S1: Welcome to the second episode of The History of American Slavery A Slate Academy. My name is Rebecca Onion and I’m Slate’s history writer.
S2: And I’m Jamelle Bouie and I’m a Slate staff writer.
S1: In each episode, we’re talking about a different chapter in the history of slavery in America and starting the conversation with the life of a single person in this episode.
S2: We’re going to talk about allowedto Equiano.
S3: My life and fortune have been extremely checkered and my adventures various wrote allowed a Equiano in his autobiography. That’s an understatement. Most of Equiano, his 12 year enslavement, was spent as a sailor onboard merchant in slave ships. Though he wasn’t slave for a brief time on a plantation in Virginia. Like other sailors who live during the 18th century, Equiano saw more of the globe during and after his enslavement than most of his contemporaries visiting various American colonies. Nova Scotia, Turkey, Portugal, Italy, even the Arctic, though there is now some controversy over his true origins.
S4: Equiano wrote that he was born in Igbo land, now in Nigeria in 1745, kidnapped from his village along with a sister. Was brought to a slave ship on the coast at the age of eleven. His narrative describes his harrowing experience during the Middle Passage. He was sold and sold and sold and went from ship to ship. One slave holder named him Gustavus vassa after a 16th century Swedish king. A grand name, perhaps a joke along the lines of the tradition of naming enslaved people Pompei or Caesar. Finally, he was bought by a Quaker merchant, Robert King, and worked as a clerk. King allowed him to conduct trades of his own in order to save money to buy his freedom, which he eventually did for 40 pounds and 1766. He was then 21. Equiano continued to travel, leading to the West Indies and the American South. Encountering and reporting the dangers involved in being a free black man and slave societies. After a prolonged spiritual crisis, he converted to Christianity. He was the commissary for the British government’s Sierra Leone expedition in 1786, travelling with a group of African Britons whom the government was trying to resettle in a colony there in Britain. Equiano married Susanna cullin, an Englishwoman, and had two daughters. He joined the abolitionist movement, lecturing and speaking across the country. His autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of a Louder Equiano or Gustavus vassa, the African written by himself, was a bestseller. Copies were sold to the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York and the Duke of Cumberland. It went through nine editions between 1789 and 1790 for being firsthand testimony of the nature of the Beast. It was also a key documents in the struggle to outlaw the British slave trade. That goal was met in 1887, 10 years after Aquí Otto died.
S1: In today’s episode, we’re talking about the shape of slavery in the second half of the 18th century. We’ll discuss what it was like to voyage across the Atlantic in a slave ship during the height of the transatlantic slave trade. And we’ll also explore the early development of an effective abolitionist movement in England. But first, let’s talk a little bit more about Al-Odah Equiano.
S5: So you did a lot of the research for this episode and around Equiano. What was the scale of the slave trade around this period?
S6: Well, eventually, you know, the numbers are around four hundred and seventy two thousand people who were forced to migrate to the United States. So that’s different from the transatlantic slave trade as a whole. The numbers are twelve point five million as well. So, yeah, four hundred seventy two thousand is not that states. It’s just a a fraction. Yes. Only 3.6 percent of the total number of Africans who are brought to the Americas came to the United States. And then, of course, there are the people who are born into slavery in the United States. A different story. You know, Equiano story, which had him landing first in the West Indies and then coming up north is an unusual one. You know, most people would have just ended up in the West Indies or in South America and just were there.
S1: And that’s the end.
S7: The part about the narrative that really sticks out to me is his transformation into an abolitionist. It seems like an unusual figure to have in this movement that I assume is mainly white and Europeans.
S5: I’m kind of curious, is the narrative his attempt to convince the literate public that this is a bad thing that should end in India, give speeches? Was he sort of a project Douglass kind of person who is at the forefront or were, you know, what his position was in this in the beginning to the British Anti-Slavery Crusade?
S8: His autobiography was published in 1789, and it was appealing to people on a number of levels, you know, on a moral level.
S9: Abolitionists loved it, but it’s also sort of a travel narrative. He goes on an expedition that looks for the Northwest Passage. You know, he goes to Turkey. He’s like, he’s everywhere, basically. So there’s that appeal to it. But the real appeal is the moral force of it. His autobiography is published just two years after the British abolitionist movement really gets off its feet. So, you know, he becomes the speaker for them. He travels around. Apparently, he did really well in Ireland where people had reason to have a fellow feeling about British oppression.
