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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 12: Slavery •


An engraving of slaves in a sugar plantation

An late nineteenth century engraving reconstructing a scene on a sugar plantation.

Edmund Ollier, Cassell's History of the United States (London, 1874-77), Vol. 2, p. 493.

The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record, Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite Jr. .

How Could We Do Without Sugar and Rum?

Graham Ullathorne, Freelance Lecturer, Universities of Nottingham and Sheffield

I OWN I am shock'd at the purchase of slaves, And fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves; What I hear of their hardships, their tortures, and groans, Is almost enough to draw pity from stones.
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum, For how could we do without sugar and rum?
(William Cowper, Pity for Poor Africans)

In the weeks leading up to the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade (25 March 2007), the media coverage can have left few in Britain without a view of that horrific trade (which even the British National Party agree took place). It is proposed that slavery will become part of the national curriculum from 2008, a development which will in time embed the slave trade in the national psyche. In contrast, on 22 May 1787, when the Society for Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded and the campaign to end the trade officially began, there were newspapers and pamphlets for those who could read or have them read to them, but precious little else to disseminate information. Few would hear parliamentary debates, like that on 20 March 2007 in which William Hague said:

In a world with so many recording devices of every kind, it is hard for us to imagine a political world without film or photographs, and no documentary of what was happening. The campaigners of the time had to establish facts that had never been nailed down and come up with statistics that no one had ever assembled. They had to persuade people of something that was true even though other people were prepared to say that the opposite was true. People would not have known initially whom to believe, and that makes the scale of the abolitionists' achievement all the greater. (1)

That the abolitionist message was disseminated to hundreds of thousand of people in Britain was, then, remarkable.

To 'draw pity from stones' could have been the Society's epigraph. 'Pity for Poor Africans', one of several anti-slavery poems by William Cowper (1731–1800), was 'printed on good quality paper by the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and distributed to thousands with the superscription "A subject for Conversation at the Tea Table"'. (2) This publication was evidently targeted at the middle-class housewife, who, the abolitionists believed, set the domestic agenda and controlled the purchase of slave-grown products like tea, coffee, and sugar. But this would be only one tactic of a multi-facetted campaign.

The abolition of the slave trade on 25 March 1807 (and the subsequent abolition of slavery in 1834) is a lesson in mobilizing public opinion against an appalling trade in human lives, which, despite professed religious and secular moral values, was carried on for three hundred years by Britain. The trade began in 1564 with Sir John Hawkins, and between 1701 and 1807 an estimated 3.3 million slaves were transported from Africa to the Americas. Four hundred thousand of these did not survive the journey (the Middle Passage). (3) In the thirty years from 1777 to 1807, when the campaign against the slave trade was at its height, 1.3 million slaves were exported by British ships from Africa, an average of 44,000 per annum and an increase on earlier decades. (4) Britain was becoming more efficient in the trade and was either unaffected by the abolitionists or perhaps aware that the days of the slave trade were numbered.

Clare Midgley writes that, 'in the eighteenth century sugar was Britain's largest import by value' and 'by the end of the century rum consumption reached almost a quart per capita annually'. (5) What could be more natural than sugar, the product of light and chlorophyll in photosynthesis? And how much did people know about the slave trade? Ignorance is, of course, no defence in law, but that was irrelevant: until 1807 the slave trade in the British Empire was legal and it was legal to keep slaves until 1838 (four years after the Abolition of Slavery Act). 'Overall, the evidence suggests that by the mid-eighteenth century the dependence of British society on colonial production, much of it by African slave labour, was taken-for-granted rather than an obscure fact of British life'. (6) Adam Hochschild agrees and writes: 'what exactly were they [the abolitionists] taking on? Were they going to agitate only for abolition of the slave trade, or for the emancipation of all slaves?'. (7) They took the pragmatic (gradual) route favoured also by the Anti-Slavery Society formed in 1823. It would be half a century—they could not have imagined this—before emancipation for slaves. Had they trod the emancipation route in 1787, they might have foundered early and completely by opposing vested interest head on—challenging the economic might of the burgeoning British Empire.

The movement gained the active support of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, who signed petitions and attended meetings, a mix of middle and working class people a generation before the political unions and the Reform Act 1832. And this was a 'genuine' alliance concerned with the human rights of people they had never met, rather than just one of political expediency. The Society evidently overcame the ambivalence, at best, of public opinion to the slave trade, although one wonders how much longer it would have taken for slavery to be abolished had not Elizabeth Heyrick (1769–1831) and the Female Society of Birmingham twisted the arms of the Anti-slavery Society, to drop 'gradual' in favour of 'immediate' abolition in 1831.

