SIX

‘The Monster is Dead’

In 1618 the English explorer Captain Richard Jobson was in Senegambia, in West Africa, in search of gold. By the banks of the Gambia River, Jobson encountered the African slave-trader Buckor Sano, who presented him with a group of ‘certaine young blacke women, who were standing by themselves, and had white strings crosse their bodies, which hee told me were slaves, brought for me to buy’. Indignantly he refused the transaction, telling his would-be trading-partner that the English ‘were a people, who did not deale in any such commodities, neither did wee buy or sell one another, or any that had our owne shapes’. When Buckor Sano asked why it was that the English refused to trade in slaves when other ‘white men . . . earnestly desired them, especially such young women’, Jobson replied that the other Europeans ‘were another kinde of people different from us’.1

Between that moment in 1618, when Richard Jobson recoiled at the mere suggestion that he or any Englishman would engage in the buying and selling of other human beings, and the passing, in 1807, of the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Britain became the dominant slave-trading nation in the North Atlantic. Half of all the Africans who were carried into slavery over the course of the eighteenth century were transported in the holds of British ships. Some estimates put the total shipped by the British at around three and a half million. It took around eleven thousand separate slave-trading expeditions to complete such a vast forced migration, a movement of people that remained without precedent until the twentieth century. The wealth generated through the slave trade and the sale of the tropical goods that their labour produced transformed cities like Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow into boom towns; frenetic centres of global commerce, investment, conspicuous consumption and philanthropic endeavour.

How did all this come about? How did the English overcome the revulsion that Richard Jobson expressed and why, in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, did that revulsion seemingly return, motivating millions of Britons to turn their backs on an institution and a trade that had so enormously enriched their nation? Why did the British come to care so greatly about the fates and lives of the slaves who laboured thousands of miles away, when they had been largely uninterested in them during the preceding decades? How could those opposed to slavery draw public attention to the suffering of the enslaved and the horrors of the slave trade when other issues – war with France, revolution, ideological discord, failed harvests and mass distress – were all seemingly more pressing and closer to home?

The forces that led Britain to become a slave-trading and slave-owning nation in the seventeenth century have been discussed earlier, and are relatively straightforward. The nation was drawn into the trade for the same reason that English traders like John Lok and Thomas Wyndham broke Portugal’s monopoly of the African gold trade in the sixteenth century and English planters on Barbados moved into sugar cultivation a century later. Simply put, the English (later the British) saw the profits being made by their Portuguese, Spanish and then Dutch competitors and wanted a slice of the action. By contrast the forces that led to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, and then of slavery itself in 1833, are far more complicated, opaque and contested. What we do know is that the view that the trade in slaves was a national sin emerged in the 1770s and then spread rapidly, growing to become an intellectual and ethical current that ran through society and carried the abolition movement forward. Once it emerged, British abolitionism forced the issue of slavery and the contested humanity of black people into the centre of British politics, where it remained long after the slave trade and slavery had been abolished. Abolitionism, and the developing sense that slavery belonged to the past rather than the future, was one of the forces that shaped and influenced Britain’s relationship with Africa and people of African descent on three continents until at least the end of the nineteenth century.

To fully understand how remarkable the rise of British abolitionism was, both as a political movement and as a popular sentiment, it is important to remember how few voices were raised against slavery in Britain until the last quarter of the eighteenth century. The Church of England was largely silent on the issue as were most of the politicians. To most people in Britain, until the 1770s and 1780s, there seemed to be no way out. Britain was addicted to slave-produced products and therefore addicted to slavery. Too much money, too many livelihoods and too much political power were invested; millions of British people lived lives that were intimately connected to the economics of slavery and the sugar business. Edward Long, the pro-slavery propagandist and one of the original authors of English racism, was not wrong when he wrote in 1774:

If, upon the whole, we revolve in our minds, what an amazing variety of trades receive their daily support, as many of them did originally their being, from the calls of the African and West India markets; if we reflect on the numerous families of those mechanics and artisans which are thus maintained, and contemplate that ease and plenty, which is the constant as well as just reward of their incessant labours; if we combine with these the several tribes of active and busy people, who are continually employed in the building, repairing, rigging, victualling, and equipping the multitudes of seamen who earn their wages by navigating, and the prodigious crowds who likewise obtain their bread by loading [the] ships . . . we may from thence form a competent idea of the prodigious value of our sugar colonies, and a just conception of their immense importance to the grandeur and prosperity of their mother country.2

These economic arguments were widely accepted and were buttressed by a set of theories about race and the supposed inferiority of the Africans that had been developing and mutating for centuries. Notions about the innate savagery and sexual immorality of Africans that had been expressed on the pages of Mandeville’s Travels in the fourteenth century and in Richard Hakluyt’s collated travel accounts of the sixteenth century were still in circulation. Likewise the idea that the people of Africa were the descendants of Ham, the cursed son of Noah, was still deployed from time to time to legitimize slavery, and other passages from the Bible which appeared to sanction it had also been identified. Africans were presumed to be inferior, and that inferiority was regarded as a warrant for their enslavement and exploitation. Yet as the abolitionists discovered, there were many people who tolerated slavery not because they believed it was ordained by God or sanctioned by racial difference but simply because they knew very little about it. Although there were thousands of black people living in Britain in the eighteenth century the plantations of the West Indies, the crucible of their suffering, were an ocean away and the nauseating conditions that prevailed on the lower decks of slave ships were a guilty secret, hidden from public view. For these reasons the abolition movement was as focused on the task of educating the public about the realities of slavery and the trade as it was on campaigning for their abolition.

Various theories have been put forward to explain why and how the abolition of the British slave trade came about in 1807. In the middle of the last century the Trinidadian historian Eric Williams passionately argued that the slave trade and slavery were abandoned primarily because they were in economic decline and becoming increasingly marginal to the economy of a nation undergoing rapid industrialization. While much of Williams’s work has withstood rigorous analysis by later scholars, his theory that slavery was economically spent at the moment of its abolition has been largely demolished by modern historians, most notably Seymour Drescher. They have shown that in the 1780s, the decade in which the abolitionist movement found its voice, British ships transported around a third of the one million Africans who were shipped across the Atlantic to the plantations of the New World. Historians have also demonstrated that while over-planting had exhausted the soil in parts of Jamaica which, Williams argued. reduced the profitability of the plantations, in the 1830s, the decade in which Britain abolished slavery, new estates in Trinidad and Guyana were in full production and were proving to be extraordinarily profitable. As Drescher wrote, ‘In terms of both capital value and of overseas trade, the slave system was expanding, not declining, at the turn of the nineteenth century.’3 Slave-traders, ship owners, plantation owners, insurers, shipbuilders, sugar merchants and investors of all types were looking to the future and making plans for consolidation or expansion.

If declining profitability cannot explain abolition – and few historians today feel that it can – perhaps it was down to the ferocity of the slave rebellions that broke out across the West Indies during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? The determination of the enslaved to resist and rebel undoubtedly played a far larger role than historians were once willing to acknowledge, but even this does not, by itself, explain why Britain ended the slave trade, banned her citizens from taking part in it and in 1838 set 800,000 people free from bondage. If explanations for the success of the abolitionist campaign and the enormous levels of support it generated are difficult to come by, historians do at least have a good understanding of how the movement catalysed and evolved.

The campaign against slavery that was to invade the consciousness of millions of people began as a mere rumbling of discontent among minority religious groups in the 1770s and 1780s. From those unpromising beginnings it became a vast national movement. Within the span of a single lifetime it encouraged the people of Britain to reject and repudiate a trade which their own countrymen had perfected and a plantation system that provided products upon which almost everyone relied upon to some extent. The story of that great transition cannot be told without reference to a man we have already met, Granville Sharp. This is because one of the first milestones in the emergence of the abolitionist movement was the Somerset case. Although Lord Mansfield’s judgement was, as we have seen, limited to a very specific point of law and applied only within England, the publicity it generated was a coup for the opponents of slavery and a disturbing blow to the West India planters. To foreign observers the sudden squeamishness of the British about the fate of former slaves on the streets of London reeked of hypocrisy. Responding to the Somerset case, Benjamin Franklin railed in the London Chronicle against what he saw as English duplicity. Freeing James Somerset surely meant little so long as Britain held vast numbers of black men, women and children in chains. ‘Pharisaical Britain!’, he snorted, ‘to pride thyself in setting free a single Slave that happens to land on thy coasts, while thy Merchants in all thy ports are encouraged by thy laws to continue a commerce whereby so many hundreds of thousands are dragged into a slavery that can scarce be said to end with their lives, since it is entailed on their posterity!’4 In another part of the article, which Franklin wrote anonymously, he laid out the scale of the challenge facing the opponents of slavery and the moral case for abolition.

