This is a follow-up to Cara’s post the other day about the movie Amazing Grace. Why, you may ask, did the movie industry glom onto what is still (and unjustly) a rather obscure bit of history? Because this year is the two-hundredth anniversary of the Slave Trade Act that came into law on March 25, 1807 (and we’re nearly there and it’s my turn to blog). This, by the way is Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of William Wilberforce.
I first became interested in this topic by reading Adam Hochschild’s wonderful book Bury The Chains, which made me aware of what a burning issue abolition was for late Georgian society (and inspired me to write my October 2007 release, Forbidden Shores). Hochschild points out that it was possibly the first time that people cared passionately enough about a cause–something that would benefit strangers thousands of miles away who they would never meet–to make sacrifices themselves. Ropemakers in Bristol, one of the cities that thrived on the trade, petitioned to end the slave trade, knowing full well that their own livelihood would be threatened.
It was also a movement that cut through divisions of class and gender; ordinary housewives boycotted sugar. Wedgwood produced this plaque (it reads Am I not a man and a brother?) that appeared on many artefacts.
The abolitionists introduced the tactics of the modern political campaign–slogans, investigative journalism, slogans, and powerful visuals like this depiction of a slave ship.
Of course, the major question is why did this happen? What made ordinary–and not so ordinary people–care so passionately about this cause? Hochschild’s answer is rather interesting, and one that made me think entirely differently about the Gerogian and Regency periods. Georgian England was seen, and saw itself, surprisingly, as a fairminded and democratic sort of place–the monarchy was mostly benign, and the concept of Magna Carta operated as a sort of unofficial constitution. Few could vote, but ordinary men had the power of the petition. The country had a great infrastructure, because of the Royal Mail, a high level of literacy, and dozens of newspapers. The dealbreaker of the 1807 act was a new petition bearing several thousand signatures, collected in the north of England and delivered to Westminster in a matter of hours. Hochschild suggests, too, that people in England felt an affinity with the Africans whose communities were devastated by slaver raids, because something similar happened in their own ports–the press gang, which enforced men to serve in the Navy.
As I said, Hochschild’s book made me rethink the Regency, and I’m wondering if you have come across something, a book or movie, that revealed an unusual facet or layer to your understanding of the period.
Of course, the major question is why did this happen? What made ordinary–and not so ordinary people–care so passionately about this cause?
IMO it was a natural outgrowth of the Enlightenment. Revolution was all around them (first America, then France). There was talk of the equality of man on all fronts. How could reasonable people, who were being daily influenced by the philosophical writings men such as Rousseau, Paine, Hume, and Voltaire, not see that there was a problem?
Amazing Grace had really perfect timing for me. I’ve been researching the lives of free blacks in France and England during the 1780s and 1790s for about six months now (someday I’ll get to write the book I have simmering on the back burner). The law suits filed by blacks and their supporters in France during this period are fascinating (since legally there are no slaves in France).
I haven’t seen “Amazing Grace” yet, though I really want to. But I had a similar eye-opening experience when I visited an exhibit on Africans in Georgian London and the Abolition/Emancipation movement at the Museum of the City of London a few years ago. I hadn’t realized how many Africans were living in London during the period (which made me start thinking of making the casts of my books more multi-racial). And the language of the those abvocating for abolition and emancipation (which I’d also explored reading parliamentary debates on emancipation as research for a book) has a very “modern” ring which made realize you really can’t say “people just didn’t think that way” or “have those concepts” in that era. The idea of the dignity and freedom of each invididual rings through loud and clear.
I think the closest similar experience I had was when researching London’s Foundling Hospital. I learned how strong prejudice was against abandoned children because they were assumed to have been conceived in sin and hence inherently wicked.
Yet a bunch of aristocratic ladies in the Georgian period were the first to sign their names in a petition to establish the Foundling Hospital.
What always astonishes me is the volubility and cleverness of the period’s dissenting and reformist voices. The period was so zestily rude — and so much more a mixed bag than the Tory themepark of Georgette Heyer’s elegant rendering.
Just recently, I came across a quote from a novel of the later part of the period, written by a Mrs. Gore (who wrote some hundred popular novels of the “silver fork” school). Anyhow, she describes the Regency (or perhaps the reign of Geroge IV) as a period where the greatest good was accorded to the smallest number. Unfortunately, I can’t find the exact quote now, and when I tried to Google it, all I could find was something quite similar, applied to (surprise!) our own period.
I hadn’t realized how many Africans were living in London during the period (which made me start thinking of making the casts of my books more multi-racial).