As part of their own campaign, pro-slavery activists adopted the abolitionists' tactics:

The pro-slavery lobby attempted to dehumanize Africans by claiming that they had no native society, lived like savages, were grateful for the opportunity to escape Africa, enjoyed the crossing [the Middle Passage from Africa to America] and benefited from a good life on the plantations. (8)

They showed, for instance, images of slaves 'partying'. (9) In turn, Thomas Clarkson for the abolitionists set about deconstructing these myths: 'That the Traffic carried on by this Country to the Coast of Africa for procuring slaves to cultivate our West India Island is founded on Principles inconsistent with Religion, Justice and Humanity' were the words of a petition distributed by the Society of Friends in 1788. (10)

The Quakers had begun anti-slavery activities in 1783, and when the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was inaugurated on 22 May 1787, nine of the twelve-man committee were Quakers. (11) None of them are remembered outside the Friends. Others included the establishment figures Granville Sharp (1735–1813), the self-taught civil rights lawyer (the Somerset case, 1772, which people believed made slavery illegal in Britain was followed closely in the newspapers) and Thomas Clarkson (1760–1846), arguably the architect of the anti-slavery campaign. The black abolitionist, Equiano (c.1745–97), was publicly prominent at the time, although he too was forgotten until relatively recently. The Quaker 'Meeting for Sufferings' was one of a countrywide network of committees formed to support Friends—the 'suffering' being imprisonment and persecution. Standard letters were sent to all branches to distribute to

JPs, Heads of Corporations, clergy, such other persons not of our society as are in situations which may afford them an opportunity of discouraging the traffic or by their abilities and influence, of contributing to diffuse that general detestation thereof from which we may hope in time for its abolition. (12)

One such letter, dated 8 March 1784, was sent to Friends of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire with 260 copies to distribute, which goes to show that the Quakers were active before the 'Society' came into being.

It should also be borne in mind that it took Thomas Clarkson three days to ride from London to Bristol to campaign and gather evidence (13), including the testimony of sailors, ship's doctors, and anyone else that he could find involved in the slave trade. This was just one of innumerable visits that he made countrywide. He purchased manacles, thumbscrews, and a device, like a three-legged set of dividers, for force-feeding slaves on hunger strike, to illustrate the abuse of slaves and confirm their oral testimony. Clarkson also documented the brutal treatment of the slave ships' crews by demonstrating that, on average, twenty per cent of each crew died from disease or ill treatment before the ship returned. His evidence demolished the myth that the slave trade provided useful training for Britain's seamen, and showed that the trade was bad for sailors as well as Africans. (14) This twenty per cent is greater than losses of slaves on the Middle Passage, which averaged twelve per cent between 1701 and 1807. (15)

The campaigns for boycotting slave-produced sugar, like Cowper's poem, brought slavery and the involvement of the domestic consumer directly into the home. Fair Trade campaigners owe their tactics to the abolitionists. A photograph of an earthenware sugar bowl with a lid and the words 'East India Sugar Not Made by Slaves' inscribed on the side, can be seen on the BBC History website. (16) Clarkson estimated that some 300,000 people 'of all ranks and parties. Rich and poor, Churchmen and dissenters [note the differentiation]' (17) abandoned slave-produced sugar. Instead they bought sugar produced in India, where slave labour was not used. The campaigners employed some powerful images, notably a cross-section of the slave ship 'Brookes', 'first used in 1789 and hung by the Quakers on their walls for the purpose "of exciting the attention of those who should come in to their homes to the case of the injured Africans"'. (18) The slaves were linked together, often to a dead person. Perhaps the most symbolic and memorable of all 'propaganda', however, was the Wedgwood cameo with the image of a kneeling slave in chains and the words 'AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER' around the rim. Midgley writes that 'while aristocratic ladies kept black children as fashion accessories, anti-slavery women purchased brooches, hairpins, bracelets and pin boxes produced by Josiah Wedgwood'. (19) Today we wear wrist bands like the linked black and white anti-racism 'STAND UP SPEAK UP'—appropriate, this, as racism is one enduring legacy of slavery, making the abolition of the slave trade one of the first anti-racism campaigns. The equivalent image of a woman ('AM I NOT A WOMAN AND A SISTER') was shown on a banner used in the campaign in the 1830s against the apprenticeship system. Slaves within the British Empire were 'apprenticed' into unpaid work for a number of years after their emancipation came into force in 1834. As the banner proclaimed, apprenticeship had 'proved to be but another name for slavery'. (20) Like the millions of pounds compensation paid to slave owners, this was a form of appeasement.