By a late computation made in America, it appears that there are now eight hundred and fifty thousand Negroes in the English Islands and Colonies; and that the yearly importation is about one hundred thousand, of which number about one third perish by the gaol distemper on the passage, and in the sickness called the seasoning before they are set to labour. The remnant makes up the deficiencies continually occurring among the main body of those unhappy people, through the distempers occasioned by excessive labour, bad nourishment, uncomfortable accommodation, and broken spirits. Can sweetening our tea, &c. with sugar, be a circumstance of such absolute necessity? Can the petty pleasure thence arising to the taste, compensate for so much misery produced among our fellow creatures, and such a constant butchery of the human species by this pestilential detestable traffic in the bodies and souls of men?5

The traffic in enslaved Africans was never more detestable than in 1783 when the details of what took place on board the Zong became known in Britain. The basic facts are simple and shocking. In September 1781 the Zong, a Liverpool-registered slave ship, sailed from Accra in Ghana with four hundred and forty-two slaves on board, around twice the number a ship of that size could reasonably expect to transport without catastrophic loss of life. By early December, after a series of amateurish and baffling navigational errors, the ship was running out of fresh water and disease had broken out on the slave decks and among the crew. To preserve supplies and protect their profits by ensuring that at least some of the slaves reached market in Jamaica alive, the crew of the Zong cast a hundred and thirty-three of the most sickly slaves overboard. This was not done in a single moment of murderous haste but gradually and systematically, over the course of three days. The victims were selected from the decks below by the captain, Luke Collingwood. It was a clinical massacre of innocents but it had stemmed from a strange mixture of callous self-interest and professional incompetence, for when the Zong arrived in Jamaica just three weeks later there were still 420 gallons of water on board. Just two hundred and eight of the four hundred and forty-two Africans who had been packed into the Zong in Accra were still alive.

This terrible incident was brought to wider national attention only when the owners of the Zong filed an insurance claim against the loss of ‘cargo’, demanding £30 for each slave cast overboard. Their insurance underwriters disagreed and refused to pay.6 The first anonymous reports of the case were spotted in the English newspapers by the watchful eye of Olaudah Equiano. When the insurance case came to court in 1783 the cold, financial reasoning behind the massacre appalled all those who heard it. It was explained in court that the ‘master of the ship called together a few of the officers, and told them to the following effect : – that, if the slaves died a natural death, it would be the loss of the owners of the ship; but if they were thrown alive into the sea, it would be the loss of the underwriters’.7 After hearing such evidence even the redoubtable Lord Chief Justice, Mansfield, before whom the case was heard, privately admitted that the case ‘shocks one very much’. Mansfield found against the ship owners. The popular outrage that reverberated from the Zong affair made it the next milestone in the development of the abolitionist cause. Among those who attended court throughout much of the Zong case was Granville Sharp. As he had done during the trial of James Somerset a decade earlier Sharp employed a shorthand writer to attend court and record the speeches and testimonies given. These transcriptions were then published, adding to the moral case against the slave trade that was slowly building in the public’s consciousness. Sharp also sought unsuccessfully to bring criminal charges against the crew of the Zong, although the main culprit, Captain Collingwood, was by this time dead. In this he was unsuccessful and no one ever faced trial for the massacre. Yet the fact that the case had garnered so much publicity and shocked so many millions was significant in itself. The murder of the sick or the disruptive on board slave ships was a routine practice. Never before had the details of so terrible a case been brought to the attention of so many. A light had been shone upon some of the darkest secrets of the slave trade.

In 1787, four years after the Zong affair and the year in which the black poor of London departed for the new colony of Sierra Leone, the abolitionist movement was formally born. Its place of birth was a printing shop at 2 George Yard, London, a building long ago demolished. There, on 22 May, twelve men gathered together. The minutes taken of this little assembly recorded that, ‘At a Meeting held for the Purpose of taking the Slave Trade into consideration, it was resolved that the said Trade was both impolitick and unjust.’ This group of twelve – nine Quakers and the rest Evangelical Anglicans – formed themselves into the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. They included the Staffordshire pottery entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood, the Quaker banker and philanthropist Samuel Hoare and Granville Sharp. But perhaps its most significant member was Thomas Clarkson. His conversion to the cause had begun one year earlier as an academic exercise. As a graduate deacon at St John’s College, Cambridge, Clarkson entered a Latin essay into a competition. Entrants were asked to adopt a position either for or against slavery and put forward their most compelling case. Clarkson’s submission was entitled ‘Essay on the slavery and commerce of the human species’. It was eloquent enough to win the prize and compelling enough to win over the man who became the other great champion of the abolitionists’ cause, William Wilberforce MP. For the next two decades Wilberforce, a fellow Cambridge graduate, worked alongside Clarkson – the former in Parliament and the latter at the hustings and in the lecture hall.8 Their partnership epitomizes the movement’s twin-track approach of popular agitation and parliamentary strategizing.

The men who gathered together in George Yard in 1787 and committed themselves to fighting against the slave trade were disproportionately Nonconformists, and their hostility towards slavery and the trade stemmed from their moral and religious views. Yet secular philosophy and even economics had drawn similar conclusions at around the same time. A number of Enlightenment thinkers, especially those from Scotland and France, had condemned slavery. The Scottish Enlightenment thinker Francis Hutcheson condemned slavery as it violated the ‘original rights’ with which he believed all human beings were born. The English philosopher and MP Edmund Burke opposed slavery and favoured a scheme of gradual emancipation in order to spread liberty, which he and many others increasingly regarded as an automatic good. Other philosophical voices spoke against slavery from across the English Channel: Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu and Abbé Reynal. One recurring theme repeated and developed by many of those who disapproved of slavery was that it was outdated; that while it might be profitable in the short term its continuation risked impeding human development. Slavery, its opponents argued, was not just immoral but also very much inferior to free labour, free enterprise and free trade. The enemies of American slavery were making the same arguments right up until the US Civil War in the 1860s.

To modern sensibilities, one of the central strategies adopted by the men who formed the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade is difficult to comprehend. The early abolitionists focused upon the slave trade, rather than slavery. This distinction is often lost on us in the twenty-first century, as we tend to see them as the twin branches of a single reprehensible industry. The abolitionists saw things differently, in a strange mixture of worldly pragmatism and naive over-optimism. They concluded that the Middle Passage of the slave trade was the most deadly and inhumane aspect of slavery. At no other point in his or her life was the individual slave to suffer so greatly or face a greater risk of death. All this was true but the members of the society also understood that the abolition of plantation slavery was a more daunting challenge. Under colonial law slaves were property – which had not been altered by the Somerset case. An attack on slavery was therefore, by its nature, an assault on property rights which were a near-sacred concept in the late eighteenth century, when voting rights and political power were dependent upon the ownership of property.

Many abolitionists reconciled themselves to this political reality because they were convinced that the cessation of the trade was the key to ending slavery: if the trade was ended and the supply of slaves cut off then the whole system would ‘wither on the vine’. If the slave owners understood that their human property could not be replaced, they would treat the slaves better. Impelled by enlightened self-interest they would be less likely to force enslaved women to work long into their pregnancies, and would improve the diets, housing and health of their valuable human assets. With conditions improved, death rates would fall, infant mortality would decrease and life expectancy would rise. In the long run, it was hoped, some form of freedom would emerge on the plantations to supplant chattel slavery. The hypothesis that plantation slavery could be reformed and that abolition of the slave trade would automatically bring this reform about was believed by supporters and enemies of slavery in both Britain and the West Indies. There were those who were unconvinced, though, including Granville Sharp, who accepted the strategy put forward by his colleagues but remained personally committed to the ending of slavery as well as the trade.