S10: No surprise there. Yeah, I noticed you had a little hesitation about Equiano, his birth. Do we have any questions or any concerns about the veracity of his account?
S9: Well, a couple of years ago, a biography was written by a presser named. Kurata, who found two documents indicating that aquí on him was born in what was called carolina.., which would been South Carolina. So a baptism record and a master list. So a list of crew members on the ship that he served on later on his life in which he declared his birthplace to be South Carolina. So the question is, was he born in Nigeria? Did he actually experience the Middle Passage? And when I interviewed the first person that we’re gonna talk to you today, Marcus Rediker, professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Rediker had a really compelling to me argument. He’s not arguing the Corretta was wrong. You know, he’s not arguing about the veracity of the evidence. You know, Rediker said, I kind of don’t know if it matters. So he said, you know, if he didn’t experience the Middle Passage, then he certainly talked to a lot of people who did. We have so little information that comes even at that degree of second handedness from people who went through that experience. It’s still really valuable to me. I don’t know. Do you buy it?
S7: I buy that completely. Yeah, it makes total sense to me that someone who is clearly ingenious and clearly intelligent would just talk and ask people about what happened to them out of just a basic human curiosity and then retain those stories and in telling his own story, incorporate them into his there.
S8: Yeah. And that still seems to me like worth listening to. Right. Exactly. Yeah, exactly. You know, and and speaking of that reminds me of something that I want to bring up at some point sort of early in the series, which is has to do with exceptionality. So Equiano is one of the only people whose voices we have about the mental Parfitt, you know, of the people that we’re going to be talking about in the series or talking about nine. And pretty much all of them got out of slavery by the end of their lives in some way or another. So we have people who bought themselves out. People who sued for freedom. People who are emancipated.
S7: So there’s only one person who died in slavery, which which would be that that would be the norm. Yeah. And enslaved person. You’re going to die in slavery?
S8: Pretty much. So there’s a lot of questions it brings up for me. The perspective that we get on slavery is often coming from someone who in some way or another managed to get out. You know, it’s inevitable in some way because the way that, you know, narratives get saved and documents get saved. But the problem is, I worry that it sort of skews our historical understanding to the point where we think the people who didn’t get out didn’t try hard enough or like. I could never just do what he did right.
S5: Or something. What is true is that, you know, we have these stories precisely because they are so remarkable, because we you should expect that the average person trapped in this was just not going to get out. Right.
S11: We’re going to take a bit of a break. But when we come back, we’re going to return to Professor Rediker and talk more about the Middle Passage. And then we’ll speak a lot more about British abolitionism.
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S2: We are back and we are talking about the Atlantic slave trade. This is an interview I couldn’t make. Rebecca spoke to someone really interesting, Rebecca. Could you say who that was?
S9: Yes. I had a great conversation with Marcus Rediker, a distinguished professor of Atlanta history at the University of Pittsburgh and author of many books, including one that’s called The Slave Ship A Human History. And all his books are really fun to read.
S14: We know that in the West African port of Ouida, which is in Benin, about a million people were exported over the full course of the operation of that port and mostly the 17th and 18th century. We have documentary evidence reflecting the point of view of those million people from exactly two people. So the violence of the slave trade part of it at least was the annihilation of individual identity and the ability of people to tell their own stories so that when you get a document like Aqui Arnaud’s, his autobiography, which reflects upon his experience on board a slave ship, it is extremely precious document.
S15: Now he’s writing this. Many years later, he’s publishing his autobiography, some 30 odd years after the experience of the slave ship. But one guest, the very strong sense that this is the kind of thing no one would ever forget. So he wrote the first object, which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast, was the sea and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor and waiting for its cargo. These fill me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror, which I am yet at a loss to describe nor the feelings of my mind. So he’s talking about that moment when he’s come from the interior. He’s never seen the sea before. He’s never seen a sailing ship. And with his child’s eyes, he sees this really quite magnificent European technology, the deep sea sailing ship. And he’s just astonished. He’s shocked. He can’t believe there’s such a thing exists. And then he goes on board and immediately the read, the astonishment turns to terror. Here’s what he says when he goes on board. I was immediately handled and tossed up to see if I were settled by some of the crew. What he means is that they literally tossed him around to see that his body was strong and he continued. And I was now persuaded that I was gone into a world of bad spirits and that they were going to kill me. Their complexions, too, differing so much from ours. Their long hair and the language they spoke, which was very different from any I had ever heard. United to confirm me in disbelief.
