Am I Not a Woman and a Sister: women and the anti-slavery campaign
‘Am I not a woman and a sister’ reads the legend arching over the female figure of Justice as she reaches towards a kneeling black slave woman, who holds her chained hands up in supplication. In the 1830s this powerful emblem was used on printed matter and on artifacts associated with women-only, or ‘ladies’, anti- slavery associations. It very consciously echoed the motto, ‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother’, adopted in 1787 by the founders of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Throughout the long years of abolitionist campaigning women were always participants, their role becoming, over the years, increasing prominent. Experience gained in a movement of such social, economic and political importance was to prove valuable when, in the 1860s, they launched the campaign to gain their own political freedom.
In 1787, however, women could take no direct part in politics, their role confined to that of exercising influence on those who did have political power. One such woman was Lady Middleton, a member of the evangelical Clapham Sect, who conducted a country-house salon at Barham Court in Kent. It was she who, according to Thomas Clarkson, in 1786 persuaded both William Wilberforce and himself to take up the anti-slavery cause. Lady Middleton’s own interest in the subject was not new. In 1782 she had been among the subscribers to Letters of Late Ignatius Sancho, the first prose work by an African to be published in England. Ignatius Sancho, born on a slave ship, had, as a child, been a house slave in London, at Greenwich.
Women’s influence extended to rather more than cajolery over the dinner table. Another member of the Clapham Sect, Lady Middleton’s close friend the writer Hannah More, was asked, in late 1787, to write a poem to draw attention to the discussion soon to take place in Parliament. She quickly composed Slavery, a Poem, published as a large, handsomely printed, 20-page book. She was just one of many women writers who wielded their pens in the abolitionist cause. Although they did not have direct power women could exercise their influence through the medium considered most suitable to their sex, poetry.
Women were also a valuable source of the finance necessary for the funding of the campaign. Although the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed and officered by men, there was no attempt to prevent women from becoming subscribers. Subscriptions ranged from one to five guineas, sizeable sums, indicating that those donating were drawn from the middling to wealthy section of society. Fortunately for us, the Society printed a report listing by name all its subscribers. Women clearly had no more qualms at having their names listed in such a quasi-political publication than they did in appearing as subscribers to a novel or volume of poetry. It is possible, therefore, to study the names of 206 women, comprising about ten per cent of the total, who in the late-18th century made public their condemnation of the slave trade.
The main, London-based, committee attracted members from all around the country. It is noticeable that there are few obviously upper-class or aristocratic women on the list. Only three titled ladies subscribed: Lady Hatton of Longstanton, the Dowager Countess Stanhope (who gave £50), and the Dowager Viscountess Galway. A superficial investigation would indicate that all three were women associated with families with radical sympathies. Indeed the Dowager Countess Stanhope’s son, who had succeeded her husband as earl, was soon to style himself ‘Citizen Stanhope’ to demonstrate his support for revolution in France. Two others of those listed, ‘Miss Pelham and Miss Mary Pelham of Esher’ were members of an influential Whig family, counting a former prime minister amongst their forebears.
The names of some subscribers have entered the literary canon. Prominent are Elizabeth Carter (writer and ‘blue stocking’), Sarah Trimmer (evangelical educationalist and writer) and Mary Scott of Milborne Port, Dorset, who in 1774 had written a lengthy poem, The Female Advocate, in which she drew attention to Phillis Wheatley, the first slave and black woman to have a book of poetry published in Britain.
Information can, with some application, be teased out about many of the other names on the list. A quick Google search reveals that, at random,’ Mrs Elizabeth Prowse of Wicken Park, Northampton’ was the sister of Granville Sharp, a leading member of the Abolition Committee. That ‘Mrs Peckard, Cambridge’ was, probably Martha, the wife of Peter Peckard, vice chancellor of Cambridge University and a preacher of sermons against the slave trade. It was he who, he in 1785 had set the question, ‘Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?’, for the University’s Latin essay won by Thomas Clarkson, the first step in his abolitionist career.
