Britain’s central role in the global slave trade is well known. For over 300 years, the abduction of millions of Africans to be used as forced labour, largely in America and the Caribbean, formed a major element of the British economy and was integral to the spread of the British Empire.
The end of Britain’s historical role in the slave trade is usually portrayed as a glorious moral campaign, of heroic upper class white philanthropists like William Wilberforce, gently and nobly persuading the authorities to abolish first the kidnapping and buying and selling of Africans (in 1807) and then, 30 years later, to abolish the slave plantations themselves and ‘grant’ slaves their freedom. Their charitable and altruistic motives are held up as another example of the civilising and beneficial influence of the Great British Empire…
Only in recent years has a counter-narrative been gaining voice, uncovering the vast history of slavery and of the slaves’ resistance to it, a resistance that took many forms, from physical rebellion and mutiny, armed warfare, through to an involvement in the campaign for abolition from below.
The constant resistance of slaves helped to slavery increasingly uneconomic as a way of guaranteeing labour in the West Indies, which was a major factor in the eventual acceptance of the slave-owning classes that slavery needed to go (the huge wodges of compensation paid to those who lost their ‘property’ also helped).
The usually accepted narrative also neglects the contribution of black abolitionists as activists in the movement to end the slave trade and abolish slavery itself. London itself was a centre of organised black abolitionism, emerging from the communities of black people that had grown up in London. The latter is achieving more recognition in recent years, though much still lies buried.
There had been significant numbers of Africans in London since Elizabethan times (when good Queen Bess famously attempted to get a law passed to throw all black people out of the country). By the 18th century London had a sizable black population, although it was hard to put a number on, being variously estimated; the Gentleman’s Magazine reckoned the capital’s black population at 20,000 in 1764, while other sources reckon it at only half that for the whole country… Disease, poverty, the hard conditions they had lived in and continued to live in took a regular toll, and so the numbers are likely to have varied wildly…
The vast majority of London’s black residents were ex-slaves, or sailors and former sailors. Some sailors would themselves have been runaway or freed slaves, who had worked their passage on ships from the West Indies (see for instance Olaudah Equiano, below). There were also musicians – many serving in English military and domestic orchestras and bands.
The work the black population could do was restricted, especially after 1731 when the lord mayor of London issued a proclamation banning them from being taken on as apprentices – the first known, though not the last, colour bar in the history of employment in Britain.
Many Africans of both sexes worked as domestic servants. This left them still in a difficult legal position, at the mercy of their employers, as even after 1772 (when transporting slaves was outlawed in England and they could not legally be deported by their owners) they were not really protected from being kidnapped and shipped abroad. Others worked as city porters, watermen, hawkers, and chairmen (carrying the rich from place to place, some employed directly, others touting for business in the days before cabs).
Black women also worked as nurses, or became basket women selling small items round the streets. But many were forced by poverty to turn to prostitution.
And a huge number ended without work at all, begging on the street for enough to keep them alive. The Poor Relief system, consisting then of a pittance of financial support from the parish you were born in, did not offer much support for incomers into parishes, which included most black folk. Many of course would arrive in London with nothing, whether slave, runaway or servant; many were reduced to extreme poverty. Black people forced into beggary became conspicuous in London in the later 17th century, many crowded into poor areas, ‘rookeries’ like St. Giles or Seven Dials, Limehouse and Ratcliff down by the river in the East End – all areas of poverty, refuges for the desperate, the rebellious and ‘criminal classes’. The black community was overwhelmingly male; many black men married local women and merged into the pre-existing plebeian world.
Rookeries were over-crowded, often a mass of sub-divided and sublet rooms, dangerous and unhealthy places to live. But being refuges to those on the run from the law, they were often no-go areas to the law, with a rudimentary solidarity against justices, constables and creditors… this of course made them useful to runaway slaves or black servants.