S14: Indeed, such were the horrors of my views and fears at that moment. If ten thousand worlds had been my own, I would have freely parted with them all to exchange my condition with that of the meanest slave in my home country.
S16: What’s great about rotorcraft reading first is that Equiano, his language in this will tell you a bit about the kind of nerd I am. Sounds really Lovecraftian, you know, it really H.P. Lovecraftian, its description of terror. And there’s even a part in the narrative where Rano says something to the effect of, you know, I was so terrified that I would have jumped off of the slave ship if not for the netting. Which raises another, I guess, kind of nerdy question, kind of dirty. And Moros question what Rebekka were slave ships like physically in my head? I just picture this vast frigate, but I have actually no sense of what they look like.
S9: Well, I think we’re the same kind of nerd because this is actually one of the reasons I really loved Marcus, this book, The Slave Ship, because he talks a lot about this. What fascinates me about it is that the technology of the ship was evolved over time so that some of the affordances that were built into it by the time we all know was on one had been built in response to, oh, we’re forcibly transporting a bunch of people across the ocean and they’re going to try to rebel and they’re going to try to commit suicide. Like, what can we do? You know, if you’ve seen the famous image of the slave ship Brooks, which is later on in this episode, we’re going to talk about the usage of that image in bridge abolitionism. But there’s that famous image of bodies crammed onto the lower deck. Marcus told me that often those lower decks, there be holes drilled in the sides so that people could nominally breathe. Well, they are probably not that well. I’m not even one of the ways that people who are approaching a slave ship can tell, you know, you wouldn’t have a hole holes drilled in the side of a ship that was carrying grain or whatever. So those holes. And then there’s a couple of things that were built into the ship to discourage revolts. So there’s a thing called the Barakaat show, which was a bulwark at midship. It’s sort of like a defense. So there wasn’t apprising. The people who are running the ship could retreat behind the bar Hado with their guns and basically mount an anti mutiny defence.
S16: And it really seems like that if folks were this concerned about revolutions on their slave ships, that maybe they should have just stopped shipping slaves. But now that is a very easy solution to the problem. But, you know, that’s me.
S9: Well, I guess it was financially worth it. Yes. Was the thing, actually. I mean, this is sort of digresses from the question of what the ships were like. But one of the major points that Marcus makes throughout his writing is that part of the reason why it was financially worth it is that a lot of the people who are working in sort of more common sailors on this ship were really poorly treated like underpaid and. Right. You know, lifetimes pressed into service or in other ways exploited and also wept. So we I know at one point in his narrative observes one of these sailors being whipped and says, oh, man, like if they would do that to their own, what would they do to us, which was exactly the sentiment that a captain might want him to have. Right. But yeah. So that’s one of the reasons why it was able to make a profit, is that there were other exploited labourers involved.
S16: Did this profit in money-making drive any further innovation in the construction of ships?
S9: Yes. So one of the important things was, you know, you have to get your cargo there as alive as you can. So it seemed like the people who are making these innovations were constantly trying to simultaneously be as cruel as they could stand to be in order to maintain an atmosphere of terror. Right. As Marcus would argue, while also you have to have just enough care or maybe restrain that people can’t kill themselves. So the Natynczyk we on our first who were poking out of the side of the ship so that you couldn’t jump overboard because people would otherwise.
S16: I mean, yeah, that’s the thing that in the crisis, most economic sense that the captains are carrying valuable property into is really in their yachts to do as much as they could to keep their property alive at least.
S9: And that’s one of the things that Ariano also mentions, is that he refuses to eat initially. When he gets on the ship cause he’s stunned and miserable and that he’s basically whipped for not eating. And so I asked Marcus about that passage and he talked about the narrative, the slave ship doctors, they’ll talk about the different ways they try to get people to eat. And a lot of times they would not eat in part because they had this. They’re depressed, basically. They had a what was then called melancholia, sort of like receding from the world feeling. But the doctors and the captains would have all these instruments. Marcus mentioned something called the Speculum R.S., which was a instrument that would overcome a hunger strike like a speculum used and gynecological exam. It’s two prongs put down someone’s throat and sort of cracked open so that you can pour girl down. So that’s an example of a technological evolution that was meant in order to get as many people across as possible.