To achieve even their limited aim the early abolitionists embarked upon a campaign of public education, popular persuasion and political lobbying that was unprecedented in scale and revolutionary in nature. They wrote and published thousands of tracts and pamphlets and pioneered the use of the mass petition as a campaigning tool. They harvested millions of individual signatures from the British public and delivered to Parliament hundreds of petitions. Historians have calculated that between 1787 and 1792, 1.5 million people in Britain signed petitions against the slave trade, when the national population was just 12 million.9 The first anti-slave-trade petitions had been presented to Parliament even before the formal establishment of the anti-slavery movement in 1787. The abolition movement also deployed the boycott as a political weapon. Abolitionists were encouraged to eschew the use of rum and cane sugar produced by slaves and instead use sugar produced in India by free labour, or else add lemon to their tea. In his Address to the People of Great Britain of 1791, the abolitionist William Fox wrote, ‘If we purchase the commodity we participate in the crime. The slave-dealer, the slave-holder, and the slave-driver, are virtually the agents of the consumer, and may be considered as employed and hired by him to procure the commodity . . . In every pound of sugar used . . . we may be considered as consuming two ounces of human flesh’.10 Two hundred thousand copies of William Fox’s Address were printed, and they circulated around Britain and America.

From the original twelve founders of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, abolitionism expanded to become a mass membership movement; an enormous and enormously complicated network of local societies, committees and energetic campaigning individuals. Abolitionism mobilized the Quaker and Evangelical communities of Britain, whose churches and meeting halls became the physical infrastructure of the movement. The Quakers were able to call upon their brothers from America. Among the works Clarkson consulted while writing his prize-winning Cambridge essay was Some Historical Account of Guinea by Anthony Benezet, the famous American Quaker abolitionist. Dynamic, committed and innovative, Benezet was a friend of Granville Sharp and a powerful anti-slavery voice. Alongside Clarkson he was one of the great educators of the movement as he was convinced that slavery could only be challenged if the public were confronted with the reality of the institution and made to understand just how miserable the conditions were in which the enslaved toiled and suffered. To remind the public that slavery existed in temperate as well as tropical zones Benezet once stood barefoot in the snow outside a public meeting, in order to bring home the point that the enslaved were given no shoes and suffered in the cold as much as any white person.11 Alongside the Quakers other denominations underwent their own conversions to the anti-slavery cause. John Wesley, the founder of what became Methodism, had seen slavery for himself in Georgia in the 1730s and was appalled both by the brutality and by the slave owners’ determination to withhold the Christian Gospel from the enslaved. The Wesleyans spoke against slavery and in 1774 John Wesley published Thoughts upon Slavery, a fiery tract that denounced the owners and traffickers of enslaved people as murderers and thieves. For Wesley, as much as any of the French philosophers, slavery was a crime because it denied human beings the inalienable rights that were theirs according to ‘the law of nature’.

The religious fervour and moral philosophy behind abolitionism were broadcast and disseminated through the great shared spectacle of the movement – the public meeting, of which thousands were held across the country. Abolitionist meetings and lectures stoked the fires of indignant opposition that burned in the breasts of the converted and convinced those who attended out of interest or curiosity to dedicate themselves to the great moral crusade. At some gatherings a single speaker was invited to the lectern; on other occasions there were multiple speakers. Abolitionist meetings were never brief affairs. Speeches often went on for hours and speakers were known and celebrated for the duration of their orations. Most of the key anti-slavery speakers – men like Clarkson, Newton and Falconbridge – became renowned for their oratory skills and passion. The most successful of the abolitionist gatherings became enormous events, attracting crowds tens of thousands strong, and at the end of the speeches there were always opportunities to sign petitions and to purchase abolitionist tracts, pamphlets and, increasingly, books as abolitionism spawned a new literary genre.

There was a ready and appreciative market for abolitionist books. Evangelical Christianity placed enormous importance on reading and studying; John Wesley asked his followers to read for five hours each day. However, the most remarkable and compelling abolitionist books were the autobiographies of men and women who had themselves been enslaved. Two of the most important were written by two of the most active black abolitionists, Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano who were friends as well as collaborators. Cugoano’s Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species was published in 1787, the year the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed. He was born in the late 1750s on the Gold Coast, in what is today Ghana, and kidnapped by slave-traders at around the age of thirteen – ‘snatched away from my native country’ as he described it. He was enslaved on the island of Grenada and forced to work on the island’s sugar plantations until he was sold to a new owner who brought him to England. It was in 1772, the year of the Somerset case. Cugoano claimed his freedom and in August 1773 was baptized in London, taking the name John Stuart. No longer bound to his former owner he entered the paid service of Richard Cosway, a well-known painter of miniatures. Learning to read and write, Cugoano became active among the black population of Georgian London and, with the help and guidance of his friend Olaudah Equiano, wrote his autobiography. The literary influence of Equiano is evident in several passages across the book and he may well have edited and helped revise his friend’s manuscript. In a strident and damning work, Cugoano demanded an immediate end to both the slave trade and slavery and used his own life story to build his case. He offered his readers graphic insights into the lives of the men and women who produced the sugar that sweetened their tea, recounting the ‘dreadful scenes of misery and cruelty’ he had encountered on a daily basis while a slave on Grenada. He also detailed the terrible punishments that were inflicted upon black bodies, describing how, for merely eating a piece of sugar cane, ‘some were cruelly lashed, or struck over the face, to knock their teeth out . . . Some told me they had their teeth pulled out to deter others, and to prevent them from eating any cane in future.’12 Cugoano’s shocking book was distributed among the great and the good; even George III was reportedly given a copy. Cugoano is another of the many notable black Britons who left us their words and experiences only to later disappear from the historical record. It’s believed he married an English woman and laid plans to open a school but nothing certain is known. If he has descendants they carry his blood line unknowingly.

Cugoano’s friend and collaborator Olaudah Equiano’s commentary on slavery came in the form of his bestselling Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Running into nine editions, it became one of the literary sensations of the late eighteenth century, though some historians today debate the veracity of certain aspects of his account. Believed to have been born around 1745 in what is now Nigeria, he was captured by African slave-traders around the age of eleven, and trafficked to Barbados and then Virginia. Equiano’s life story stands out from that of most of the other former slaves who wrote narratives of their lives in that he was not put to work on the plantations. Instead he worked on board the ships that linked the whole system of colonial slavery together. Equiano’s bizarre life reads almost like an ugly parody of modern globalization. Torn from his African childhood and identity by slave-traders he was forcibly made into an American slave and was later purchased by a British naval officer with a French name (Michael Pascal) who decided to rename him Gustavus Vassa after a sixteenth-century Swedish king. This was one of a succession of names that were foisted upon Equiano as he passed from owner to owner. The only constant in this phase of his life was that, although he was sold three times and owned by three different men, he remained employed on ships and for twenty years he travelled across the West Indies, North America and Central America all the while the property of other men. Other trips took him to Europe and Turkey. Later, as a free man, he even sailed to the Arctic. Through his own industriousness and a degree of luck Equiano was ultimately able to purchase his freedom and make his way to Britain. By the 1780s he was a free man in London, although he continued to travel, and by 1783 he was involved in the early abolitionist movement and in contact with Granville Sharp, whom he approached for assistance whenever he became aware of cases in which black people had been abducted by their former masters. His Interesting Narrative made Olaudah Equiano famous. Demand for the book was so great that it went through eight editions in England. It was also rapidly translated into German, Russian and Dutch and an American version appeared. John Wesley read the Interesting Narrative on his death-bed and it was reviewed by Mary Wollstonecraft. In his forties when his narrative was published, and by then a forceful speaker and passionate campaigner, Equiano used his fame and his extraordinary life story to establish himself as a critical figure on the abolitionist circuit.

