on Gronniosaw's spiritual development, from his youth in Africa, during which he disturbs his family with questions about "the GREAT MAN of POWER that makes the thunder," to his exposure to Christian theology in slavery and his faith in God's providence after his emancipation (p. 4). Gronniosaw only briefly describes his time in slavery, casting it largely as a formative period in which he first discovers Christian theology and learns to read. The narrative's focus on spiritual evolution has influenced the authors of other slave narratives. For example, Olaudah Equiano references Gronniosaw in his own 1789 autobiography, which would become a model for authors publishing slave narratives in the nineteenth century.

Gronniosaw begins his story with a description of his family and claims to be the grandson of the reigning king of Bournou. He details local religious practices as well as his own persistent search for answers about "some GREAT MAN of power which resided above the sun, moon and stars, the objects of our worship" (p. 1). Gronniosaw's spiritual unrest leads his family to send him to the Gold Coast of Guinea with a merchant who, he writes, "told me that if I would go with him I should see houses with wings to them walk upon the water, and should also see the white folks . . . and he added to all this that he would bring me safe back again soon" (p. 5). Although Gronniosaw is honored upon his arrival in the Gold Coast, his royal kinship brings him under the suspicion of the local monarchy. Barely escaping execution as a spy, Gronniosaw is instead sold into slavery and bought by the captain of a Dutch ship.

Quickly narrating his time at sea, Gronniosaw indicates an affectionate attachment to his first master, the Captain. Gronniosaw is fascinated by the Captain's Sabbath readings from the Bible and literally believes that the book speaks to its holder; but, he reports, "I open'd it and put my ear down close upon it . . . [I] was very sorry and greatly disappointed when I found it would not speak" (p. 10). This moment, revealing a thirst for knowledge and its access through reading, is echoed in Olaudah Equiano's narrative nineteen years later, when the author uses very similar terms to describe putting his ear to books in hopes of hearing them talk. After a voyage to Barbados, Gronniosaw is purchased by a Mr. Vanhorn of New York, for whom he works as a house servant until his purchase by Mr. Freelandhouse, a local minister who is impressed by reports of Gronniosaw's moral goodness. Freelandhouse and his wife instruct Gronniosaw in Christian theology and encourage him to attend school. He relates moments of spiritual questioning and crisis during this period of his life, as well as his exposure to theological texts, including the work of John Bunyan and Richard Baxter. Gronniosaw is later emancipated in Freelandhouse's will.

After the deaths of the minister's widow and remaining sons, Gronniosaw expresses "a desire to come to ENGLAND.—I imagined that all the Inhabitants of this Island were Holy; because all those that had visited my Master from thence were good." Burdened by debt, he joins a privateer to secure his passage. He offers scant battle details from his engagement on this ship. Instead, he mentions a few conflicts and describes an incident in which a prisoner offers a ransom for his life: he "untied his hair, which was very fine, and long; and in which several very valuable rings were fasten'd," but he is still executed (p. 22). Gronniosaw eventually arrives in England after serving on a ship of the British armed service. He still views England as a spiritual promised land: "I expected to find nothing but goodness, gentleness and meekness in this Christian Land" (p. 24). Unfortunately, Gronniosaw quickly encounters individuals who take advantage of his naiveté: "I could scarcely believe it possible that the place where so many eminent Christians had lived and preached could abound with so much wickedness and deceit" (p. 25).

Gronniosaw does find friends in England who help him find lodging and employment. He also travels to Holland to visit former acquaintances of Mr. Freelandhouse. Upon his return to England he marries Betty, a widow with one child. Although Betty is skilled as a weaver, the growing family has difficulty finding and maintaining steady employment and moves numerous times in search of better opportunities. Winters are particularly hard, and Gronniosaw describes the charity of friends as a necessary means for survival. Even as he admits to apprehension and distress, Gronniosaw maintains an abiding faith in divine providence throughout their ordeals. At the close of the narrative, Betty is recovering from delivery of another child, and the family has relocated from Norwich to Kidderminster in the hopes of finding more economic success. Gronniosaw both gestures to his early theological readings and places himself in the tradition of faithful Christian disciples by describing them "As Pilgrims . . . travelling through many difficulties towards our HEAVENLY HOME" (p. 39).

Works Cited: "James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw (1710?-?)," in African American Autobiographers: A Sourcebook, ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson, 171-172 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002); Constanzo, Angelo, "Gronniosaw, James Albert Ukawsaw," in The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, eds. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Jenn Williamson

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