S16: One thing I think of with regards to the Middle Passage is this scene from 12 Years a Slave, the movie, not the book, but it isn’t the Middle Passage, obviously. But what it is, is Solomon Northup being transported from Washington, DC, where he was sent after his kidnapping somewhere down south, living in South Carolina. I don’t recall. But on the ship, his fellow, his fellow captives, at least one of them is trying to revolt and the rest are sure to give it up. This is our what we’re not going to escape from this. And what that makes it seem like, is it that the whole process of being transported in these dark, dank ships is itself a form of like conditioning control for enslaved persons, eventual life after the ship?
S9: For sure.
S14: And in fact, Marcus in particular makes a really strong argument for this, although we know a tremendous amount about the plantation system we have. Hunger is a really excellent studies of plantation slavery. It’s fairly new for us to be studying slave ship, which with the plantation is the key institution of the entire system. In other words, no slave ship, no plantation. So what happened on board the slave ship as both a matter of discipline and the effort of the captain to create slaves? That’s very important as a process and that will continue on land. But equally important is the process of resistance that each slave ship was kind of a seething cauldron of conflict and resistance. And already very important things are happening among the Africans who, by the way, are of many different ethnicities, but they are learning to cooperate with each other. They’re learning to communicate. They’re learning to fight back together. And this sometimes involves peoples who were long term enemies in West Africa. Suddenly on board that ship, they realized that they had greater problems than each other. And so they wouldn’t learn to bond together. And one thing that many scholars of the slave trade have noticed is that a fundamentally creative process is going on. All those lower decks under those extreme and horrible circumstances, something positive is happening. These these multi-ethnic African people are creating what anthropologists call fictive kinship, that is, people who are in no biological way related to each other or beginning to call each other brother and sister. And they’re starting to rebuild the kinship system that has been shattered by the process of enslavement. This is a very important thing because it utterly shows the will of the enslaved to do something on their own behalf. It shows a kind of creativity and it lays the basis for another cultural resistance that will form in the plantation system. So I think one of the most important things I learned in studying the slave ship is that it is a place of extreme oppression. That is certainly true, but it is also a place of extreme and heroic resistance. Both those things must be kept in mind.
S16: That sounds incredible and inspiring. It also sounds like in addition to everything terrible about a slave ship, it’d be very difficult. I mean, for one, people aren’t speaking the same language. How do you get over that, Meredith?
S17: That is a big problem when it comes to trying to mount a resistance and the Amistad revolt in which Marcus also wrote about it. There was a critical mass of people who spoke Monday to each other. So that was one of the factors in that revolt that allowed it to proceed the way that it did. Marcus also mentioned that on ships that that had revolts, there has to be some way to figure out how to get out of the manacles because you can’t. Resist. If you still are chained in Amistad revolt, you found out that two of the people on board were blacksmiths. And so he sort of hypothesized that might have been how they figured out how to get out. They had not seen weapons, wouldn’t they? Yeah. And that was another issue. A lot of times the gun room on the ship would be well fortified and well protected for obvious reasons. You know, another technological way that a slave ship could kind of keep control. You know, there’s a couple instances of either a child or a woman among the enslaved, gaining more access to various parts of the ship through, you know, the indulgence of the sailors in one way or another. And so there’s some instances in which that would they could figure out a way to circumvent those problem. Right.
S18: And then, of course, if you managed to communicate, plan, escape, get weapons, take man. You also need to be able to sail the damn thing.
S16: Yeah. You really think this is terrible? I will fully admit to this being terrible, but I find something very comic or at least tragicomic about these brave people beating the odds and taking command of a ship and then just being like Crown now.
S9: Now what? But for you know, we have gallows humor about this a little bit. Have to have humour.
S16: And for, you know, those revolts that didn’t succeed. What happened to them would be even the tenth release asked to come with tremendous risk.
S9: Yeah. You know, Marcus pointed out that we used to think that slavery votes were rare on ships. And now we know that there were many, but there were still few that were successful. And so far as people manage to make their way back to Africa. And if you’ve failed. There are some pretty awful stories of what the captains would do.
S17: Marcus pointed to one example of a captain punishing revolt or by cutting off his head and making the other enslaved people pass it around from person to person. So bringing home like right into your hands what will happen if you try this again?