With a group of other eighteenth-century black Britons, Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano formed the Sons of Africa, a group of men who had known slavery themselves or who were descended from enslaved parents, and who met to fight against that institution. They included Boughwa Gegansmel, Jasper Goree, Cojoh Ammere, George Robert Mandeville, Thomas Jones, William Stevens, Joseph Almze, John Christopher, James Bailey, Thomas Oxford and George Wallace. The Sons of Africa were just as energetic as the white abolitionists, writing letters and making speeches, although the records of their activities are far from complete and much about them remains unknown. One document that did survive was a petition written by the Sons of Africa in thanks and recognition of their greatest ally, Granville Sharp. It was drafted in December 1787, twenty-two years after Sharp had stumbled upon the broken figure of Jonathan Strong outside his brother’s surgery on Mincing Lane. It read,

And we must say, that we, who are a part, or descendants, of the much-wronged people of Africa, are peculiarly and greatly indebted to you, for the many good and friendly services that you have done towards us, and which are now even out of our power to enumerate. Nevertheless, we are truly sensible of your great kindness and humanity; and we cannot do otherwise but endeavour, with the utmost sincerity and thankfulness, to acknowledge our great obligations to you, and, with the most feeling sense of our hearts, on all occasions to express and manifest our gratitude and love for your long, valuable, and indefatigable labours and benevolence towards using every means to rescue our suffering brethren in slavery.13

The Sons of Africa whose words – both spoken and written – were broadcast across their society were able to present themselves to the British public as living proof of black humanity, in an age when that self-evident fact was still called into question by some. Alongside Olaudah Equiano, Ottobah Cugoano and their colleagues other black Britons took part in the struggles against the trade and slavery. Phillis Wheatley, James Gronniosaw, Ignatius Sancho and later Mary Prince through their letters, poems, memoirs, speeches, journalism and very living presence in Britain acted as a counter to the propaganda of the growing pro-slavery lobby that emerged.

The talents and life stories of black people who had personal experiences of slavery enabled the abolitionist movement to fine-tune its message, but it was also able to administer its various campaigns and expand its reach across society because it was willing to free the enormous amount of wasted intellect and energy that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was bottled up within the women of Britain. Denied the vote or any meaningful role in politics – which was regarded as being an entirely male preserve – women were, to some extent and in some quarters, permitted to become active participants in individual causes. Significantly, it had long been deemed socially acceptable for women to raise petitions, which were then delivered to Parliament – an assembly which, of course, was then entirely male. Propriety set limits on how active and how vocal women were able to become in their chosen cause but the humanitarian nature of the abolitionist crusade, with its emphasis on mercy, compassion and the preservation of the family, was deemed fittingly feminine. The energies and compassion of women were thus given an outlet and female abolitionists formed their own organizations and committees. They held abolitionist events, wrote pamphlets, tracts and poems, gathered signatures for the petitions and raised campaign money. At certain times and in certain places they were the engine room of the movement. Traditionally confined to the domestic sphere, women brought anti-slavery politics into the home via the sugar boycott. It was women who did the most to promote and propagate that campaign which drew the mocking scorn of journalists and the engravers of satirical cartoons. The abolitionist movement, especially in its campaigns of the 1820s and 1830s, could not possibly have achieved what it did without their involvement.

The abolitionists were as much educators as activists and abolition meetings were as much tutorials as they were rallies. To demonstrate the most brutal aspects of the slave trade the abolitionists acquired its tools – manacles, shackles, metal punishment collars and whips. With these vile props they confronted their audiences with physical evidence of the violence always underwriting slavery and the trade. In that spirit Wilberforce acquired a set of shackles and thumbscrews and Thomas Clarkson, one of the greatest political educators of his age, had two models of the slave ship Brooks – sometimes called Brookes – built by a carpenter. The upper deck could be removed to reveal the slave decks below, upon which had been painted an image of the slaves, four hundred and eighty-two of them, shackled tightly together to the deck. The Brooks was built in Liverpool and fitted out to carry four hundred and fifty-one captives. Three times the size of the Zong, the Brooks was selected by Clarkson as she was typical of the vessels engaged in the trade at that time and so there could be no accusations of exaggerating her size. Her dimensions were made available to Clarkson by one Captain Perry of the Royal Navy, who had overseen an inspection of the ship in dock at Liverpool for the 1788 Privy Council committee of inquiry into the slave trade. The Brooks was one of nine slave ships that had been carefully measured by investigators working for the committee. Clarkson took one of his model ships with him on his speaking tours and gave the other to William Wilberforce, who showed it to his fellow MPs in the House of Commons. Wilberforce’s model can still be seen in a museum in his home town of Hull. Posters of the slave decks of the Brooks were also produced. They were distributed across the country and reproduced on the Continent and in the United States. Yet even this shocking and extremely famous image might have understated the horrors of the Middle Passage, as it is known that in 1783 the Brooks had set sail with six hundred and nine enslaved Africans on board, one hundred and fifty-eight more than she had been fitted out to accommodate.14

The abolitionist message was often at its most persuasive when it came from the mouths of men who had personally been involved in the slave trade. The voices of former slaves like Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano had a uniquely powerful impact but almost as potent were those of repentant former slave-traders. John Newton worked on ships and eventually became captain of one, regarding the trade as ‘an easy and creditable way of life’. After a conversion to Christianity he had – some years later – an epiphany and wrote a powerful anti-slavery tract, Thoughts upon the African slave trade. In 1797 he concluded that Britain’s ‘African trade is a national sin, for the enormities which accompany it are now generally known; and though perhaps the greater part of the nation would be pleased if it were suppressed, yet as it does not immediately affect their own interest, they are passive.’ 15 Newton was also the author of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’. As the words of that famous hymn hint, his conversion from slave-trader to abolitionist came about after his moral epiphany – ‘I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind, but now I see’.

Another convert was Alexander Falconbridge, whom we met on the banks of the Sierra Leone River. Before being recruited by Granville Sharp and dispatched to the Province of Freedom, Falconbridge gained experience of Sierra Leone. For seven years he was a doctor on board the slave ships that patrolled the coast of West Africa and he spent much time in Sierra Leone. Horrified and apparently traumatized by the scenes he witnessed on slave decks during the Middle Passage, Falconbridge returned to England in 1787 and after meeting Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp joined the abolitionist cause, as an authority on the slave trade, in effect an expert witness. In 1788 he published his vivid and harrowing memoir Account of the slave trade. The passions and disagreements that were whipped up by the abolitionist crusade often spilled over into violence. Indeed, one of the roles that Alexander Falconbridge performed for the movement was to act as a bodyguard for Thomas Clarkson. But it was as a writer, and as a man who had come over from the other side, as it were, that Alexander Falconbridge flourished. His impassioned writings include this classic description of the Middle Passage:

The hardships and inconveniences suffered by the Negroes during the passage are scarcely to be enumerated or conceived. They are far more violently affected by seasickness than Europeans. It frequently terminates in death, especially among the women. But the exclusion of fresh air is among the most intolerable. For the purpose of admitting this needful refreshment, most of the ships in the slave trade are provided, between the decks, with five or six air-ports on each side of the ship of about five inches in length and four in breadth. In addition, some ships, but not one in twenty, have what they denominate wind-sails. But whenever the sea is rough and the rain heavy it becomes necessary to shut these and every other conveyance by which the air is admitted. The fresh air being thus excluded, the Negroes’ rooms soon grow intolerable hot. The confined air, rendered noxious by the effluvia exhaled from their bodies and being repeatedly breathed, soon produces fevers and fluxes which generally carries off great numbers of them.16

The man who wrote that account, who acted as bodyguard to Thomas Clarkson and withstood four whole days of probing questions from a Parliamentary Privy Council Committee in the House of Commons on the matter of the slave trade, was a very different man to the Alexander Falconbridge who drank himself to death in Freetown in 1792, to the indifference of his wife Anna Maria.