Despite being from many countries and backgrounds, divided in many ways, the London black community created not only social links but organised itself. This manifested on the various social levels which black people inhabited. Black servants certainly gathered together informally, partly to discuss information and common problems. Dr Johnson’s black servant Francis Barber was among them. A friend of Samuel Johnson’s was startled when, in the doctor’s absence, he discovered Francis Barber with ‘a group of his African countrymen . . . sitting around a fire in the gloomy anti-room; and on their all turning their sooty faces at once to stare at me, they presented a curious spectacle.’
A late 18th century skit on uppity servants, including a black servant satirised for ‘getting above his station’
Larger social gatherings with dances and music in taverns were also organised. About 57 ‘Black domestics’ of both sexes, for instance, “supped, drank and entertained themselves with dancing and music… at a public house in Fleet St” in 1764…”No whites were allowed to be present…”
But the plebeian black community also showed solidarity for its number – for example in 1773, two black men imprisoned in the Bridewell House of Correction for begging were supported financially and visited by 300 others. According to Philip Thicknesse, in 1778, “these black men have clubs to support those who are out of place”… Out of place means on the face of it ‘out of work’, but also has a wider sense, of those inhabiting spaces they didn’t quite feel at home in… This solidarity also took the form of support for runaways and ex-slaves living under cover, and encouragement for slaves who wanted to escape bondage. A common complaint among the slave-owning classes was that longer established escapees were influencing newer arrivals to leg it. Edward Long, a virulently racist ideologue, raged that “Upon arriving in London, these servants soon grow acquainted with a knot of blacks, who, having eloped from their respective owners at different times, repose here in ease and indolence, and endeavour to strengthen their party, by seducing as many of these strangers into the association as they can work to their purpose.”
The Bow Street magistrate John Fielding referred to these subversive ex-slaves as “intoxicated with liberty… the Sweets of Liberty and the conversations with free men and Christians enlarge their minds…” and even worse, alleged they had succeeded in allying themselves with “the London Mob”, the teeming, contradictory armed wing of the rebellious working people of London. This alliance bore angry fruit: ex-slaves were involved in the 1780 Gordon Riots, some coming to fore as rabble rousers and temporary leaders. Benjamin Bowsey and John Glover were among the leaders of the climatic moment of the Riots, the successful attack on Newgate; Black woman Charlotte Gardiner was sentenced to be hung for leading a crowd in the Riots.
The support of ‘native’ poor and working people for fugitive slaves came not from simple sentimental or abstract humanitarian feelings, as it did with the middle class anti-slavery abolitionists – though these feelings existed. Black people were suffering from treatment meted out by a class many in the slums saw as also being their own enemies; alliances were a matter of class solidarity. Long-established and strong traditions of resistance to the authorities were part of the culture in London slums and rookeries – fighting off the press gang or the army recruiters, or posses sent in to areas to seize fugitive criminals or debtors, were long established and instinctive, matters of self-defence and extended to support for runaway slaves.
There was also contact between fugitives in Britain and those still in chains in the Carribbean. Ex-slave rebels from Belize and Jamaica; and involvees in the American Revolution, also brought the spirit of freedom to England. Numbers of black people in London were swollen by an influx after 1784 of ‘loyal’ ex-slaves, who had been persuaded or forced to fight for the crown against the colonists during the war of independence… Many were poor and embittered, at the meagre reward for their loyalty; others who ended up in London had been involved in the rough and tumble of the American Revolution and taken on many ideas about liberty and equality… The authorities became so concerned at the ‘problem’ of black London they supported the plan to ‘re-patriate’ them to Africa in the Sierra Leone scheme.
The environment that sparked blacks involvement in the abolition movement, was thus twofold: a proletarian class in the slums, beggars, ex sailors, and a more elevated level of servants, more educated and literate… We know more about the latter, but there were clearly crossovers between these strata, and links between both may well have existed. Interestingly, there prominent individuals we know about do in some ways cross over both milieu, especially Robert Wedderburn.
These embryonic Black communities were sharply conscious of legal and social developments – they followed Mansfield’s judgement in the Somerset case in 1772, (which ruled that transporting slaves in and out of England was illegal, the first legal advance in the slow progress towards abolition). They sent representatives to follow the hearings, who clapped and hugged each other when the judgement was given… And a few days later this victory was celebrated by a gathering of several hundred black men and women in a Westminster pub… Seemingly better off servants as tickets cost 5 shillings!