S5: That is. I don’t even have. It’s just really awful. And you know, I also wonder if people who decide to go into this business of being a captain ship day, do they know this or they were getting into. Wow.
S9: What’s startling is that they were kind of public about it, not public in terms of the general public, but they would write this stuff down and talk about it amongst themselves. You know, trying to trade knowledge on how to handle these people who they didn’t necessarily see as people and they saw as a series of like workplace problems and relative to sort of their peers outside of the particular role of slaving.
S16: How are they regarded? They would be seen as necessary, but sort of unsavory people to be around. I mean, what what was their social status?
S9: I asked Marcus this question and he answer me with a really interesting life story.
S19: This question you posed can be answered through the life experience of a man who is actually a very famous slave ship captain. And I refer to John Newton. John Newton’s name may not be known to most of your listeners, but everybody will know his song, Amazing Grace. You see, the way the myth about John Newton normally goes is that he was trapped in this ungodly work on board a slave ship. He had a kind of Christian conversion, left the sea, and then became the writer of the famous song Amazing Grace, talking about his own wretchedness. And then he became an abolitionist. But in truth, the story didn’t really happen that way. What happened with John Newton is that he actually had his Christian conversion. Then he went several voyages as a slave ship captain. And in that period, his Christianity and his slave trading were perfectly compatible. It’s kind of hard for us to imagine this, but he would sit in the captain’s cabin with a group of enslaved Africans literally beneath his feet, writing letters about how his goal in life was to was to us to do well by his fellow creatures. He considered, like many people, the slave trade. He considered the Africans to be subhuman, to be some different species of animal, and therefore normal things, normal requirements of human religion simply wouldn’t apply to them. So so Newton is a perfect example of how in the period before the rise of abolitionism, a great many people consider slave trading to be respectable. And of course, Newton did finally turn against it. And we must give him credit for that when he did turn against it. He was an extremely powerful speaker against the slave trade. And the reason why he was so effective was because he knew exactly what happened onboard those ships. And in fact, some of the things that he discussed, the horrors of the slave ship or things that he himself had done. Let me give you an example. He was asked about the use of instrument of torture on board slave ships, and he said it was known notice the passive construction that thumbscrews might be used on slave ships, basically as a means of torturing those who had resisted. Well, what he didn’t mention was something that he had noted in his journal never meant to be published some years earlier, in which he described himself using thumbscrews on children to make them reveal who had organized a conspiracy on board one of the slave ships.
S16: So first, I did not know that the guy who wrote Amazing Grace of all songs was a slaver, which would be as if Jefferson Davis came back from the Dead End Road.
S11: Say it loud. I’m black and proud. In that interview, Professor at Occur mention that before the British abolition movement it was common to be a slaver and a Christian. See no contradiction between the two. Next, we’re gonna talk about the evolution of a movement and when it emerges during this period before then. We’re going to go to a little break.
S13: You can read an excerpt from Marcus Redditors book, The Slave Ship as part of the Slate Academy. Find the link at our show notes or at Slate.com. Slash Academi.
S2: When we left you, we were talking about slave ships and slave captains, Equiano, if you remember a Benchley made his way back to Britain, a free man, which gives us an open pathway to our next topic. The British anti-slavery movement. We’ll be talking about it. And British abolitionism because of its relationship to both the American slave trade and our own abolitionist movement, which itself took flight in the 19th century.
S9: Yes. We’re going to speak with Adam Hochschild, who is an author. And he wrote a book called Bury the Chains, Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire Slaves. He also has written a number of other books that we really like. Right.
S20: I’m I’m a huge fan of his very famous book, King Leopold’s Ghost, about the African Congo. It is also a book you should read if you get the chance.
S9: So in the introduction to this book, Adam wrote a paragraph that I found really compelling and interesting. And it went like this. There was always something mysterious about human empathy. And when we feel it and when we don’t, it’s sudden. Upwelling at this particular moment caught everyone by surprise. Slaves and other subjugated people have rebelled throughout history. But the campaign in England was something never seen. Before was the first time a large number of people became outraged and stayed outraged for many years over someone else’s rights. And so I asked Adam, you know, his whole book is an exploration of that question, how people came to feel empathy and how they tried to get others to feel that way. And so this is some of what he had to say to me.