The progress of the abolitionist movement was repeatedly delayed and enormously complicated by the turmoil of the age. The French Revolution drastically transformed the political and philosophical landscape over which the campaign traversed. By 1792 the revolution had begun to devour its children and in the terrible year of 1793 King Louis XVI was executed, Maximilien Robespierre’s ‘Terror’ began and Britain went to war with Revolutionary France. The following year was marred by a ferocious winter that presaged a terrible harvest. There was hunger in England, deserters from the army were hunted down in the streets, Tom Paine’s book The Rights of Man was banned and a radical, fractious mood hung in the air. The British propertied classes, the more radical and idealistic of whom had cautiously welcomed the fall of the French Ancien Régime, recoiled in horror at the bloodletting and destruction on the streets of Paris. The ‘men of property’ who controlled Parliament became increasingly conservative and looked upon all proposals for radical change or reform with deep suspicion. The rich and their representatives craved political and economic stability above anything else and the fates of the enslaved Africans, far away on the sugar islands of the West Indies, slipped precipitously down the political agenda. Even more dishearteningly events in France and within the French empire enabled the defenders of slavery to portray abolitionism as a threat to stability. The only good news came from Copenhagen. In March 1792 the Danish government abolished the importation of enslaved Africans into the Danish colonies. Denmark was only a minor player in the Atlantic slave trade but she was the first to abandon it, a little-remembered historical detail about which the Danes remain rightly proud.

The rallying calls of freedom, equality and brotherhood that erupted on the streets of Paris in 1789 and the publication of the Declaration of the Rights of Man resonated across the world, reaching France’s slave colonies in the West Indies. In 1791 the half a million people of African descent who toiled in chains on the island of St Domingue – modern Haiti – rose up to seize their freedom. The revolution of the ‘Black Jacobins’ lasted until 1804 and was one of the most profound events in the history of Atlantic slavery. It was the largest slave rebellion in history and the only one that was successful. The Haitian Revolution ended slavery on that island and led, eventually, to the creation of the first sovereign black state in the Western hemisphere. The causes and consequences of the Haitian Revolution are too many and too complex to discuss in detail here but to the gentlemen of property in Britain it was a deeply troubling event, mixing as it did French revolutionary ideology with potent and ancient fears of supposed black savagery.

There is no question that the Haitian Revolution was one of the most violent and dreadful conflicts of the age. The cane fields of St Domingue, which produced around 30 per cent of all the world’s sugar, were put to the torch and the acrid black smoke that rose from those thousands of acres blotted out the sun and provided a hellish backdrop for the terrible battles fought between the rebel armies and the French garrison. The rebels targeted their former masters and there was a wave of bloodletting in both the white and mulatto populations, which inspired dreadful acts of vengeance and retribution. To British defenders of slavery and an increasingly conservative ruling class the carnage in St Domingue was viewed as evidence that slavery, for all its inherent evils, was capable of restraining the supposedly innate violence of the black race. For this reason it was argued it should be tolerated and all talk of abolition ended. ‘It is to be hoped, for heaven’s sake, we shall hear no more of abolishing the slave trade,’ wrote a correspondent to the Gentleman’s Magazine who believed the rebellion in St Domingue was incontrovertible proof that ‘the Negro race are but a set of wild beasts’.17 This viewpoint attracted further subscribers in 1793 when British forces invaded. Like the French before them they were decimated by tropical disease and unsuccessful on the battlefield, having enormously underestimated the tactical brilliance of the rebel general, former slave Toussaint L’Ouverture. When the army finally withdrew in 1798 they left behind them, buried in the soil of Haiti, the bones of forty-five thousand British soldiers. So potent was the memory of the violence of the Haitian Revolution that it lingered in the British imagination right up until the Morant Bay rebellion in Jamaica in the mid-1860s.

Before the French Revolution the island of St Domingue was the most profitable in the West Indies. Over the course of the revolution and through the successive waves of invasion and counter-invasion the sugar industry of the island was devastated. The opening act of the rebellion was the burning of the cane fields and the boiling houses and sugar factories, the wholesale annihilation of the industry which the rebels rightly regarded as the mechanism of and the reason for their exploitation. Over a thousand plantations were destroyed and the economy that had produced more sugar than all of Britain’s West Indian colonies combined was largely eviscerated by the sudden release of pent-up anger. However, this enabled the defenders of slavery in the British Empire to suggest that any challenge to the slave system would lead not merely to black violence but also economic chaos and national impoverishment. This economic argument was repeatedly and energetically made by a group of plantation owners and their supporters who had come together to counter the arguments of the abolitionists and defend slavery.

The West India Interest was the name for a shadowy and sinister grouping. It was, in effect, the lobbying organization of the slave owners and slave-traders and was led by a man who was heavily involved in both of those activities, the Jamaican planter George Hibbert. As well as owning slaves, plantations and slave ships, Hibbert was the chairman of the cabal of West India merchants who financed and built the West India Docks in east London, a vast system of docks that were opened in 1800 and into which the slave-produced sugar of the West Indies was landed. Although parts of it still exist today, the name ‘West India Docks’ has almost disappeared from the map of London, surviving only as the name of a street and a railway station. The area is today known as Canary Wharf. In the same way that the link between Canary Wharf and slavery has been buried, George Hibbert too has been forgotten. Yet it can be argued that the story of abolition cannot be properly told without him, as Hibbert is the villain of the piece. He can be thought of as the ‘anti-Wilberforce’, the passionate, committed and defiant figure who fought a restless battle for what he believed which, in Hibbert’s case, was to ensure that Africans remained items of chattel that could be bought and sold, beaten and whipped. An accomplished political tactician and a Member of Parliament, Hibbert took on Wilberforce and his supporters directly from the benches of the House of Commons. While outside the chamber he used his prodigious skills as a propagandist to wage a war of ideas, pamphlets and satirical cartoons that was intended to neutralize and defeat the efforts of Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp. In this endeavour he largely failed. With funds collected from the slave owners, traders and others who had financial interests in the continuation of slavery, Hibbert built a war-chest with which he funded his activities. In our traditional telling of the history of slavery, which is so heavily focused on the abolitionists and their struggles, the men against whom the abolitionists struggled have, bizarrely, been written out of the story. With our national gaze fixed firmly on the saintly figure of William Wilberforce, George Hibbert remains a forgotten figure. Yet his association with Wilberforce runs deep, and without him this history is incomplete.

Both Wilberforce and Hibbert lived in homes overlooking Clapham Common and both men worshipped at Holy Trinity, an elegant Georgian church that stands under the shade of some broad trees in one corner of the Common. Wilberforce and his supporters – the pious men of what was called the Clapham Sect and sometimes the Clapham Saints – shared the pews of their little church with their greatest and most effective enemy. There are no records of services being disrupted of passions spilling over. While the names of the Clapham Saints are engraved into a stone plaque fixed into the walls of Holy Trinity, George Hibbert is notably absent. Whereas the home that Wilberforce shared with his cousin Henry Thornton is proudly and rightly stamped with a blue heritage plaque, the elegant town house that once belonged to George Hibbert is unmarked and anonymous.

Although it was the most volcanic and the largest, the revolution in Haiti was just one in a series of uprisings by the enslaved people of the West Indies that punctuated the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. There were slave risings in Jamaica, St Vincent, Demerara (Guyana), Grenada and at St Lucia. The determination of the enslaved to resist their oppression weakened the slave system but simultaneously had the effect of alarming an already nervous British public and, periodically, wrong-footing the abolitionist movement.