In the research I’ve been doing I’ve found everything from black boxing champions (ok, this one is pretty well known), to black fencing champions, to legions of black servants (black footman and pages are a common sight in period cartoons, and butlers and valets are not unknown). I love the black pieman in Julia Ross’s The Wicked Lover. I really want to write a book with free blacks as the main characters!
Kalen, you might want to get on the Museum of City of London’s website (I’m sure they have one) and see if there’s a catalogue or anything avaailable from this exhibi (it was in 2003). They had books, pamphlets, copper anti-slavery tokens (one inscribed “Am I not a man and brother?”). It was quite fascinating and sounds perfect for your research.
I’m curious though how the people’s ire was roused against the injustices and horrors of slavery, but not against the atrocities committed by the empire worldwide for another 250 years (until World War II depleted the country’s resources).
So, my question is: What was the spark that lit the conflagration in favor of abolition.
There’s an exhibit opening next month at the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, “Breaking the Chains,” part of the city’s Abolition 200 celebration, http://www.abolition200.com.
The law suits filed by blacks and their supporters in France during this period are fascinating (since legally there are no slaves in France).
That sounds fascinating, Kalen. There were slaves in the French sugar-producing colonies, of course. One of the first things the revolutionary government in France did was to free the slaves in the colonies–and then Napoleon enslaved them again.
There was a law passed in England in the 1780s–to my shame I can’t remember its name or date–that gave freedom to slaves while they were in England, even if they were enslaved on the sugar islands. And the idea of slavery–for instance, in English households–never really caught on, although you do see a lot of black nursemaids and pages in portraits–possibly as status symbols/visual representations of wealth thru the sugar trade.
How could reasonable people, who were being daily influenced by the philosophical writings men such as Rousseau, Paine, Hume, and Voltaire, not see that there was a problem?
Exactly, but what fired people up against slavery, thousands of miles away, when so many injustices existed at home and around them? And people from humble backgrounds also, who probably did not read cutting edge philosophy? That, to my mind, is what makes the abolitionist movement so mysterious and powerful.
I’ve haven’t got much to add, except to agree that the talk of Revolution probably spread organically to include Africans.
It is a fascinating subject, Janet, thanks for posting.
So, my question is: What was the spark that lit the conflagration in favor of abolition?
Interesting question, Keira. I suspect it may have been the horrendous conditions of the slave trade. (Note that in Britain in this period, it is the slave trade in particular, not slavery in general, that was such a popular cause.)
I suspect that as the conditions of lots of people in various colonies varied a lot, it was much easier for people to say “no, that horrible thing you read about was an exception.” But no one could argue that the slave trade was ever anything but inhumanly cruel.
Anyway, that’s my theory!
Exactly, but what fired people up against slavery, thousands of miles away . . . And people from humble backgrounds also
From what I’ve read it was a couple of things: Religion was a strong force (esp. the Quakers) and then there was simply the pride of the simple Englishman. His abhorrence of the idea of being enslaved himself. The Revolutions in America and France got a lot of poor people thinking about the ideas of freedom and equality and liberty. Thinking, believing, and investing on a deeply personal level.
What is amazing to me, though, is this regard for humanity did not seem to apply to the Irish!
Cara wrote, “I suspect that as the conditions of lots of people in various colonies varied a lot, it was much easier for people to say ‘no, that horrible thing you read about was an exception.’ But no one could argue that the slave trade was ever anything but inhumanly cruel.”
This is the best explanation I’ve heard. Inherently cruel and inhumane.
However, the atrocities they committed on indigenous empire lands were horrific.
The Irish weren’t “slaves”. Neither were the indigenous peoples of India or the Americas. I’m not saying they didn’t get the shaft, but I think it was harder to get people excited about mere mistreatment (no matter how brutal or repressive).
The Irish weren’t “slaves”. Neither were the indigenous peoples of India or the Americas.
Of course, the Irish are indigenous to Ireland. Just shows how blind we can be.
Kalen wrote, “I’m not saying they didn’t get the shaft, but I think it was harder to get people excited about mere mistreatment (no matter how brutal or repressive).”
Kalen, thanks for clarifying Cara’s point. I get it now, I think. 🙂
It seems to be an important distinction, that even if the same type of atrocities may have been committed on different groups of people, the owning of human beings and enslaving them was morally and ethically repugnant. The other could be explained away.
A lot of the worst deeds by the British (and other Europeans) against “native peoples” around the world were justified by the spreading of Christianity and Western civilization. This included the slave trade, at least in its earlier days. So it is ironic, in a way, that one of the main reasons that the British (and other Europeans) eventually turned against the slave trade was that it was un-Christian and uncivilized.