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24 September 2014

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You are in: Wear > Abolition > Unrecognised hero of Abolition

James Field Stanfield. Image: Sunderland Museums

Stanfield wrote a number of pamphlets

Unrecognised hero of Abolition

Sunderland historian Neil Sinclair tells the story of an unrecognised hero of the movement to abolish the slave trade.

James Field Stanfield: An Unrecognised Hero of the Movement to Abolish the Slave Trade

A Seaman on a Slave Ship

James Field Stanfield (1749-1824), a sailor, actor and wine merchant is a figure whose role in the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade deserves to be better known today. He was the first ordinary seaman involved in the transport of enslaved Africans to write about its horrors and the power of his work increased public revulsion against the trade.

Born in Dublin, Stanfield initially trained for the priesthood, but instead became a merchant seaman and sailed on ships to all parts of Europe as well as to North America and the West Indies. 

In 1774-1776 he made a voyage which started on a ship which took goods from Liverpool to Benin on the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa. After a stay of eight months while captured Africans were gathered together, his slave ship made a horrific journey on the ‘Middle Passage’ to the West Indies; he then returned to England. 

The Guinea Voyage

The horrors he witnessed on board the slave ship, which he described as "a floating dungeon", made Stanfield a confirmed abolitionist. In 1788 Stanfield wrote Observations on a Guinea Voyage, graphically describing his experiences and addressed to a leading anti-slavery campaigner, the Revd Thomas Clarkson. The Guinea Voyage, A Poem in Three Books – "The direful Voyage to Guinea’s sultry shore And Africa's wrongs, indignant Muse 'deplore'"- was published the following year. 

Because of the time he spent in Benin, Stanfield was able to give the lie to those who said that the condition of those taken to the slavery in the West Indies was preferable to their birthplace in Africa.  He wrote that in all his voyages he had never seen a happier race of people than those in the Kingdom of Benin with its well-stocked markets of food and different commodities.

Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens

Remembering Slavery is at the museum in September

The pamphlets gave a powerful description of the sufferings of both the enslaved Africans and of the crew. Nearly all his fellow sailors died of disease in Benin or on the voyage to Jamaica.

Stanfield recorded the sadism of the captain who, ill in bed on the passage from Africa to the West Indies, had a female slave flogged before him in his cabin for a minor offence. As the unwilling sailor administering the punishment was judged to be too lenient the sailor himself was flayed and the woman was then flogged 'until her back was full of holes'.

She was bandaged by Stanfield, whose knowledge of Latin and a little medical reading had led to him being placed in charge of the medicine chest after both the ship's doctor and the doctor's assistant had died.

Stanfield’s writings were serialised in newspapers in Britain and America and shocked their readers. His evidence that the slave trade was extremely destructive of the lives of English sailors as well as African Slaves was an additional argument that the abolitionists were able to apply after the publication of the Guinea Voyage pamphlets.

A combined edition of the two works was published in 1808 to mark the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act.  It was dedicated to Sir Ralph Milbanke, MP for County Durham, whom Stanfield records as seconding Wilberforce’s Abolition bill.

Stanfield in Sunderland

By 1782 James Field Stanfield had become an actor and appeared on the stage in various towns, joining the Scarborough-Sunderland theatre circuit in 1789. 

Sunderland was then to be his home for over twenty years. He played a significant part in the life of the town, being a leading figure in the foundation of the town's Subscription Library and in the Phoenix Masonic Lodge.  

Stanfield was a wine and spirit merchant in High Street East in Sunderland for three years from 1793. The business was unsuccessful and in 1796 he became a travelling actor again, but still had his base in Sunderland; two of his daughters were christened in Holy Trinity Parish Church in 1809 and 1811. 

He later taught composition and elocution in Edinburgh. James Field Stanfield died in London in 1824.

As well as his writings on the slave trade, Stanfield was the author of songs, poems and books. He wrote the Life of John Howard, the prison reformer, and An Essay on the Study and Composition of Biography which was published in Sunderland in 1813.

An Unrecognised Hero

James Field Stanfield is less well-known today than his Sunderland-born son, the artist Clarkson Stanfield (who himself was named after the Revd Thomas Clarkson), but deserves to be remembered for his abolitionist role.  

Marcus Rediker, the author of The Slave Ship: A Human History, considers James Stanfield to be "an unrecognised hero of the movement to abolish the slave trade".

The Author

Neil Sinclair is a local historian and former Senior Curator of Sunderland Museums.

last updated: 10/03/2008 at 15:36
created: 29/03/2007

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