Cantab Abolitionists and the Low Countries

This guest post by Dr Jaap Harskamp (formerly Curator of Dutch & Flemish collections at the British Library) shows how the efforts of two men with links to Cambridgeshire (Thomas Clarkson, born in Wisbech, and Olaudah Equiano who lived in Soham) had an impact on the slave debate in the Low Countries.

The Atlantic slave trade began in the mid-1400s and lasted into the 19th century. Initially, Portuguese traders purchased small numbers of slaves on the western coast of Africa and transported them for sale in the Iberian Peninsula. The trade expanded when European nations began colonizing the Americas. By the 1600s the Dutch were contesting the English and French for control of the trade, but England emerged as the dominant slave-dealing nation. As the Empire expanded, slaves were sent across the seas to work on plantations in the Caribbean or the Americas. Others, in much smaller numbers, were ferried into the ports of London, Liverpool and Bristol on ships carrying lucrative commodities. To engage an African servant became a status symbol: Samuel Pepys employed a ‘blackmore’ cook, Dr Johnson left his Jamaican-born manservant Francis Barber a £70 annuity, and Royal Academy sculptor Joseph Nollekens hired a female servant nicknamed ‘Miss Bronze’.

During the 17th century a number of references to the baptism of black people can be found in church records. After conversion, Africans were generally given an English Christian name (John Baptist was a popular one). Notices of mixed marriages also increased which caused anxiety in certain circles. In 1773, a correspondent wrote to the London Chronicle begging the public to save the ‘natural beauty of Britons’ from contamination. Belinda (1801: S727.d.80.14-), Maria Edgeworth’s second novel, was a controversial work as it was one of the first novels to feature the marriage between an Englishwoman and a freed Jamaican slave. At the same time, the brutal nature of the slave trade gave rise to the abolitionist movement. The first protests were uttered by members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) as to them all people are equal in the eyes of God. In 1783, they established Britain’s first anti-slavery society, the London Committee to Abolish the Slave Trade.

Portrait of Clarkson by Carl Frederik von Breda via Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) was born in Wisbech and educated at St Paul’s School in London and St John’s College, Cambridge. In 1785 he entered the college’s annual Latin essay prize on the subject ‘Anne liceat invitos in servitutem dare’ (Is it lawful to enslave those who do not consent?) and his contribution changed his life. After winning the competition, he abandoned the idea of a career in the church and made the abolition of slavery his mission. In 1786 the essay was published in an English translation as An Essay of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African (RCS.Case.c.252). It was the start of a lifetime of pamphleteering and led to the creation of an informal committee to lobby Parliament (nine of the original twelve members were Quakers) which succeeded in recruiting William Wilberforce. Clarkson made investigations in the ports of London, Bristol and Liverpool, thus empowering abolitionists with an insight into all aspects of the trade. His findings formed the substance of the twelve propositions which Wilberforce put to Parliament in his historic speech on 13 May 1789 (Syn.5.78.31).

Wedgwood’s seal copyright Daderot via Wikimedia Commons

The push for abolition gained public support. John Newton, perhaps best known for writing Amazing Grace, asked his friend the poet William Cowper (living in Huntingdon) to write a poem in support of the operation. The Negro’s Complaint (1788) made an immediate impact and was followed by another poem entitled Pity for Poor Africans. Josiah Wedgwood was commissioned to create a seal that could be used to spread the message and which was made into a badge for campaigners to wear.

The outbreak of war with revolutionary France intervened and affected the national mood. In 1789/90, Clarkson had spent five months in Paris trying to persuade the National Assembly to abolish slave trafficking.  His sympathy with the Revolution created feelings of hostility at home. In 1804, he returned to fight the slave trade when interest in the cause had been revived and in 1808 he published an invaluable two-volume History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament (Nn.35.47-). It soon became clear that the trade would not die until slavery itself did. In 1823 the Anti-Slavery Society was formed which eventually led to the passing of the Act abolishing slavery in the British Empire in 1833. Clarkson presided at the opening session of the grand anti-slavery convention in the Freemasons Hall on 12 June 1840. The moment when he blessed the proceedings is recorded in a painting by Benjamin Haydon.