Thomas Clarkson relied on facts, statistics, and physical evidence. He appears similar to the arch-civil servant Edwin Chadwick in the nineteenth century who made the connection between disease and insanitary conditions by taking testimony and using statistical evidence from the new registration of births and deaths—although Chadwick never produced a set of manacles at a meeting. Nineteenth-century public health and factory reform owes a great deal to Clarkson and the Quakers, their evidence-based approach, and their multi-layered strategy—if the public were unconcerned about Africans, perhaps they might be about British seamen. Nonetheless, it could be argued that the passage of the 1807 Act owed more to the slave rebellions in the Caribbean and the successful revolution by former slaves in Haiti led by Toussaint L'Ouverture than it did to the abolitionists in Britain. It also depended on a change in Government and the diminishing effect of the French Revolution on repressive policy-making. For all William Wilberforce's eloquence (Wilberforce was recruited to put the case in Parliament) and the support of Prime Minister William Pitt, eleven parliamentary bills for the abolition of the slave trade were lost in the fifteen years to 1807. But no single factor diminishes the others.

Thomas Clarkson, or any other white abolitionist, could and did stand in front of an audience to talk about the evils of slavery. But when a former slave stood up and lectured about his life it had considerably more impact and disproved the stereotype of the African slave as a savage. Olaudah Equiano published his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa [his slave name] the African in 1789. On the title page he wrote, 'Printed for and Sold by the AUTHOR, No. 10, Union Street, Middlesex Hospital' and followed this with a list of subscribers who included John Wesley. He also commissioned a portrait of himself for the frontispiece (painted by William Denton and engraved by Daniel Orme) so that no-one could be in doubt that it was written by an African. (21) Vincent Carretta's discovery of Equiano's birth certificate in South Carolina (22) makes no difference to the impact that Equiano had on his contemporaries. Indeed, it shows that he was an astute campaigner, who realized that it would be an advantage if he could keep his birthplace secret, as it would allow him to recount tales of the horrors of the Middle Passage as though he had endured them himself. His extraordinary life story reads like a 'Boy's Own' adventure, from serving as a powder monkey on various ships and seeing action in Canada and in the Mediterranean, to his presence on an Arctic expedition led by John Phipps to find the North-West Passage. He was almost killed by a polar bear and wrote 'One morning we had vast quantities of sea-horses about the ship, which neighed exactly like any other horses'. (23)

Mary Wollstonecraft reviewed the Interesting Narrative and quoted another line: 'We are almost a nation of dancers, musicians & poets'. (24) He included a letter in the Narrative to Queen Charlotte (signed 'The Oppressed Ethiopian') and sent copies of his book to all contemporary MPs. He lectured and went on tour. 'Olaudah' in Ebo, he wrote, means 'vicissitude or fortunate, also one favoured, and having a loud voice and well spoken'. (25) He was well-named, although his first owner sought to eradicate any trace of his freedon by renaming him Gustavus Vassa, a name he first refused preferring 'Jacob'—he accepted it only after 'many a cuff'. (26) He survived slavery; a source of pride to all Afro-Caribbean people today.

...now that the whole ships' cargo were confined together, it became absolutely pestilential....This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains...The shrieks of the women and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable. (27)

John Wesley read Equiano's narrative on his death bed—Equiano was a convert to Methodism in 1774—and the last letter that John Wesley wrote was to William Wilberforce.

Balam, February 24, 1791
Dear Sir:
...Reading this morning a tract wrote by a poor African, I was particularly struck by that circumstance that a man who has a black skin, being wronged or outraged by a white man, can have no redress; it being a 'law' in our colonies that the oath of a black against a white goes for nothing. What villainy is this? Your affectionate servant,
John Wesley. (28)

Two years before his own work was published, Equiano helped his friend, Offobah Cugoano, to publish an account of his experiences; Narrative of the Enslavement of a Native of America. Copies of his book were sent to George III (Equiano, as mentioned above, would choose to lobby the queen) and leading politicians. He failed, however, to persuade the king to change his anti-abolitionist view.