S21: The remarkable thing is how suddenly this movement seemed to get off the ground. If at the beginning of the year, 1787, you had stood up on a street corner in London and had given a speech saying slavery was immoral and should be abolished. Nine out of ten people would have thought you were a complete crackpot because slavery had always been around. The Romans had slaves. The Greeks had slaves. You know, most people in Russia were serfs. It was just something that people in the world took for granted at that time. The tenth person might have said, well, that’s a noble ideal, but it’ll never happen. Look at how our whole colonial economy depends upon slavery. Look, you know, where would we get the sugar for tea if there weren’t slaves?
S22: It will never happen. A year later, 1788, in the early part of that year, half the debates in London debating societies.
S21: This was a huge spectator sport at that time. Half the debates had to do with the morality of slavery or the slave trade. Now, the birth of this movement is incredibly sudden and it’s fascinating to me why it happened then and how it happened so suddenly.
S22: I think, first of all, it was a moment in time that was midway between the American Revolution and the French Revolution. And there were a lot of ideas about human freedom floating around in the air. And I think that’s one reason it caught on quickly. It also caught on quickly, because the people who really instigated it, who came together in a meeting May 22nd, 1787 in a Quaker bookstore and printing shop in London were, I think, some of the finest community organizers of all time.
S16: So you have this motley crew of Quakers and Anglicans and other, you know, non Quaker religious people. How did they work together to pursue this goal?
S9: Well, the list of techniques that we discussed was really fascinating to me. They made a multi-media assault on the idea that slavery was OK. So one of the major things that we talked about was the idea of using eyewitness testimony rather than arguing from the Bible or arguing from economics. They actually made an effort to get testimony. And interestingly, some of the testimony they got was from sailors who’d sailed on slave ships, but they also tried to get it from people like Equiano who had experienced slavery. They did a lot of presenting of this testimony to parliament and the House of Commons, the House of Lords. And something they also did that was genius was to distill some of that testimony into a little booklet rather than having to read pages and pages or figure out how to encounter it somehow. There was something cheap and short that had the worst of it in there. Like an explainer? Yeah, like an explainer. Exactly.
S20: 15 reasons you don’t want to have slaves. Yeah. Yeah.
S23: So yeah, they got this material into the hands of members of parliament. It’s almost like a way that a lobbyist might organize information and write. One of the other ways that the activists tried to alert people to their concerns was to use visual media in a way that was kind of new for the time. There is a famous diagram of the slave ship for Rooks, which was built in 1781. For the merchant Joseph Brooks Junior, and it’s a particularly large slave ship, but otherwise fairly typical.
S9: The William Alfred. One of the abolitionist printed up this broadside in 1788, which became sort of iconic. You’ve probably seen it. It’s the image of two decks of a ship.
S20: Yes, I have seen, but not in its full form. It’s at the American History Museum. I think a partial image.
S23: Yeah, I think it was printed in a number of different ways. The diagram I’ve seen sort of like appended to a broadside that has more text underneath the diagram. The one we’re looking at right now, which we will also include in our our show notes, has less text. So what is my on in this image?
S24: What’s striking about it?
S20: Well, I think well, we’re I think it gets its sort of emotional and political power from is it shows fairly detailed images of enslaved Africans really stacked next to each other on this ship. And even even now, looking at today, you can feel claustrophobic looking at it.
S23: Yes, it’s pretty horrifying. And the people are diagrammed with their full bodies and their faces, I think is one of the things that makes it the most horrifying. Yes, you can actually get a sense of what bodies might look like in that space in the upper right hand corner. There’s some text noting that this is the the way that the Brooks was configure even after the Regulation Act of 1788, which was meant to make slave ships more humane. So there’s a point that abolitionists are making that look how awful it is. And before this regulation act, it was even more awful.
S20: Did abolitionists used any other kinds of images besides something like this that I think falls on the side of like shocking? But were there any any less shocking but still powerful images that they used to make their points?
S9: And I mentioned I hadn’t put two and two together about this, but there’s a use of an icon that they pioneer that was made in 1787 by a Crossman who was working for Jizya Wedgeworth, who’s famously the man who made Wedgwood pottery. And this is an icon. It’s an image of annealing, slave and chains. And around it, there’s words, am I not a man and a brother? And you probably seen that somewhere as well.
S16: Yes. You know, I can say familiar always, but I have an image of it in my mind’s eye.
