Due primarily to Oglethorpe’s strident advocacy, Georgia was the only British American colony to prohibit chattel slavery prior to the American Revolutionary War. General Oglethorpe would assert that he and his fellow trustees prohibited the enslavement of Black people because it was “against the Gospel, as well as the fundamental law of England.”
The genesis of Oglethorpe’s antislavery advocacy can be traced to an extraordinary letter written by a young African Muslim named Ayuba Suleiman Diallo. In February of 1730, Mandinka warriors took Diallo as a prisoner of war and sold him to British slave traders. He survived the harrowing “Middle Passage” and was enslaved on a Maryland colony tobacco plantation. Following a failed escape attempt, Diallo’s enslaver allowed the educated young man to write a letter to his father, detailing his dire circumstances.
Written in Arabic, the letter passed through the hands of several white men during its improbable 4,000-mile journey to London and placed in Oglethorpe’s possession. After having Diallo’s letter translated, Oglethorpe entered into an agreement to purchase the enslaved young man and pay for his passage to England.
Prior to the founding of Georgia, Oglethorpe was a member of the British Parliament and deputy governor of the Royal African Company, a British slave trading enterprise. According to a 19th century Georgia historian, Diallo’s “history” had a profound effect on Oglethorpe’s “ideas” regarding slavery. On Dec. 21, 1732, Diallo’s distance benefactor abruptly severed official ties with the slaving corporation.
During the spring of 1733, while Oglethorpe was in North America, Diallo arrived in London, assumed a new name “Job Ben Solomon,” and became a “roaring lion” of British society. The budding British celebrity was emancipated by British patrons, introduced to King George II and Queen Caroline and on Aug. 8, 1734, returned to what is modern day Senegal.
While Diallo was celebrating his miraculous rescue from bondage, pro slavery Georgia colonists known as “Malcontents” were arguing that deteriorating economic conditions in the colony were due to the prohibition against slavery. Oglethorpe and the malcontents engaged in a divisive, unvarnished debate over the legalization of slavery in Georgia.
Georgia’s principal founder became the target of a relentless smear campaign that included claims of mismanagement and hypocrisy because of his alleged investment in a South Carolina plantation that utilized enslaved Blacks.
In January of 1739, anticipating the sentiments of later abolitionists in the 19th century, Oglethorpe argued that legalizing slavery would “occasion the misery of thousands in Africa…and bring into perpetual slavery the poor people who now live free there.”
Finally, on July 22, 1743, Georgia’s most strident defender of the slavery prohibition exited his beloved colony. He sailed toward a future clouded by a pending court-martial and the possibility of financial ruin. The military charges ranged from larceny to treason. Reacting to complaints from pro-slavery colonists, British officials also refused to reimburse Oglethorpe for substantial expenses he had incurred on behalf of the colony.
Although Oglethorpe was acquitted on all accounts and fully reimbursed, he never returned to Georgia. Less than a decade later, on Jan. 1, 1751, Georgia’s slavery prohibition was repealed.
According to prevailing historical narrative, Oglethorpe gradually lost interest in the affairs of the colony he founded and the fight against slavery. To the contrary, he reinvented himself as mentor to pioneering abolitionists: Olaudah Equiano, sold into slavery as a child but emerged England’s most influential Black man, Granville Sharp, a founder of the formal British abolitionist movement, and Hannah More, a poet who stoked opposition to the slave trade.
Prior to his death on June 30, 1785, Oglethorpe handed off the nascent antislavery struggle that originated in the Georgia wilderness to emerging abolitionists who transformed it into a powerful international crusade.
Michael Thurmond is chief executive officer of DeKalb County and author of “James Oglethorpe, Father of Georgia: A Founder’s Journey from Slave Trader to Abolitionist.”