The icon of the abolition movement was the famous image of the enslaved man kneeling with his hands in chains, asking plaintively ‘Am I Not A Man And A Brother?’ Designed by the Quaker abolitionist Josiah Wedgwood it was one of the most compelling and brilliant pieces of political marketing ever devised. By depicting the enslaved man as a fellow human being, but helpless, it emphasized the idea that abolition was an act of Christian charity and humanitarian compassion. Abolition was portrayed as something that was to be given to the enslaved by the British people rather than seized by them. Yet when the enslaved rose up against their brutalization and commoditization, whether on a plantation or a slave ship of the Middle Passage, and demanded freedom through physical force there were many in Britain who found this alternative picture of the African profoundly disturbing. This discomfort about black agency was repeatedly seized upon by the growing pro-slavery lobby and channelled into propaganda that played upon the well-established racial caricature of Africans as savage people whose innate capacity for violence necessitated brutal suppression and justified slavery. This is not to say that everyone considered slave rebellions a reason to oppose abolition or support slavery. Despite being conservative on many domestic issues the great Samuel Johnson shocked his fellow diners at Oxford when he proposed a toast to ‘the next insurrection of the Negroes in the West Indies’.18

The first significant parliamentary breakthrough in the abolitionist struggle was the Dolben Act of 1788, named after Sir William Dolben, the Oxford MP who proposed it as a private member’s bill. Dolben was a friend of Wilberforce and was in a party of MPs that travelled up the Thames to undertake an official examination of a slave ship being fitted out. Even without a cargo the slave decks were a horrifying sight. The cramped conditions and the stores of chains and shackles that Dolben saw on board were ample evidence of how slaves in the Middle Passage were ‘crammed together like herrings in a barrel’, as he memorably put it.19 It was clear that there was not enough support in Parliament to bring about the abolition of the slave trade but Dolben concluded that it might be regulated. The Dolben Act set limits for the number of slaves that could be carried on a ship, at five slaves per three tons, although there were various exemptions and qualifications added to the bill during its passage through the House of Lords. The act also imposed a legal requirement that every slave ship sailed with a doctor on board and that a log be kept detailing illnesses and mortality rates among the captives. Historians disagree as to the effectiveness of the Dolben Act but it was at least a form of governmental oversight imposed upon a trade that had been an unregulated free-for-all ever since the Royal African Company had lost its monopoly in the early eighteenth century.

Some abolitionists feared the Dolben Act might confer the legitimacy of legal oversight upon the slave trade, and thereby weaken the case for outright abolition, but the Sons of Africa disagreed. They regarded it as a first step forward. Writing to Dolben they thanked him for his ‘benevolent law . . . by which the miseries of our unhappy brethren, on the coast of Africa, may be alleviated’. The letter, which was signed by Olaudah Equiano, Ottobah Cugoano and four of their comrades, also expressed their collective hope that the Africans who were now being transported to slavery in somewhat better conditions thanks to Dolben’s Act ‘may be preserved, as we hope, for future and for greater mercies.’20

William Wilberforce began his struggle to bring about those ‘greater mercies’ in May 1789. Leader of the parliamentary side of the abolitionist campaign, he delivered his first speech against the slave trade to the House of Commons that year. It was a brilliant and conciliatory speech – three and a half hours long – in which he avoided openly criticizing the slave-traders and spoke instead of collective national guilt. He was able to support his critique of the trade by bringing to the attention of his fellow MPs the enormous body of damning evidence that had been compiled by Thomas Clarkson. The first bill to bring about the abolition of the trade was introduced to the House of Commons by Wilberforce in 1791. With Clarkson viewing from the public gallery it was easily defeated, 163 votes to 88, in a Parliament rendered more cautious and conservative than ever by the recent outbreak of the French Revolution. Wilberforce introduced a second bill the following year which was supported by over five hundred petitions against slavery and the slave trade that between them contained the signatures of four hundred thousand people, 0.3 per cent of the population. Even this conspicuous display of public animosity to the trade did not persuade Members of Parliament to support the bill. Wilberforce went on to introduce bills for the general abolition of the slave trade every year between 1794 and 1799. They were all voted down. Despite huge public agitation and the continuing growth of the abolitionist movement the issue of slavery rarely dominated the attention of parliamentarians. The wars with France, poor harvests, widespread distress among the poor and a rebellion in Ireland made it increasingly difficult for Clarkson, Wilberforce and their allies to keep the abuses of the slave-traders at the forefront of MPs’ minds – despite the constant barrage of new abolitionist pamphlets and the constant drumbeat of mass public meetings and fiery speeches. Yet the bill of 1796 failed by only four votes after one group of pro-abolition MPs went to the opera and missed the vote. There were rumours that the performance of the comic opera The Two Hunchbacks that had drawn the lawmakers away from the chamber had been arranged by the supporters of the slave trade.

By 1804 Wilberforce had come to fear that the momentum that had been built up behind the movement in the 1790s had been lost. Nevertheless he introduced yet another abolition bill to Parliament which this time passed through the House of Commons only to be rejected by the House of Lords. In 1805 yet another bill was defeated in the Commons by a narrow margin but that year the political mood began to shift. Decisive victory over the French at Trafalgar strengthened Britain’s military and economic position in the world. Parliament had changed too. Many of the pro-slavery members who had thwarted attempts to prohibit the trade had retired or passed away and the election of 1806 changed the complexion of Parliament. A new, younger generation of parliamentarians took up their places on the benches of the House of Commons and Wilberforce, with the encouragement of the Prime Minister, Lord Grenville, seized the opportunity. After so many parliamentary failures and after years of opposition from the Lords, Wilberforce’s final abolition bill was presented before a Parliament far more sympathetic to his ambitions than any that had been called previously. The bill passed through both houses, receiving the Royal Assent from George III on 25 March 1807, and came into force on 1 January 1808. The British slave trade, begun in the 1660s under King Charles II, had, by this act, been ‘utterly abolished, prohibited and declared to be unlawful’.21 It has been estimated that between 1789 and 1807, the two decades in which the political battle to end the slave trade was fought, 767,000 Africans were transported to slavery in British ships.22

In the aftermath of the historic victory of 1807 the next target was obvious, yet for over a decade very little happened. On the islands of the West Indies hundreds of thousands of black people remained subject to the manifold horrors of plantation slavery and in Britain there was no great rallying call for a new abolitionist campaign. Abolitionism went into hibernation. During their long campaign against the slave trade the abolitionists had repeatedly reassured the slave owners and the pro-slavery West India lobby that once the trade was ended they did not propose to seek the abolition of slavery. Immediate emancipation of the slaves, they argued, would be a disaster for both the slaves and the slave owners. Publicly and privately William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and almost all of the more vocal of the abolitionists were committed to the principle of ‘gradualism’. This view was predicated upon the belief that the slaves were unready and ill-equipped for freedom and any sudden transition might lead to violence and chaos. It was suggested that the enslaved people might be prepared for their liberty – through a vaguely delineated programme of education and Christian missionary work – but that this process would take many years to complete. To this end many of those who had campaigned for abolition channelled their energies into supporting missionary work among the slaves of the West Indies. The institution of West India slavery, if it was to eventually come to an end, was to be slowly dismantled. Freedom would be delivered incrementally, in carefully spaced stages with white men judging and assessing the capacities of black people to manage their own affairs and adhere to European norms. The faith in gradualism said much about the racial ideas that prevailed among the abolitionists and most people in nineteenth-century Britain. It said nothing about the capacities and inner nature of African people.

This commitment of the abolitionists to gradualism when it came to slavery was in contrast to their fiery determination to enforce and extend the prohibition of the slave trade in the years after 1808. As we shall see in a later chapter, the British were to take other practical steps to suppress the slave trade of other European states. Peace with France in 1814 raised the possibility of a revival of the French slave trade. This British public opinion would not countenance. A mass meeting was called in London’s Freemasons’ Hall and the whole apparatus of the national abolitionist movement was wound back into action, with Wilberforce and Clarkson again taking the lead. In order to influence the British negotiators dispatched to the Congress of Vienna that would draw the borders of the new Europe, a massive petition was organized. One and a half million British people signed it, registering their opposition to any restoration of the slave trade. The French negotiators complained of English ‘fanaticism’ on the issue.

With the trade prohibited and the principle of gradualism widely accepted, the old abolitionist theory that an end to the slave trade would lead to the reform of slavery could now be put to the test. The plantations of the British West Indies became, in one sense, an enormous field experiment; a laboratory. Wilberforce remained confident abolition represented the ‘deathblow’ of plantation slavery and that the literal irreplaceability of the slaves would have transformative effects. Thomas Clarkson likewise believed that the abolition of the trade was the seed from which black freedom would flower. But their faith required evidence. During the campaign against the slave trade the abolitionists (most notably Thomas Clarkson) had been energetic and persistent gatherers of data. Clarkson had crisscrossed the country conducting interviews with those involved in the trade and, where he could, with its victims. That tradition of measurement, investigation and statistical analysis was now applied to the plantations. Both the abolitionists and the government set about gathering statistics about West Indian slavery. An act, passed in 1819, required all slaves to be registered. This permitted the creation of a census of the slave population, which in turn provided the government and the abolitionists with the population data that could be used to identify any changes in slave mortality, life-expectancy and infant mortality.