S8: And I think that’s the point of it, is that it was it’s connected to the cause in emotional import and an iconic city. But it doesn’t say we want you to act against slavery or have a lot of information about what was going on in slavery. It just was plaintive in a media message.
S24: What kind of people we we know they were Quakers and Anglicans, but specifically, what kind of personality would be the kind of person evangelizing going out into and being and activists and the anti-slavery movement?
S8: Well, I don’t tell me. Sort of an amazing story about a man named Thomas Clarkson.
S21: To me, the most remarkable person in that first group and the real sparkplug of the anti-slavery movement in Britain was a man named Thomas Clarkson, who was 27 years old at the time of that meeting. He had been a divinity student at Cambridge and then had lost interest in pursuing a career as a minister because he became so outraged about slavery. And after that first meeting, he became the travelling organiser for the anti-slavery committee, got on his horse, traveled around Britain, handing out anti-slavery pamphlets and recruiting witnesses who would be willing to testify on this issue before parliament. Because these activists knew that if they were going to do anything, there would have to be parliamentary hearings and that lining up witnesses was a very important thing to do.
S22: So how could he find people who had had personal experience of slavery, who would be credible witnesses before parliament? And they wanted British witnesses, not former slaves. It was felt that British witnesses would have more credibility. Well, Clarkson hung out in pubs near the docks in Liverpool and Bristol, keeping his ear open, hearing people talk, trying to judge which of the sailors around him had served on slave ships.
S25: And he persuaded some of them to come and testified before parliament.
S24: So we have Clarkson, we have all the abolitionists, but they they were a minority of British society. They weren’t a sizeable faction, although they eventually wielded great influence. What kind of people opposed them?
S23: Before I talked to Adam, I had a feeling that there would be a lot of people opposing given the amount of money that was involved. Right. And indeed, he did tell me that there were quite a few powerful people in Britain who stood against the slave owning interests and the slave ship owners.
S26: We’re, of course, horrified that the source of much of their wealth would be threatened. They began producing their propaganda, their pamphlets, but they were a little slow on the draw because the coming of abolitionism really took them by surprise.
S27: There’s some wonderful debates in Parliament that took place over this subject. One of my favorite occasions was at one point in the House of Commons, where there also there was a shipping interests were very strongly represented and a member of parliament from Liverpool gave a speech saying, you know, if our ships can’t fill themselves with slaves in Africa and taken to the West Indies, you know, these shipping companies will go bankrupt. We’re a polar abolitionist minded member of parliament, stood up and said, well, that’s like saying I’m a highwayman and I have this pack of horses which are only suited for robbing gentlemen on the highway and cannot be put to any other purpose because, of course. And he was right. You know, once the slave trade got banned, shipowners did find other use for their ships.
S18: Eventually, the British abolitionists, they won. And how did they do them? How did they how did they manage to succeed?
S6: It took a while. That’s the sort of lesson that I got from this initial meeting that Adam was talking about was in 1787, and it finally happened in 1887.
S5: I mean, that that took a while. That’s a pretty rapid movement in some sense.
S6: Well, from zero to 60. Yeah, from nine of ten people thinking you’re crazy to actually passing this. It’s fun to think of it as something that happened because people got convinced morally and I think some people did. But there are some sort of little ins and outs that are more about politicking. For example, Adam told me about a abolitionist member of parliament, Jean Stephen, who was a maritime lawyer and was the great grandfather of Virginia Woolf interests, who sort of exploited the fact that Britain was at war with France. And, you know, he made the point in parliament, which is that British slave ships were also delivering slaves to French colonies. And so, you know, he he drove a sideways wedge in some ways by making the argument that that we should make a law that British ships have not been allowed to deliver slaves to French colonies. And he said, you know, the parliament didn’t quite realize that in doing that, had wipes out more than half of Britain’s slave trade. That was sort of a moment of partial victory that made it, you know, sort of easier to get the rest of it eliminated.
S16: And I’m sure that with the United States becoming a separate country with it, with Britain losing this large colony, that could also use slaves. Part of the economic rationale for holding onto the slave trade diminished as well.
S6: I think so, except for so few slaves went there.
S10: Strong the question. The slave trade was abolished in 1887. Winded Britain actually abolished slavery proper.
