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 abolition of slavery is often credited to the actions of a small number of white abolitionist activists in Britain. Not only does this long-standing myth cover up the massive resistance to enslavement and rebellious resistance by slaves themselves, through uprising, escape, organised desertion and the building of hidden or independent communities… It also neglects the contribution of black abolitionists, 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.
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 on 20,000 in London alone 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… Numbers 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 in the American war of independence… Many were poor and embittered, others who ended up in London had been involved in the rough and tumble of the American Revolution and had taken on many of the ideas about liberty and equality that had been swelling around in the colonies for two decades…
The vast majority of London’s black residents were ex-slaves, or sailors and former sailors. Many may have been both: black sailors were often runaway or freed slaves, who had worked their passage on ships from the West Indies (famous writer and activist Olaudah Equiano being just one example).
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 – 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 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, bagging 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 support black folk, so many were reduced to extreme poverty: many of course would arrive here with nothing, as a slave, runaway or servant. Black people forced into beggary became conspicuous in London in the later 18th century, many crowded into poor areas, ‘rookeries’ like St. Giles or Seven Dials, or Limehouse and Ratcliff down by the river in the East End – all areas of poverty, refuges for the desperate, the skint, the rebellious and so-called ‘criminal classes’. 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. Traditions of resistance to the authorities in London slums and rookeries, eg 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 extended to support runaway slaves. Poor white Londoners’ support for fugitive slaves came not from any sentimental or humanitarian feelings, as with the middle class abolitionists. Black people were suffering from treatment meted out by a class many Londoners saw as their own enemies, and alliances were a matter of class solidarity, more or less…
In part because of the gender imbalance in the black community – there being many more African men than women in London, but also because of its social and geographical diffusion, many black men married local white women and merged into existing working communities.
Thus the environment that sparked black involvement in the abolition movement was dual, consisting of a proletarian class in the slums, beggars, ex sailors, and a higher level of African servants, often more educated and literate. We know more about the latter, sometimes because they were servants to prominent figures, or because they wrote their own accounts of their enslavement and other experiences. However, links between these strata may well have existed – interestingly some of the more prominent individuals we do know about, in some ways cross over both milieux, especially later, as with the radical activists Olaudah Equiano and Robert Wedderburn.
Another complaint of white upper class commentators of the time – that slaves were asserting themselves and struggling to be paid wages for their labour – illustrates how the beginnings of collective economic self-organisation led into the abolitionist movement against slavery. Fighting for wages helped them not only attain economic independence (and wages conferred status, also the right of residence within a parish, which could help prevent a slave’s deportation) but also aided social and political self-confidence – which itself fed into political organising. Individual and collective resistance sparked off the abolition campaign from within black communities themselves.
Despite originating from many countries and backgrounds, being divided in many ways, the London black community created not only social links but organised itself politically. Black servants certainly gathered informally, partly to discuss information and common problems (Dr Johnson’s black servant Francis Barber was among them); they also held larger social gatherings, including dances and music in taverns (black domestics of both sexes “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…”)
This 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 is an interesting phrase here – on the surface, it means just ‘out of work’, but there is also an implied support for runaways and ex-slaves living under cover. This solidarity is known to have existed. A common complaint from slave-owners was that longer established escapees were influencing newer arrivals to leg it. According to the virulently racist ideologue Edward Long: “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, they had succeed in allying themselves with “the London Mob”, the rebellious working people of London. This alliance was exposed in times of riot and disorder. Ex-slaves and former black sailors were prominent in several episodes during the 1780 Gordon Riots: Benjamin Bowsey and John Glover were among the leaders of the attack on Newgate; black woman Charlotte Gardiner was hung for her leading part in the Riots…
This embryonic Black community was sharply conscious of legal and social developments – particularly where the courts ruled on cases involving slavery.
In 1772 came a case that excited their interest like no other.
Anti-slavery abolitionists had been waging a campaign of agitation against the slave trade, seeing it as the thin end of the wedge, a vulnerable chink which could be attacked to undermine the existence of slavery as a whole. Legal challenges to the right of an ‘owner’ over individual slaves were a useful battleground, where a precedent might undermine the legal armoury that protected clave owners. The question of whether it was legal to actually own slaves under English law seemed a possible point on which the whole practice could be called into question.
Granville Sharp had almost by chance become drawn into the abolitionist movement through contact with an escaped slave, Jonathan Strong, who he then defended in a long drawn-out court case. This, and subsequent cases, which he became involved in, led to tough court hearings which won some freedom for individual slaves, but failed to end in a conclusive ruling on the legality of slavery. The cases inevitably ended in the court of William Murray, Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, who, conscious of he vast economic importance of slavery to the British economy and its ruling elites, was reluctant to be pinned down to a judgment that would undermine it. Mansfield was a stickler for the law, however, and appears to have been personally repulsed by slavery…
In 1772, the test case that Sharp had been waiting for came up. James Somerset, an enslaved African, had been bought by customs officer Charles Stewart, in Boston, Province of Massachusetts Bay, then a British colony in North America.
Stewart brought Somerset with him when he returned to England in 1769, but in 1771 Somerset escaped. Recaptured in November, he was was imprisoned on the ship Ann and Mary, bound for the British colony of Jamaica. Stewart intended that Somerset be sold to a plantation for labour; however, Somerset had been baptised as a Christian in England, which was widely held to bar an African from being held as a slave (though this had in fact no standing in law). Somerset’s three godparents from his baptism, John Marlow, Thomas Walkin and Elizabeth Cade, all abolitionists, applied to the Court of King’s Bench in December 1771 for a writ of habeas corpus, in an attempt to force a hearing. Captain Knowles produced Somerset before the Court of King’s Bench on 9 December; the court would now have to determine whether his imprisonment was lawful.