This injection of raw data into the debate was one of the factors that eventually led to a revival of the old abolitionist spirit as, by the 1820s, the data coming back from the West Indies had begun to show not a slow amelioration of slavery but the opposite. Unable to buy new slaves but determined to maintain their profits the slave owners had increased the burdens they placed upon their human property. To maximize the available labour force slaves were moved around, from plantation to plantation, and put to work wherever their labour was required. This led to the break-up of families and disrupted the growing of subsistence crops that had allowed slave communities to supplement their diet with vegetables. Life became more physically and more emotionally demanding. Rather than being regarded as valuable assets, women and children were compelled to work harder, many in roles that demanded greater physical exertion. More women were forced to work in the fields and women and men who had grown accustomed to the lighter work of the domestic slave were marched to the fields to make up the numbers. The conditions under which the slaves lived and laboured had not – in the language of the time – been ameliorated by the abolition of the slave trade. The experiment had failed.

In the same decades another experiment was under way in the British West Indies. For the first time the slaves had allies in their midst. They were the Nonconformist preachers – Methodists, Moravians and most significantly Baptists – who arrived in the West Indies offering the slaves a radical message of redemption and hope. They had been instructed by their superiors in Britain that their mission was to spread the Gospel, not oppose slavery. They were ordered to avoid entanglements within the colonial authorities and be cautious in their dealings with the slave owners. But the Christian message itself, when introduced into societies in which the majority of human beings were the property of others, was radical enough to prove profoundly destabilizing. The concept of the soul and the belief that all souls were equal before the eyes of God did not sit comfortably with the practice of chattel slavery or the maintenance of racial hierarchies. The biblical stories of redemption, of a Promised Land and salvation seemed to speak directly to the slaves, and offer them the hope that their plight might be ended. For the most committed of the slave converts the churches offered education, literacy, a new sense of community. For all those who attended the makeshift chapels or who joined services that were held under the shade of trees, the mesmeric communal euphoria of the prayer meeting, with its hymns and sermons, was a profound experience. The Christian Gospel was powerful enough when delivered by Baptist and Methodist preachers sent out from Britain; it was doubly potent when the words of scripture and catechism sprang from the mouths of black lay-preachers who were themselves slaves. To those black deacons the chapels offered the gift of literacy and the enthralling possibility that they might attain a position of status and significance within their community, an incredible prospect to men who lived in bondage.

The missionaries who proselytized among the slaves of the British West Indies encountered a people more welcoming and eager to imbibe the Christian message than any they had known. In the slave owners, however, they found a resentful and brooding enemy. The planters regarded the preachers as a dangerous intrusion into their world. They feared the impact that the Christian message might have upon the slaves and warned that such proselytizing would lead to rebellion and ruin. The slave owners regarded the missionaries, and particularly the Baptists, as a bridgehead through which the abolition movement could penetrate plantation society, and to some extent they were correct. The impact of the preachers and the growing literacy of an expanding number of black deacons meant that the slaves increasingly understood that a great battle of ideas was being fought over slavery. They knew that the system that held them in chains was in question, if not yet in crisis. Collectively they were able to deduce that differences existed between the government and populace of far-away Britain and the slave owners in the colonies. This new knowledge informed their strategies of resistance.

In 1823 a new generation of abolitionists, along with a smattering of the old guard, launched a second crusade. Their first meeting was held in a London pub, the King’s Head Tavern in the Poultry, which stood close to the old Poultry Compter, the city centre gaol in which Jonathan Strong had been temporarily imprisoned back in 1765. Wilberforce was not among them. Elderly and frail, he had largely bowed out of active campaigning. Also absent was Granville Sharp, who had died in 1813 aged seventy-eight, having spent almost fifty years fighting against slavery. The new movement was the London Society for Mitigating and Gradually Abolishing the State of Slavery. Its name was indicative of the cautious and tentative nature of the new campaign, committed as it was to the principle of gradualism. Yet even this timorous battle cry was enough to draw thousands to the colours. By the following year there were two hundred and thirty branches of the new movement. The rapid proliferation of the society was partly down to Thomas Clarkson. Still active and energetic at sixty-three he embarked upon another epic journey around the country, gathering information, mobilizing the faithful. But in the 1820s the faithful were increasingly more radical than their leaders. Clarkson reported that everywhere he went the demand for immediate abolition was growing and faith in gradualism fading. The most eloquent and compelling of the advocates of ‘immediatism’ were women and the most dynamic of them was Elizabeth Heyrick, a Quaker schoolteacher from Leicester. In 1824 she wrote a pamphlet entitled Immediate, not Gradual Abolition. Heyrick was almost as critical of the abolitionist establishment as she was of the West India planters, rounding upon the abolitionist establishment for its lack of moral fervour. In one passage she savaged proposals that had been put to Parliament ‘that our colonial slavery should be suffered – “to expire of itself, – to die a natural death.” ’ She had other ideas.

It must be crushed at once, or not at all. While the abolitionists are endeavouring gradually to enfeeble and kill it by inches, it will gradually discover the means of reinforcing its strength, and will soon defy all the puny attacks of its assailants. In the mean time, let the abolitionists remember, – while they are reasoning and declaiming and petitioning Parliament for gradual emancipation, – let them remember that the miseries they deplore remain unmitigated, – the crimes they execrate are still perpetuated; – still the tyrant frowns – and the slave trembles; the cart-whip still plies at the will of the inhuman driver – and the hopeless victim still writhes under its lash.23

Like Samuel Johnson before her, Elizabeth Heyrick was radical enough to be openly sympathetic towards slave rebellions, seeing them as legitimate rejections of tyrannical rule. Heyrick was a product of the second wave of female abolitionism that was concentrated in women’s abolitionist committees and societies across the country. Again women became the proselytizers of the sugar boycott and the organizers of abolitionist meetings and petitions. But in the 1820s female abolitionists appeared more radical than their male counterparts. In the city of Sheffield there was something approaching a schism, with the women’s abolitionist society demanding immediate abolition and the men’s committee advocating gradualism. 24

The final years of the abolitionists’ campaign were set against the backdrop of political crisis. A split in the Tory party opened the way for the long-delayed reform of Parliament. The gradualist caution of the 1820s was superseded by a new mood led by the Agency Committee, made up of younger radical abolitionists: Joseph Sturge, James Stephen and James Cropper. With Wilberforce still committed to gradualism there was effectively a split within abolitionism. Now the meetings got bigger, the petitions larger and more frequent. The Agency Committee and the female abolitionists hired professional, paid anti-slavery speakers who were fanned out across the country. With all the fire and fury of revivalist preachers these paid propagandists railed against slavery. Once again chains and shackles were waved and rattled before outraged and horrified audiences. The ensuing public clamour for the abolition of slavery was maintained at a fever pitch in the first three years of the 1830s.