S6: Well, it took a while and I found out that this was a debate between the British abolitionists from the beginning with some people saying we need to also push for abolition of slavery in the colonies. We can’t just say British ships can’t carry slaves. We have to also say Jamaica can’t have slaves in Barbados, can’t have slaves in other places. There’s another sort of school of thought. Slavery in the West Indies was this terrible enterprise in many ways. But one of the many ways it was terrible is that it was so hard on people’s bodies that people died really quickly. And so it was easier for planters to buy more slaves than it was to take care of the ones that they had. So that sort of rate of attrition of people on these plantations was so high. They were being replenished constantly by the slave trade. So some of the abolitionist said, you know, if we can get rid of the slave trade, like, look at they’ll just lose all their slaves because they’re no good at treating them well. But some people adapted and some of the planters started having doctors on the plantations and feeding their enslaved people better and sort of making these kind of incremental improvements that, you know, made life at least a little bit easier for those people and allow them to reproduce. So then by 1833, it started to be the case that the abolitionists in Britain, you know, people are starting to realize that, no, actually, it’s not going to just die out on its own. So that is when they finally got parliament to pass a law emancipating the slaves of the British Empire.
S20: What stands out to me the most about the British anti-slavery movement is how international it is. I mean, it feels very modern. It feels very similar to, you know, the South African divestment movement in the 80s is just even for for as much of everything. It’s different. It seems very familiar to me, as many of you and Adam talked at all about the internationalism of this movement.
S10: Yes. And there’s some interesting connections that he made.
S28: One of the beautiful things about the abolitionists of this period is that it was very much an international network. They all knew about each other. When, for example, they came up with this marvelously effective poster, the poster of the slave ship in Britain. They sell off a bunch of copies to their friend Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia. They sent off a bunch of copies to their friend, the marquee to Lafayette in Paris. So they were very much in touch with each other. And especially there were tight relationships between Britain and the United States because they shared the same language. When the abolitionists were plotting their final victory in parliament in 1833, William Lloyd Garrison, who was perhaps the leading American abolitionist, came to Britain, hung out with the British abolitionists in their coffeehouses as they were planning their parliamentary strategy, wrote about all this in the newspaper that he published back in the US. And he and Frederick Douglass, the former slave and other leading abolitionist, were two of the final visitors that Thomas Clarksons and his mid-eighties received before he died.
S5: That’s really beautiful image just to think about, isn’t it?
S6: Yeah. Something that’s less beautiful is the way that they actually got the abolition of slavery through parliament. You know this. I don’t. They had to promise to pay the slave holders for their slaves.
S20: OK, so this was a compensated emancipation? That’s correct. Reparation of a slave owner. She could say yes.
S9: There’s an interesting database that you can look at that will put in their show notes that holds all the names of the people who got that money. So you can put in the names of prominent people in Britain and see if they had a.
S20: That is fascinating. And yeah, to do that as soon as we’re finished with this recording.
S9: Yeah. It’s a really interesting and very telling project because it shows you how the capital from owning slaves carries forward.
S11: I think that concludes our look at British slavery and British abolitionism, which again we talk about precisely because these connections to the American experience.
S29: Yes. In the next episode we’ll talk about slavery in the American colonies during the revolutionary period, which is actually right about the same time or even a little before this time. You talk about the life of Elizabeth Freeman, who filed the lawsuit for her freedom in Massachusetts right after the war ended up laying the groundwork for this date to effectively abolish slavery. We’ll talk about the way slavery was mitigated or eliminated in some states during the revolution. While we’re at it, we can do a little compare and contrast with what happened in Britain. Absolutely.
S12: Thank you for listening to this episode of The History of American Slavery. A Slate Academy. You can send us an email at History Academy at Slate.com. And if you want to talk amongst yourselves about the podcast, the materials, you can join the private Facebook group just for academy members. You can find it at Facebook, dot com backslash groups, backslash history academy.
S13: I’m Jamal. And Rebecca as well. Will see you next time. You can read an excerpt from Adam Hook Shields book, Bury the Chains, Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free and Umpire Slaves. Find the link in our show notes or at Slate.com. Slash Academy. Want to prep for Episode 3? You can read ahead. Rebecca and Jamal will talk to Emily BLOCK about the divergent ways the northern and southern states handled slavery in the courts. Find an excerpt of Emily’s book Turana Side in our show notes or at Slate.com. Slash Academi.