Through the Will Search facility at DocumentsOnline on the National Archives website it is possible to read the wills of some of the subscribers and discover a little more about their lives. For example, ‘Mary Belch, Ratcliffe’ was a corn chandler of Broad Street, Ratcliffe, in east London and ‘Deborah Townsend, Smithfield Bars’ was either the wife or the daughter of a Smithfield grocer. The wills may not reveal much about their abolitionist sympathies but they do demonstrate that women from this sector of society were committed to the cause.
The will of another subscriber, ‘Elizabeth Freeman, Woodbridge’, reveals that she was a Quaker and that she left ‘to my poor relations in America twenty pounds to be disposed of by friends of the Monthly Meeting in North Carolina’. It might be presumed that with these connections she knew something of conditions in an American slave state. Further research might indicate that other women subscribers from Woodbridge were also Quakers. Some names, of course, do indicate clear Quaker connections. Five female member of the well-known Fox family of Falmouth were subscribers and, with their fellow Quakers, are likely to be traceable through the records kept by the Society of Friends.
Women were also subscribers to the separate local committees formed in provincial towns. In Manchester 68 out of total of 302 subscribers were women. However few of the names include any indication of address and are, therefore, more difficult to identify. Some were wives of men involved with the Manchester committee. One such was ‘Mrs Bayley of Hope’, wife of Thomas Bayley, Unitarian, JP and penal reformer. Here too many the female subscribers were likely to have been nonconformists, particularly Unitarians and Quakers, a large number having connections with Manchester’s manufacturing interests.
In Bristol, notorious as a slave port, subscribers to the local committee included Miss Anna Goldney and ‘Mrs Goldney’. It has to be remembered that ‘Mrs’ at that time was a title given to unmarried as well as married women and, therefore, that the latter was probably Ann Goldney, who was unmarried and had recently inherited the family’s Clifton estate from her brother. The Goldneys were Quakers although an ancestor, Thomas Goldney, had, in the early 18th century, been the principal investor in a venture leading to the capture of slaves, the family fortune enhanced by investment in the manufacturing of guns for trade with Africa. Between them, Ann and Anna Goldney, a cousin living in the Clifton household, gave a generous six guineas.
Other Bristol women subscribers were Mrs Esther Ash, Mrs Frampton, Mrs Olive and Mrs Merlott, all of whom had at least one other thing in common, being subscribers in 1787 to a translation of Persian poems by Charles Fox. It is likely some were Quakers, but ‘Mrs Merlott’ was probably the unmarried sister of John Merlott, a Presbyterian sugar refiner.
Named women also subscribed to local committees in Birmingham, Exeter, Leeds and Leicester, some of which were probably set up with the encouragement of Thomas Clarkson as he acted as roving ambassador for the Abolition Society. He also organized mass petitions that were such a novelty of this campaign, an early manifestation of the method to be used by popular protest groups throughout the 19th century. Women, however, were not signatories. It was presumably thought that if they were the value of the petition would be diminished.
Women did, though, on occasion take part in public debates about the slave trade. One such was held in 1788 in La Belle Assemblée, a concert hall in Brewer Street, Soho, London, where ‘ladies were permitted to speak in veils’. In 1792 women were also present at a debate at the Coach-makers’ Hall, Foster Lane, Cheapside calling for the boycott of West Indian sugar and rum. The motion was carried by a unanimous vote of 600.
The subject of this latter meeting was one that women were making their own. For, although denied political power, they were able, at least in theory, to influence the economy. As early as 1788 Hannah More had urged a friend ‘to taboo the use of West Indian sugar in your tea’. Women, as chief purchasers of household goods, were encouraged to boycott slave-produced sugar from the West Indies, shopping instead for that grown in the East Indies by free labour. It is thought that by 1791-92 the sugar boycott affected as many as 300,000 people.