Following the death of Equiano, Phillis Wheatley's poems were included in some editions of the Narrative. A Boston slave ('Phillis' was the name of the ship on which she was transported from Senegal), she was educated by her owner's (John Wheatley) family. Her short life (1753–84) is remembered for her poetry which includes 'On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, 1770'. In this she alludes to a 'countess', who may be identified as the Countess of Huntingdon, to whom Whitefield was chaplain. It was she who helped Phillis to publish Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773. (29)

Ignatius Sancho, described in his letters (which were collected and published posthumously in 1782) as The Extraordinary Negro, was born in 1729 during the Middle Passage. He was orphaned and baptized Ignatius in the Spanish Colony of New Grenada, and named Sancho after Don Quixote's squire by three maiden sisters in Greenwich to whom he was given by his owner. An extraordinary start in life indeed, which never abated. Sancho was the only documented Afro-British voter during the eighteenth century—long before the Reform Act and before William Wilberforce became MP for Hull (he died that year, 1780) and the first to have an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography—along with Wilberforce and Sharp. His correspondence with Laurence Sterne was published by Sterne in 1775 and Gainsborough painted his portrait in 1768. (30) He retired to buy a grocers shop selling slave produce: rum, sugar, and tobacco—an irony no greater than the Quaker, Robert King, owning the slave Equiano.

Wheatley's poems, Sanchos's letters, and Equiano's and Cugoano's Narratives indicated to literate society that there was no intrinsic difference between black and white, free person and slave. Given an education and a chance in life they could be successful, despite the pro-slavery propaganda that suggested the opposite. Abolitionists had to be determined enough to campaign interminably and to withstand years of setbacks, but, more than this, they needed the Quaker network and the media-savvy Clarkson, the eloquent Wilberforce, and the living proof of enslavement and achievement provided by Equiano, who has an entry in the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography beside Erasmus (31), Cugoano, Sancho, and Wheatley.

  1. House of Commons, Hansard debates for 20 March 2007 [URL: http:/www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/   cmhansrd/cm070320/debtext/70320-0006.htm] [3 April 2007]. Back to (1)
  2. C. Midgley, 'Slave Sugar Boycotts, Female Activism and the Domestic Base of British Anti-Slavery Culture', Slavery and Abolition, 17.3 (1996), 143–4. Back to (2)
  3. J. E. Inikori, Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England: A Study in International Trade and Economic Development (Cambridge, 2002), 238. Back to (3)
  4. ibid. Back to (4)
  5. Midgley, 'Slave Sugar Boycotts', 138. Back to (5)
  6. ibid. Back to (6)
  7. A. Hochschild, Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (London, 2005), 110. Back to (7)
  8. BBC History. Mike Kaye, The Tools of the Abolitionists [URL: http:/www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/   abolition/abolition_tools_gallery_07.shtml] [18 March 2007]. Back to (8)
  9. ibid. Image from B. Edwards, The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British West Indies (Boston, 2001–3). Back to (9)
  10. Nottinghamshire County Council Archives, Document Reference Number, DD1942. Back to (10)
  11. William Dillwyn, Samuel Hoare Junior, George Harrison, John Lloyd, Joseph Woods, John Barton, Joseph Hooper, James Phillips, and Richard Phillips [URL: http:/www.quaker.org.uk/Templates/   Internal.asp?NodeID=92262] [3 April 2007] and another Anglican, Philip Sansom. Back to (11)
  12. Nottinghamshire County Council Archives, NC/Q289/1–17. Back to (12)
  13. Hochschild, Bury the Chains, 112 Back to (13)
  14. See BBC History, Kaye (2007). Back to (14)
  15. Inikori, Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England, 238. Back to (15)
  16. See BBC History, Kaye (2007). Back to (16)
  17. An Address to her Royal Highness, p.11; T. Clarkson, History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade, vol. 2 (London, 1808), 349, found in Midgley 'Slave Sugar Boycotts'. Back to (17)
  18. Midgley, 'Slave Sugar Boycotts'. Back to (18)
  19. ibid. Back to (19)
  20. London, The National Archives [URL: http:/www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/   blackhistory/rights/abolition/htm] [22 May 2007], Anti-Slavery International, banner, Am I not a woman and a sister?: c.1836–8; artist, unknown; by courtesy of Anti-Slavery International. Back to (20)
  21. Back to (21)
  22. V. Carretta, Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man (Georgia, 2005). Back to (22)
  23. Equiano (1789), see Broadview edition (2004), 191. Back to (23)
  24. ibid., 325. Back to (24)
  25. ibid., 55. Back to (25)
  26. ibid., 79. Back to (26)
  27. ibid., 127. Back to (27)
  28. General Board of Global Ministries [URL: http://gbgm-umc.org/umw/wesley/wilber.stm] [9 March 2007]. Back to (28)
  29. P. Wheatley, The Poems of Phillis Wheatley (University of Carolina, 1989). Back to (29)
  30. I. Sancho, Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African (originally published London, 1782), this edition Penguin Classics (London, 1998). Back to (30)
  31. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: in Association with the British Academy: from the Earliest Times to the Year 2000, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and B. Harrison (Oxford, 2004). Back to (31)

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