At Christmas 1831 events in the West Indies gave the issue of slavery a new and deadly urgency. A rebellion broke out in the west of Jamaica. It was led by Sam Sharpe, a slave who was both literate and a Baptist deacon. What Sharpe had in mind was a form of strike. The rather modest demand he and his followers made was that they should be paid for their labour and they pledged to refuse to work after Christmas unless they were offered wages. So the most deadly slave rebellion in Jamaican history began as a sit-down strike in the cane fields, an almost Gandhian act of non-violent civil disobedience. The planters were already on edge and had been expecting some form of disturbance and they met the appeals of the strikers with bullets and bayonets. When the militia were unleashed and black lives taken the strikers became rebels. At least twenty thousand slaves rose up – some reports suggested the final figure was fifty or even sixty thousand – and the cane fields were set ablaze and the great houses of the planters put to the torch, each one acting as a fiery beacon that heralded the outbreak of rebellion spreading the violence to adjoining plantations. The rebellion lasted two weeks and it took the local garrison, the white militia and regiments of black conscripts three months to completely pacify the island, a grim task that was accomplished with ferocious violence. More than three hundred rebels were killed and at least three hundred and forty more, including Sam Sharpe, were executed. A further one hundred and forty were shipped off as convicts to New South Wales.25 Over a million pounds’ worth of damage had been done and the planters and the Jamaican Assembly blamed the white Baptist preachers for inciting the rebellion. Nonconformist chapels were attacked across the island, the Baptist missionary William Knibb was arrested and his fellow Baptist Henry Bleby was beaten and covered in hot tar. Bleby was saved from death at the hands of a white lynch mob only by the arrival of members of his black congregation. The rebellion – which came also to be known as the Baptist War – was arguably the final factor that tipped the scales in favour of abolition. The savagery with which the local garrison and the militia had hunted down the rebels, long after the real danger had passed, and the scale of the mass executions that had followed the insurrection played into the hands of the Agency Committee. William Knibb travelled to Britain to speak at abolitionists’ meetings, presenting a first-hand account of the unameliorated horrors of Jamaican slavery and the orgy of violence that had been deployed to defend it. He also lectured at Nonconformist gatherings cataloguing all the ruses, tricks and abuses the planters used to prevent their slaves from receiving the holy Gospel.

In the same year, 1832, it became clear that if the slaves were not emancipated there would inevitably be a second and even greater rebellion in Jamaica, one that might well result in the large-scale loss of white life. The government was concerned that the cost of putting down any future uprising would be colossal, and MPs were assured by experts recently returned from the island that all that was preventing the outbreak of the expected rebellion was the belief among the slaves that they were, at any moment, to be emancipated by the King. As literacy had spread among their ranks it was no longer possible to withhold from them news of the campaign for abolition. Even before the outbreak of the Baptist War the Governor of Jamaica had felt it necessary to issue a special proclamation specifically denying rumours that the King had freed the slaves and that the planters had withheld the news. Tensions on the island continued to simmer through 1832 and Lord Howick, the Prime Minister’s son, the parliamentary undersecretary of the Colonial Office, admitted to his diary, ‘I would not be surprised any time to hear that Jamaica is in the possession of the Negroes’.26

During the election of 1832 the activities of the abolitionists reached a crescendo. Reports from Jamaica of the persecution of the black rebels and Baptist preachers were relentlessly publicized. As the day of the poll approached the position of all prospective parliamentary candidates on the issue of slavery was investigated by the abolitionists. Those known to favour emancipation were recommended to the voters. In response a number of hopeful candidates and several sitting MPs made public declarations of their support for immediate emancipation. When the new Parliament met the balance in the House favoured emancipation and the debates got under way. Outside the House the popular pressure of the abolitionist movement did not abate. The drum beat of abolitionist newspapers demanding immediate abolition was maintained and there was a ceaseless programme of public meetings. In May 1832 the newly elected Whig government finally introduced a Slavery Abolition Bill into a Parliament in which the majority of members favoured abolition and emancipation.

Perhaps inevitably when the great moral issue of the late Georgian age was finally decided it was through an unromantic process of technocratic political negotiation and pragmatic compromise. All three sides involved in the debate made concessions that enabled the bill to pass through Parliament in the summer of 1833. The slave owners and the West India lobby accepted that slavery was doomed. The abolitionists acknowledged that the slave owners would be compensated for their loss of property, something the planters had been lobbying to achieve for decades. The government recognized that it would have to foot the bill: twenty million pounds was raised and set aside to compensate the forty-six thousand slave owners. That sum represented 40 per cent of all government spending for the year 1833 and is the equivalent of around seventeen billion pounds today, making it then the largest pay-out in British history. The eight hundred thousand slaves were to be freed, but not immediately. They were to be compelled to pay some of the cost of their own manumission. All slaves who worked the fields were to continue their labours for an additional six years, unpaid and for the same masters. Domestic slaves were to work for a further four years. This system was euphemistically called ‘apprenticeship’, as it was envisaged as a period in which the enslaved would learn the skills required for full freedom. In the last great outpouring of abolitionist energy investigators were dispatched to the West Indies, and reports were drafted which exposed this apprenticeship as a system rife with abuse and exploitation. There were protests, strikes and acts of resistance among the now former slaves, who struggled to see any significant change in their conditions and treatment. In Britain yet another mass petition was organized and more than one and a half million people added their signatures to it. The government once again bowed to popular abolitionist pressure and the date of emancipation was brought forward to 1 August 1838.

The most vivid account of that moment comes from the memoirs of the Baptist preacher William Knibb. On his arrival in Jamaica in 1824 he found slavery unameliorated and barbaric. Writing home he reported that ‘The cursed blast of slavery has, like a pestilence, withered almost every moral bloom. I know not how any person can feel a union with such a monster, such a child of hell. I feel a burning hatred against it and look upon it as one of the most odious monsters that ever disgraced the earth . . . the iron hand of oppression daily endeavors to keep the slaves in the ignorance to which it has reduced them.’27 Fourteen years later Knibb welcomed his black congregation into their little chapel in the port town of Falmouth, in the northwest of Jamaica. It was the evening of 31 July 1838 and over the entrance to the chapel yard a banner had been placed carrying the single word – ‘FREEDOM’. As the day of emancipation approached, Knibb theatrically pointed to the clock on the chapel wall and spoke. ‘The hour is at hand, the monster is dying.’ As the bell struck the first chime of midnight he continued, ‘The clock is striking. The monster is dead: the negro is free.’28 In the early morning of the Emancipation Day one of the most unusual funerals in British history took place. In the grounds of a nearby school a grave had been dug. A coffin was then brought forward into which were placed the instruments of slavery; a pair of shackles, a chain, a whip and an iron collar. A crowd assembled and in the dawn light the coffin was lowered into the earth, Jamaican soil into which the bodies of around a million slaves had been interred over the previous three centuries. The congregation sang their hymns and gave their cheers and the flag of freedom, with the Union flag set into its corner. A headstone placed above the grave read, ‘Colonial Slavery died 31 July 1838, Age 276 years’.29

When William Knibb and his congregation of newly emancipated slaves symbolically buried the chains of slavery at Falmouth in 1838 they did so in the hope that three centuries of British slavery would not be forgotten. There is some irony therefore in the fact that what largely obscures our national memory of slavery is the history of abolition, and a very specific reading of it. The first historian of the abolition movement was Thomas Clarkson who, in 1807, rushed out an account of the triumphant campaign to end the slave trade. That book was completed and in print by 1808. Clarkson understood the importance of seizing the historical narrative and wanted to use the movement’s history to further its continuing ambitions. But after 1833 he himself became a victim of a new history that was centred around the figure of William Wilberforce. This narrative was masterminded by William Wilberforce’s two sons, who, in their five-volume biography of their father, demoted Thomas Clarkson. In their account Clarkson was not the movement’s inspirational moral leader but merely a hired functionary. The two younger Wilberforces also committed one of the most outrageous acts of historical vandalism when they convinced Clarkson to send them much of his correspondence with their father. These letters were not returned and have never been found. They are presumed destroyed. But Clarkson was just one among a long list of historical casualties. The contributions of the black abolitionists, Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince, Ottobah Cuguano, the Sons of Africa and others were also redacted, and a similar fate befell the female abolitionists, like Elizabeth Heyrick and Hannah More. The pro-slavery men of the West India Interest are rarely discussed and nor is their leader George Hibbert. The slave rebellions that had nudged the nation towards final abolition were likewise forgotten; the black men and women who had led those uprisings, perished in them or who had been executed in the retribution that followed were reduced to footnotes or expunged entirely. The notion that the enslaved people had played a role in their own emancipation, that liberty had been demanded and fought for, rather than simply given, was for the most part forgotten. This version of the history of slavery and abolition, that first took form in the latter half of the nineteenth century, remains dominant even in the twenty-first century, despite half a century of challenge and reassessment by generations of Caribbean and British historians.

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