Lord Chief Justice Mansfield ordered a hearing for 21 January; in the meantime he set the prisoner free on recognisance. In February 1772 that the case was heard. The case had attracted a great deal of attention in the press and members of the public donated cash to support the lawyers on both sides of the argument.
When the case was heard, five advocates appeared for Somerset, arguing that while colonial laws might permit slavery, neither the common law of England nor any law made by Parliament recognised the existence of slavery and slavery was therefore unlawful. The advocates also argued that English contract law did not allow for any person to enslave himself, nor could any contract be binding without the person’s consent. The arguments focused on legal details rather than humanitarian principles. When the two lawyers for Charles Stewart put their case, they argued that property was paramount and that it would be dangerous to free all the black people in England, who numbered at the time approximately 15,000.
Mansfield was reluctant to rule against the property rights of slave-owners, as he had proved in previous judgements in cases brought by Sharp; he tried his hardest to give the slave owner Stewart the chance to free the slave concerned and drop the case, so a precedent wouldn’t be set. In the end, as Stewart refused to drop it, Mansfield felt himself backed into a legal corner, since he could find no legal justification for slavery to exist. In fact the ruling didn’t outlaw slavery, it only really meant slavers couldn’t take slaves from Britain to the colonies; in effect existing slaves remained slaves, and continued to be taken from Africa to the plantations in the Carribbean.
However, there was widespread celebration in June 1772 after Mansfield’s ruling; many abolitionists saw it as a harbinger of the end of slavery. This was premature: several more decades were to pass, with slavery continuing, and opposition and rebellion against it growing, before the slave trade was outlawed within British colonies (in 1807) and then slavery itself was outlawed in the Empire (in 1833). In some ways the Mansfield judgement is given too much prominence in the histories of the ending of the slave trade, since it chimes with the long-accepted idea of generous white people eventually politely deigning to stop kidnapping people and living off their forced labour , out of the goodness of their hearts…
But the ruling did make life difficult for slavers, opening up opportunity for legal challenges every time they shipped africans into Britain itself. It also encouraged oppositionists, both in the courts and in Parliament, and slaves in the West Indies (and elsewhere) took heart from it, where they heard of it. Whether it had an effect on the numerous slave rebellions that would rise before slavery was finally ended, is debatable: enough immediate oppressive reasons for violent resistance existed in slaves everyday lives.
London’s growing black community, as previously related politically aware and involved in the abolitionist movement, followed the Somerset case carefully. They sent representatives to follow the hearings, who clapped and hugged each other when the judgment was given… A few days later (probably on June 29th, since it was described as being on a Monday) this victory was celebrated by a gathering of several hundred black men and women in a Westminster pub. This was aimed at the seemingly better off, perhaps black servants, as tickets to get in were sold at 5 shillings…
This community solidarity was to continue, and evolve. Politically African anti-slavery activists became a more visible element in the abolitionist movement. A decade and a half after the Mansfield judgment, former slaves like Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano were touring the country speaking to sympathetic audiences, and setting their proposals for the ending of slavery out in print. And there was clearly an organised group around Equiano and Cugoano, who called themselves the Sons of Africa. Several other black men signed letters and public statements under this banner in the late 1780s, whose names are less well known than Cugoano and Equiano, though they deserve mention here. They included Yahne Aelane (Joseph Sanders), Broughwa Jugensmel, William Green, George Robert Mandeville, Cojoh Ammere (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. Most of whom are only known by English names, often forced on them by those who had ‘owned’ them, as a way of breaking them from their African identity – though in other cases they could have been adopted on baptism into Christianity (as Olaudah Equiano had taken the name Gustavus Vasa).
This strand of black abolitionist politics would sharpen, form relations with English radical groupings like the London Corresponding Society and the Spencean Philanthropists, reformers who became revolutionaries and plotted insurrection… This cross-fertilisation would produce figures like Robert Wedderburn, who 30 years after Mansfield’s ruling would plot insurrection in London and attempt to spread it to his native West Indies, would link working class agitation against their employers with slave uprising against their owners…
This article owes much to The Many-headed Hydra, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker; the London Hanged, by Peter Linebaugh, as well as Staying Power, The History of Black People in Britain, by Peter Fryer.
Note on the image at the top of this post: The New Union: Club, Being a Representation of what took place at a celebrated Dinner, given by a celebrated – society, by George Cruikshank. One of the most racist prints of the 19th century. It purports to show a dinner held at the African Institution becoming increasingly drunken and debauched as the evening progresses. Cruikshank here employs many common 19th-century racist stereotypes of black people – drunkenness, aggressiveness, and sexual promiscuity – and mocks the idea that black people could aspire to behave in a ‘civilised way’. White abolitionists are portrayed as unsuspecting and bewildered innocents, corrupted by their association with black people; becoming ‘uncivilised’ rather than black people becoming ‘civilised’. Meanwhile, the idea of relationships between races is ridiculed. Many familiar and important figures are represented. Abolitionists like Wilberforce, Stephen and Macaulay appear next to the street entertainer Billy Waters and the radical Robert Wedderburn. Cruikshank’s print was influenced by a pamphlet entitled ‘More thoughts still on the state of the West India Colonies and the proceedings on the African Institution with observations on the speech of James Stephen Esq.’, which was published in London in 1818. It was written by Joseph Marryat MP, the agent for the island of Grenada, and was a challenge to the abolitionist cause.
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.