As well as redirecting their spending power to ‘free’ produce, women were also encouraged to purchase items that would proclaim their support for the abolitionist cause.
Thousands of Josiah Wedgwood’s ‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother’ jasperware cameos were incorporated into brooches, bracelets, earrings and hair ornaments, allowing the wearer to indicate sympathy with the abolitionist cause. The ‘kneeling slave’ image was also rendered on a variety of other artefacts and was considered a very suitable subject for young girls to embroider on their samplers.
Women could also buy china bearing anti-slavery messages. The tea table was the sphere of influence particular to the woman of the house and, while entertaining her friends, she could pass round a sugar bowl bearing the motto, ‘East India Sugar not made/By Slaves/By Six families using/East India, instead of/West India Sugar, one/Slave less is required’. By boycotting West Indian sugar and displaying articles such as this she turned herself from a passive consumer into a political activist.
Women were able to demonstrate their sensibility by buying and subscribing to the slim volumes of abolitionist poetry that were finding a popular readership. These were written by women of all sorts and conditions, by, as already noted, the evangelical Hannah More, by her working-class protogée, Ann Yearsley, by Mary Robinson, ex-mistress of the Prince of Wales, and by a succession of young women, such as Mary Birkett of Dublin. Women were also able to educate the younger generation by purchasing works such as The Negro Boy’s Tale: a poem addressed to children, published by Amelia Opie in 1802.
By then, however, the mass popular campaign had collapsed. In 1792 the British public had watched in horror as the French monarchy was overthrown by the mob and, in the same year, slaves in Saint-Domingue (Haiti) rose up against their masters. Whatever its theoretical sympathy with the anti-slavery campaign, the British public had no wish to unleash similar forces. When the act abolishing Britain’s direct involvement in the slave trade was passed in 1807 it was as a result, not of popular protest, but of parliamentary manoeuvrings, in which, of course, women played no part.
There was no further popular agitation against slavery until 1823 when Wilberforce and Clarkson once again took the lead in the formation of the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions. Over the intervening years there had been a decided change in the position of women who now had no inhibition about founding their own anti-slavery societies. The first such was formed in Birmingham in 1825. Here Lucy Townsend, the wife of an Anglican clergyman, worked with a Quaker, Mary Lloyd. Contact was made through their various denominational networks and soon towns such as Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool, Bristol, Newcastle, York, Southampton and Plymouth, as well as London, supported ladies’ associations. There were also groups in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
The formation of these societies and the activities they undertook did not escape criticism. Wilberforce expressed what one imagines was a very common view: ‘All private exertions for such an object become their character, but for ladies to meet, to go from house to house stirring up petitions – these appear to me proceedings unsuited to the female character as delineated in Scripture’.
For women were now, indeed, a petitioning force. In the early 1830s hundreds of thousands of women signed petitions. Those presented in 1833 alone bore the signatures of 298,785 women, nearly a quarter of the total. A large number – 187,157 – were on a single petition circulated by the London Female Anti-slavery Society and presented to the House of Commons on 14 May 1833, the day the emancipation bill was produced.
Women were not only, by petitioning, participating in the political process, but were now even questioning the aims of the movement. In 1824 Elizabeth Heyrick, a Leicester Quaker, published a pamphlet, Immediate not Gradual Abolition, calling for immediate emancipation of slaves, in contradistinction to the Anti-Slavery Society’s aim of gradual emancipation. In 1830, at Elizabeth Heyrick’s suggestion, the influential Birmingham women’s society threatened to withdraw its funding from the Anti -Slavery Society if it did not agree to change its aim to immediate abolition. The change was agreed.
Elizabeth Heyrick was also the leader of a new campaign to boycott West Indian produce, especially sugar. Like that of the late-18th century, the 19th-century campaign appealed to the woman of the family to exercise her economic power. In 1828 the Peckham Ladies’ African and Anti-Slavery Association published Reasons for Using east India Sugar, demonstrating to its readers ‘that by substituting east India for west India sugar, they are undermining the system of slavery, in the safest, most easy, and effectual manner, in which it can be done’. ‘If we purchase the commodity, we participate in the crime. The laws of our country may hold the sugar-cane to our lips, steeped in the blood of our fellow-creatures; but they cannot compel us to accept the loathsome potion.’
