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24 September 2014
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Abolition

Slave medallion

The abolition of slavery: a Staffordshire perspective

Fred Hughes
Historian Fred Hughes uncovers the major figures and events from around Staffordshire which helped to influence the abolition of slavery in 1807.

In a prominent position in the rooms of Cobridge Community Multi-cultural Association (CCMA) is a framed picture of Olaudah Equiano. At the age of eleven, Equiano was sold to white slave traders and taken to the New World, where he was bought by Lieutenant Michael Pascal of the Royal Navy.

Later Equiano was sold to Robert King, a Philadelphian Quaker merchant who traded in the Caribbean. Working on King’s shipping route in 1765 Equiano gained his freedom for £40, the price King had paid for him. King taught Equiano to read and write and educated him in the Christian faith as a Quaker. By the time he was 24 Equiano became an active abolitionist organised by anti-slavery campaigner Thomas Clarkson.

The Abolitionist Movement included among its activists the Quakers who took most of the places on the working committee. As Dissenters, Quakers were not eligible to become British MPs during this period so the Anglican evangelist William Wilberforce was persuaded to become the leader of the parliamentary campaign.

Meanwhile in 1789 Equiano wrote and published his book ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African.’ In 1792, Equiano married an Englishwoman, Susanna Cullen, who bore him two daughters. Equiano died in 1797.

Multiculturalism

Although Equiano had no direct connection with the district it is interesting to note that during this period Josiah Wedgwood was as equally active in the abolition of slavery. I see the portrait of Equiano in Cobridge together with the ubiquitous presence of Josiah Wedgwood’s image on the slave medallion as symbols of the understated presence of 21st century multiculturalism in North Staffordshire.

Wedgwood plaque

Just a few miles west of Cobridge the Borough of Newcastle under Lyme is the home of the Unitarian Friends Meeting House. On the white pebble-rendered outside wall are two prominently placed blue plaques funded by contributions initiated by Newcastle under Lyme Civic Society.

One plaque is dedicated to Josiah Wedgwood in his role as co-founder of the Unitarian Academy, and the other pays tribute to Joseph Priestley and to his devotion as a Unitarian minister who conducted services here.

Age of Enlightenment

The coming together of two important captains of industry should not surprise us: both as we know were religious dissenters and leaders in the Age of Enlightenment and were scientific pioneers and famous inventors. Both men also were dynamic in abolitionism – Wedgwood providing his famous cameo medallion and Priestley energetically promoting Equiano’s narrative of slavery.   But even more interesting, both Priestley and Wedgwood were members of the Lunar Society.  

The core of the Lunar Society resonates with the names of its founders. Matthew Boulton creator of the first model factory; James Watt inventor and harnesser of the steam engine; Josiah Wedgwood, whose scientific developments provided the key to international pottery manufacture; Joseph Priestley who identified the components of  oxygen and Erasmus Darwin, writer and pioneer in modern medicine and botany, who sowed the seeds of evolution so famously concluded by his grandson Charles, and.

There were others who forged what really was a discussion club, a debating group if you like of many of the greatest minds in Europe at the time. Between 1765 and 1813 these industrialists, philosophers and intellectuals met at each others residences but mainly at the home of Erasmus Darwin in Lichfield and at Matthew Boulton's home, Birmingham’s Soho House.

Lunaticks

The name Lunar Society was formally adopted in 1775 and was devised from the practice of arranging meetings to coincide with the arrival of the full moon. Naturally there were no means of artificially lighting their way to each other’s houses so the moon at its fullest gave them the light to make the journey easier and safer. With the humour of friendship and affiliation they happily called themselves ‘lunaticks’, which of course was not only symbolic but etymologically accurate.

Others came and went, more prominently through correspondence: Richard Arkwright wrote frequently to the society about science and so did Benjamin Franklin who shared the idealistic desire to end slavery and promote its practical causes at times during numerous visits to Birmingham.

The Lunar Society was an important round table that addressed scientific problems on an Arthurian scale. Josiah Wedgwood was even moved to write about the group’s philosophy, “We are all living in an age of miracles in which anything can be achieved.”

 ‘The Dying Negro’

And how did they influence the anti-slavery lobby? In the late 18th century the humanitarian reformer Thomas Day became a prominent opponent of slavery. It was he who published the famous best selling poem, ‘The Dying Negro’ which was rewritten in several editions. His relationship with the Lunar Men is well documented in letters to Erasmus Darwin, Wedgwood and Priestley. One practical weapon these men collectively used was the organisation of a boycott of West Indian sugar in 1791.

Wedgwood remained an active member of the Abolitionist Movement until his death in 1795. His association with Thomas Clarkson led to his involvement in the Sierra Leone Company in 1791, a model intended to establish a colony for freed slaves where they could reassemble their lives and create a free community. That year Clarkson wrote to Wedgwood confirming an acquisition of shares in the company on Wedgwood’s behalf. The great potter therefore became a shareholder in the Sierra Leone Company, a demonstration of proof, if any was needed, of his commitment to human rights, equality and freedom.

Among Wedgwood’s correspondents was William Wilberforce, the parliamentarian who was ultimately responsible for the passing of the Bill that legislated for the gradual abolition of slavery. There is no doubt that Wilberforce and Wedgwood forged a mutual friendship and Wilberforce used a number of Wedgwood’s recommendations in his House of Commons speeches. He was also a guest at Etruria Hall as noted in Wilberforce’s journal.

‘Am I not a man and a brother’

The kneeling slave shackled in chains remains the icon of the Abolitionist Movement. ‘Am I not a man and a brother’ it asks humbly. And it is evident that through the success of the medallion that Wedgwood had succeeded in bringing universal attention the horrors of slavery.

As an ardent appreciator of Wedgwood pottery Benjamin Franklin was a promoter and distributor of the cameo. His commitment is recorded in a letter:

'I am distributing your valuable present of cameos among my friends in whose countenances I have seen such marks of being affected by contemplating the figure of the Suppliant (which is admirably executed) that I am persuaded it may have an effect equal to that of the best written pamphlet in procuring honour to those oppressed people'.

Fred Hughes – writer and historian

***

Further reading

‘When Fashion Promoted the Cause of Humanity’ – an article from the Wedgwood Review, located at the Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston Stoke-on-Trent, England.

‘An address to the People of Great Britain on the propriety of abstaining from West India sugar and rum’.

Also at the Wedgwood Museum

‘The Lunar Men’ by Jenny Uglow, published by Faber 2002  

last updated: 06/10/08
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