The Anti-Slavery Society Convention by Benjamin Haydon, 1840 (licensed under Creative Commons by the National Portrait Gallery)

The influence of English abolitionists was felt elsewhere in Europe, particularly in the Netherlands. Involvement in slave trafficking had started early there and the Dutch were among the last to abandon the trade. After Denmark in 1803, Britain in 1834 and France in 1848, slavery was finally made illegal in the East Indies in 1862, and in Surinam and the Antilles a year later. The moral push towards abolition had been made much earlier. In 1822, Amsterdam publisher C.A. Spin simultaneously issued two translations of anti-slavery documents. One was Clarkson’s De kreet der Afrikanen tegen hunne Europeesche verdrukkersof Tafereel van den slavenhandel; the other title was Aanspraak aan de volken van Europa over den slavenhandel, uitgegeven door het Genootschap der Vriendengewoonlijk Kwakers genoemden gevestigd in Grootbrittanje en Ierland written by Josiah Forster, one of the leading Quakers in the movement.

 One could argue that the ‘literary’ fight against slavery, the painful experience of serfdom as described by former slaves, made a deeper impression upon contemporaries than the moralizing rhetoric of campaigners. Olaudah Equiano was a former slave who, by the 1780s, lived as a free man in London where he joined the campaign against the trade. On 21 March 1788 he sent a personal letter ‘on behalf of my African brethren’ to Queen Charlotte. In the following year he published The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, his autobiography (7450.d.44). It tells of his kidnap in Nigeria, being sold into slavery, his journey to the West Indies, his life as a slave and the struggle to buy his freedom. Renamed Gustavus Vassa (the name he used throughout most of his life), he travelled to England in 1754 and was converted to Christianity and baptized at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster. Equiano’s autobiography proved a remarkable success. Between 1789 and 1794, nine editions were published and the book was translated into many languages. Although not the first account on the subject, it remains a classic text of the African experience in the era of Atlantic slave trade. Sales of his autobiography allowed Equiano to settle at a modest estate in Soham, Cambridgeshire. He married a local woman named Susannah Cullen and had two daughters.

Equiano’s autobiography was almost instantaneously translated into Dutch as Merkwaardige levensgevallen van Olaudah Equiano of Gustavus Vassus, den Afrikaan (available online via iDiscover) and published in 1790 by Pieter Holsteyn in Rotterdam (two years before the German translation; a French rendering did not appear until 2002). There was clear pressure in the Netherlands to abolish slavery and publishers made their contribution in favour of the cause. Their ideals were inspired by the great emancipation movement in Britain. Why then did it take so long for the Dutch government to act? How was it possible for the pro-slavery lobby to hang on and protect its financial interests?

History is made by people. No single person determines the course of development, yet one cannot exclude the ‘subjective factor’ in historical discourse. Individual audacity – or lack of it – plays a part in the social struggle. In the mid-20th century some historians argued that slave emancipation in England owed little to the efforts of abolitionists and that slavery had become an obsolete economic system which was ended by big business because it was no longer fit for purpose. I think that this interpretation is untenable. There were many forces at work in this age of socio-economic transformation. The campaign by a vocal anti-slavery lobby did have an impact and the relentless efforts made by Clarkson and his Quaker friends paid off. As a consequence English involvement in slavery ceased sooner than elsewhere. The Dutch lacked the charismatic characters that were able to assail vested interests. The abolitionist movement in Holland never attracted more than a few hundred members and did not represent a cross-section of the population. Abolitionists were good-willing academics or God-fearing ministers. There were crusaders but no enforcers; murmurs but no muscle.

Jaap Harskamp

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