Women also exercised their talents in order to raise funds for the cause. The bazaar became a particularly womanly form of demonstrating support. As ever, this activity was regarded in some quarters as a waste of effort. In a letter of 22 September 1828 the salon hostess, Mary Clarke Mohl, wrote: ‘My niece spends all her time making little embroidered bags to be sold for the Anti-Slavery Society …which would be all very well if, instead of turning seamstress to gain £10 a year, she put some poor woman in the way of work’.
Only three years after the Anti-Slavery Society had agreed to change its agenda, the 1833 Anti-Slavery Act abolished slavery within the British colonies. Although a period of apprenticeship was imposed on former slaves before they could obtain freedom, a determined effort by the abolitionists led, in 1838, to the early termination of this system. A national women’s petition on behalf of the apprentices addressed to the newly crowned Queen Victoria had carried the signatures of 7000,000 women, a number described as ‘unprecedented in the annals of petitioning’.
Although Britain no longer allowed slavery within its own territories the anti-slavery campaign continued, with the aim of abolishing slavery world wide. In 1840 the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society organized the first World Anti-Slavery Convention. Women delegates, among them a grand-daughter of Lady Middleton, arrived in London from all parts of Britain. From across the Atlantic came women belonging to a section of the US abolitionist movement that wished to combine anti-slavery activity with campaigns for women’s rights. All women were, however, denied participation in the proceedings. As might be expected that decision led not only to a split in the British anti-slavery movement but, indirectly, to the beginning of the US campaign for women’s suffrage. Several of the British women who were barred, women such Elizabeth Nicholls (later Pease), Hannah Webb, Maria Waring, and Matilda Ashurst Biggs, were among those who 26 years later signed the first women’s suffrage petition.
Both factions of the American anti-slavery movement were keen to gain support from British activists and throughout the 1840s and 1850s strong transatlantic links were developed. As in Britain, bazaars became a particular field of endeavour for American abolitionist women, with the British societies keen to supply boxes of goods for sale. In 1846 the Glasgow Society reported that at the Boston Anti-Slavery fair ‘every one of the great plaid shawls sold instantly. The beautiful cloaks sold, and also the bonnets. Aprons do well. The shawls sent by the Duchess of Sutherland sold immediately.’
The societies organized lecture tours for members of the American movement. In 1853 the Glasgow Society sponsored Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin had already sold 1.5 million copies in Britain and in 1861 the Edinburgh Society organized a series of lectures by Sarah Remond, whom they described as ‘a lady of colour from America.’ She wrote: ‘I have been received here as the sister of the white woman’.
Even after the ending of the American Civil War and the freeing of slaves in the US, British women’s societies continued their work, concentrating now on providing aid for the ‘Freedmen’. The Birmingham women’s anti-slavery society continued to meet until 1919.
Over the years many of the women’s anti-slavery societies printed reports, listing the members of their committees. It is now possible to study these, together with publications such as the Anti-Slavery Reporter, to discover not only who the women were who worked for this cause, but also to examine the clear links between the members of the abolitionist and of the women’s suffrage movements.
C. Midgley, Women Against Slavery: the British campaigns 1780-1870, Routledge, 1992.
Anti-Slavery International: http://www.antislavery.org .
Wilberforce House Museum, Hull: details of materials relating to the anti-slavery campaign can be found by searching for ‘Wilberforce House’ at http://www.cornucopia.org.uk .
http://www.quaker.org.uk contains an article on the Quaker involvement in the anti-slavery campaign. The library at Friends’ House, London, contains useful biographical records.
BBC History: Elizabeth Crawford, Women: From Abolition to the Vote