Another complaint of white upper class commentators of the time was that slaves were struggling to be paid wages! Pay not only helped black people gain economic independence – wages conferred status, also the right of residence within a parish, which could prevent deportation. The social and political self-confidence of working for a wage also fed into political organising; Individual and collective resistance thus sparked off campaigning for the abolition of slavery from within black communities themselves.
One group who took part in the campaign to abolish the slave trade from the heart of the beast itself were the Sons of Africa.
The Sons of Africa were what was clearly an organised group, at the centre of which appeared to be ex-slave activists Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano.
Olaudah Equiano is best known for his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself, published in 1789, which told the story of his life, from the time he was taken as a slave as a child, through his years in slavery, on sailing ships and in the plantations. He later gained his freedom, buying himself out, and served various ships, eventually settling in London.
Equiano became involved in the rescue of slaves; a turning point in his life in London was his attempt in 1774 to save ex- slave john Annis, who he had recruited as a cook on a ship, from being seized by his former master. Equiano got in touch with famous abolitionist Granville Sharp, who took legal cases for slaves fighting seizure by old masters to court. Equiano had had to whiten up his face to swear a writ of habeus corpus. However, the case failed, and Annis was shipped off to the West Indies and flogged to death.
Equiano also wrote on slavery for various sympathetic newspapers, on several occasions reviewing pro-slavery tracts by plantation owners and their apologists… Later he published his life story, which was republished several times and had a huge influence on public opinion… ‘The Interesting narrative’ has been called the single most important document in abolition of the salve trade. Equiano built on his writings with public speaking, setting off round the country to talk at public meetings on slavery, which had a powerful affect, especially on the emerging radical and working class movement. Equiano not only worked with (and influenced) Granville Sharp and more mainstream abolitionists, but met many of the activists in the nascent radical scenes, including the reformist Constitutional Societies; he became friends with, and stayed with Thomas Hardy, founder of the London Corresponding Society, and joined the LCS himself. He served as a pivotal figure in many ways, linking self-organised black movement, radical societies and more liberal lobbyists.
Ottobah Cugoano was originally from Ghana, had been abducted from Africa aged 13, transported to Grenada; but had then been brought to Britain and freed, aged 15.
Cugoano got himself baptised to prevent being seized and resold (based on the belief that adopting Christianity prevented you from being enslaved – more of a superstition than actual defence…!) He became a preacher, and then servant to Richard Conway, and became involved in abolition campaigns.
Like Equiano, Cugano went on speaking tours around country; and like him, played his part in direct support of slaves and ex-slaves. In 1786 he was involved in the rescue of Henry Demane, a black man who had been kidnapped and was due to be shipped to the West Indies. Cugoano got Granville Sharpe involved, who managed to get Demane released.
In 1787, Cugoano wrote “Thoughts and Sentiments On the Evil and wicked traffic of the slavery and commerce of the human species” – possibly the earliest published black counterblast against slavery, based on the “Natural rights and liberties of men”.
A drawing of Ottobah Cugoano
This text demolished pro-slavery arguments about divine sanction for slavery, of justifications for it based on the fact that Africans also took slaves, that Africans were inferior and only fit to serve whites, or that slaves ‘lived better off lives than many among the European poor’.
The book not only advocated the total abolition of slavery, not just the slave trade, but disputed the emerging racist theories that justified slavery, dismissing talk of separate races, talking in terms of “many shades of the rainbow: All of us are fellow creatures, Africans free born…” He linked slavery to private property, and echoing the radicals of the English Revolution, spoke of a desire to “turn the world upside down”. Cugoano also asserted that slaves had a moral duty to resist slavery, and also posited the idea of it being a ‘crime against humanity’, and that all Britons were responsible for its continuation unless they opposed it.
