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24 September 2014

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You are in: Kent > Abolition > Kent and the Slave Trade

Image of slavery from the Rum Story in Whitehaven


Kent and the Slave Trade

David Turley, Professor of Cultural and Social History at the University of Kent, has written this paper as part of the BBC's Abolition series.

Professor David Turley

Professor David Turley

Kent and the Campaigns against  the Slave Trade and Slavery

The decades between the 1780s and the middle of the nineteenth century were tumultuous ones in British history encompassing the threat of revolution, reaction against it, international warfare, drastic economic change and the expansion of British commerce and forms of control to the far corners of the globe. Running through all this were the efforts of groups of reformers both in the country at large and in Parliament to 'improve' society and empire and foster, through reform, some measure of stability in an era of upheaval.

Antislavery was a strand of reform that lasted throughout these decades and thus displayed rather distinct characteristics as a movement at different stages of its extended history. Kent's involvement in antislavery brings out these changes over time very well if we look at the very beginnings of the organised campaign against the Atlantic slave trade in the 1780s and then at the highpoint of the popular mass campaign in opposition to the slave-based sugar plantation system in the West Indies in the run-up to the Emancipation Act of 1833.

Slaves at work

Enslaved Africans

Kent's claim to historical interest at the beginning of the anti-slave trade campaign lies in the importance of the Anglican evangelical religious circle in the village of Teston who were significant in several ways. They prefigured the pamphlet campaign central to the whole history of the movement in the writings of the vicar of the parish, James Ramsay,  who had several years direct experience of the West Indies and alerted his readers to some of the realities of the slave trade and slavery in his pamphlets of the 1780s.

Ramsay's patron was Sir Charles Middleton (later Lord Barham) who with his wife, Margaret, shared the Barham Court estate with the pious Elizabeth Bouverie. She and the Middletons signalled another feature critical to the future of antislavery through their friendship and joint activities with the non-evangelical Beilby Porteus, Bishop of Chester, then Bishop of London and who held the Kent living of Hunton near Teston. The willingness of different religious groupings to work together, or at least in parallel, was to prove crucial to the ultimate success of the campaigns.

Teston also drew in Thomas Clarkson (who came to have close links to Quaker abolitionists). He came to embody both the impulse to accumulate mountains of evidence to convince a sceptical parliamentary class and initially indifferent public opinion of the horrors of the trade and slavery itself and the importance of organising local committees and societies to push for legislative action.

William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce came to Teston too and agreed to initiate discussion at Westminster. The Teston evangelicals foreshadowed the more famous Clapham Sect in advancing the antislavery cause. More than that, however, in bringing together the propaganda, public opinion and parliamentary elements they foreshadowed the whole history of the movement.

The second Kentish 'moment ' in antislavery history is representative rather than prefigurative. By 1831 the British slave trade had long been abolished in the legislation of 1806 and 1807. But the reformers had been disappointed that the slave owners appeared not to have responded as anticipated by improving the conditions of their slaves to maintain the population.

In 1823 a new Anti-Slavery Society was formed to work for the gradual emancipation of the slaves. The British government responded by initiating an 'amelioration' policy with the eventual aim of freeing the estate labourers. Once more reformers were disappointed in the resistance of the planters and their supporters. By 1830 the call was no longer for 'gradualism' but for 'immediate emancipation'.

An ardent group of militant younger abolitionists in particular were committed to popular mobilisation, mass petitioning and demanding emancipationist promises from parliamentary candidates. It was a militancy which coincided with the often unruly passions unleashed by the campaign for parliamentary reform the success of which aided immensely the passage of emancipation in the year following the Reform Act of 1832.

On board a slave ship over 200 years ago

On board a slave ship over 200 years ago

Much of this is given a Kentish focus by the tour of the eloquent young antislavery campaigner, George Thompson, to the county in the autumn of 1831. Unlike the gentry class and educated abolitionists of Teston at the earlier period Thompson was of relatively obscure social origins and largely self-educated who was at an early stage in what became a career as a professional reformer. His tour from Dartford to Medway, Thanet, Canterbury, Faversham and Folkestone gives an excellent flavour of the cause and its difficulties at that moment.

While Anglican abolitionists were visible Thompson found himself mostly amongst Quakers in Rochester and Thanet and Wesleyans, Congregationalists and Baptists elsewhere. The secretaries of the local antislavery associations tended to be respectable non-Anglican shopkeepers - a grocer, a chemist, a linen draper - and often had strained relations with the local vicar and churchwardens who tended to keep a distance from the antislavery cause because they appear to have resented the prominence of Dissenters in it.

It was Thompson's difficult task to try to maintain the antislavery alliance that had proved so useful in the past across religious lines. His difficulties reflected the enhanced importance of Nonconformity in religious and public life. Such divisions were unfortunate for Thompson because the West India interest was by no means quiescent in Kent.

In Rochester it was influential because a local MP was a West India proprietor and in Thanet he encountered a former inhabitant of the islands who proclaimed the happiness and contentment of the slaves. He also became entangled in the contemporaneous (and sometimes rowdy) campaign for the Reform Bill - not always to his advantage, despite the ultimate aid to emancipation provided by political reform.

In Folkestone his meeting was poorly attended because a reform meeting was going on at the same time. While staying at the Falstaff Inn by the Westgate in Canterbury his preparations were interrupted 'by a tremendous uproar in the street occasioned by the burning publicly of the Kentish Gazette, a Newspaper whose politics are obnoxious to the radical notions of the Canterbury mob'. Yet he too depended on the crowd in a way that earlier abolitionists had not. He not only spent his time addressing open public meetings in Guildhalls and chapels but consciously developed the tactic of trying to arouse heckling and opposition the better to dramatise the antislavery argument and entertain his audience.

Antislavery in Kent was part of a very different public world by the 1830s from its origins fifty years earlier. But antislavery, perhaps uniquely amongst reform movements of the day, brought together the local and the imperial. It was possible for the parishioners of Teston or the Guildhall audience in Rochester to believe that what they thought and felt and how they acted could have far distant consequences.

last updated: 01/04/2008 at 13:47
created: 08/03/2007

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