Cugoano and Equiano together formed the Sons of Africa, a black abolitionist group, based in London. Besides these better known activists, several other black men signed Sons of Africa letters and public statements in late 1780s – including Yahne Aelane (who also used the anglicised name Joseph Sanders), Broughwa Jugensmel, William Green, George Robert Mandeville, Cojoh Ammere (aka George Williams), Thomas Cooper, Bernard Elliot Griffiths, Daniel Christopher, John Christopher, James Forster, John Scot, Jorge Dent, Thomas Oxford, James Bailey, James Frazer, Thomas Carlisle, William Stevens, Joseph Almaze, John Adams, George Wallace and Thomas Jones. Sons of Africa letters, statements and letters appeared in print around 1787-89, notably in the Diary newspaper.
Equiano and others of the Sons of Africa went to Westminster to listen to parliamentary debates on slavery. Like the white Abolition Committee, they too embarked on letter-writing and public-speaking campaigns, and made public appeals. Writing to the MP Sir William Dolben in the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, they discussed their position in England and elsewhere:
“Our simple testimony is not much, yet you will not be displeased to learn, that a few persons of colour, existing here, providentially released from the common calamity, and feeling for their kind, are daily pouring forth their prayers for you, Sir, and other noble and generous persons who will not (as we understand) longer suffer the rights of humanity to be confounded with ordinary commodities, and passed from hand to hand, as an article of trade.
We are not ignorant, however, Sir, that the best return we can make, is, to behave with sobriety, fidelity, and diligence in our different stations whether remaining here under the protection of the laws, or colonizing our native soil, as most of us wish to do, under the dominion of this country; or as free labourers and artizans in the West India islands, which, under equal laws, might become to men of colour places of voluntary and very general resort.
But in whatever station, Sir, having lived here, as we hope, without reproach, so we trust that we and our whole race shall endeavour to merit, by dutiful behaviour, those mercies, which, humane and benevolent minds seem to be preparing for us.”
Dolben thanked them and hoped their behaviour would recommend them to the British government, but ‘he must earnestly desire to decline any particular address upon the occasion’. (Though he had been so upset by what he saw on a slave ship anchored in the Thames in 1788 that he immediately proposed a bill limiting the horrifically cramped shelving of slaves being transported.)
They were always immensely grateful to Sharp and others in the Society for the Abolition of Slavery for their unflagging energy in the battle, calling Sharp ‘our constant and generous friend’, they wrote to him, in a public letter published on 15 December 1787, that ‘[w]e are those who were considered as slaves, even in England itself, till your aid and exertion set us free’. They requested him to collect his writings ‘for the benefit and good of all men, and for an enduring memorial of the great learning, piety, and vigilance of our good friend’.
There’s clearly more to be discovered about the Sons of Africa – and many questions that their existence throws up. What happened to the group? Equiano died in London in 1797; nothing is known of Cugoano after 1791. Was the group already defunct or did it survive them? Given the turbulent nature of the times they emerged in, with revolution, rebellion against slavery, theories of universal human rights coming to the fore – were there any black women active in London around this time on this issue? What relations did these figures have to the burgeoning reform and radical movements (as noted above, Olaudah Equiano bridged both scenes)…?
And did the ideas and thoughts the Sons of Africa were developing pass on to later generations? In London or wider afield? Certainly, there were later figures associated with radical movements that contained former members of the London Corresponding Society, who may have known Equiano and possibly others of the Sons, who later emerged to prominence – most notably Robert Wedderburn. Wedderburn blended English radicalism with an apocalyptic abolitionism, fired by his background, having been born a slave in the West Indies, and served as a sailor, before becoming a disciple of Thomas Spence. He mingled with the post-Napoleonic underground that launched the abortive Cato Street Conspiracy, besides lecturing and preaching blasphemy and egalitarianism. Others in the same radical scene included Cato Street Conspirator William Davidson.
Much more historical digging is needed here, as there’s almost certainly more fascinating evidence out there on these black abolitionists… Africans who refused to be passive pawns either for slavery and who give the lie to the idea that it was nice white posh people alone who generously ‘freed the slaves.’