Edward Rushton: Who was this blind revolutionary?

By Kathleen Hawkins
BBC News, Ouch

Image source, Mick Jones

A city-wide exhibition in Liverpool is paying homage to an 18th Century blind poet and slavery abolitionist. But who is Edward Rushton and why is he being remembered?

It is pretty amazing when looking at Rushton's life that he isn't more well known. Revolutionary poet, early disability rights campaigner, vocal slavery abolitionist, and founder of the first blind school in the country, but few, it appears, have heard of him.

"He wasn't an establishment figure," explains Steve Binns, a Liverpool historian. "He hasn't achieved longevity because he was uneducated and took a minority view, but what he did in his lifetime was remarkable."

Rushton was a vehement liberal and a passionate revolutionary. He pushed for a blind school when disabled people were all but considered worthless, and tirelessly spoke out against the slave trade, of which he had personal experience.

Born in 1756, Rushton took work on board ships as a crew member when he was just 12, a typical venture for somebody of his social standing. The slave trade was booming in Liverpool at that time, and working on board a ship gave young boys a chance to earn a considerable amount of money and rise up the ranks quickly.

Rushton seized this opportunity and his tenacity and fearlessness shone through, Binns says. When he was only 16 a ship he was on board encountered trouble in the Irish Sea. The captain and crew were all drunk and about to flee, but Rushton, who was sober, took to the helm and brought them to safety.

Tragedy at sea

A year later, in 1773, when on board a second slave ship from the Ivory Coast to Jamaica, a tragedy happened that would stay with Rushton for the rest of his life. The ship became wrecked and the crew and slaves were flung into the water.

Swimming towards the safety of a floating cask, Rushton discovered that a slave, Quamina, was already clinging to it. He had formed a relationship with Quamina, and had even taught him to read while on the ship. Seeing him approach, Quamina selflessly pushed the cask towards Rushton so he would be saved, bade him goodbye, and sank to his death. In his Memoir of Edward Rushton, Poems, the author William Shepherd wrote that Rushton often spoke of the incident, "never without dropping a grateful tear to the memory of Quamina".

Image source, Royal Blind School of Liverpool
Image caption,
Edward Rushton was completely blind in his left eye

Rushton thought the treatment of slaves was abhorrent, and was particularly saddened when he discovered that many were being locked below deck for having an infectious eye condition which caused them to go blind. The crew were scared they were going to catch the ailment, believed now to have been ophthalmia, though stopped short of throwing them overboard as was sometimes the practice. In 1774 on a journey to Domenica, however, Rushton insisted that he be allowed to give the slaves food despite being threatened with irons by the captain.

As a result of his compassion, he caught the infection and lost almost all of his sight. "We expect he was about 80-90% blind from this point onwards," Binns says. "We definitely know he could not walk unaided or read."

'Hopeless blindness'

This will have been very upsetting for Rushton, says Binns. He had been getting political active and this would would now be more difficult. Braille hadn't been invented yet and he was forced to pay for a boy to read to him, despite having been thrust into poverty after going blind.

Desperate to get his sight back, in 1776 he consulted with King George III's occulist Baron Wenzel who was well known for his work on cataracts but learnt there was no hope. William Shepherd writes that Rushton returned to Liverpool in a "state of hopeless blindness".

His public stance against slavery had led to him being cast aside, ignored by friends and accomplices. The trade provided Liverpool with many jobs and opportunities, and Rushton's admonishing of it was not well received.

Becoming aware of how difficult it was to navigate society without sight, Rushton became passionate about creating a school for blind pupils, specifically aimed at improving their job opportunities and enjoyment of life.

He sought funding from leading members of Liverpool liberal society but initially got no response. A number of months later a letter from Rushton was circulated which impressed upon liberals the importance of providing help for blind people.

Image source, Check
Image caption,
An early sketch of the Royal School for the Indigent Blind in Liverpool

Support grew for the school despite objectors saying it would merely provide fiddlers to fill the streets of Liverpool. Eventually King George IV gave 50 guineas and the royal patronage that helped Rushton start the Royal School for the Indigent Blind.

200 years later, the school is still running but now caters for visually impaired students who have additional disabilities. The memory of Rushton lives on there.

Binns, who is blind and attended the school when he was a child, says he grew up thinking Rushton "was on our side". "A story was still passed around that, on discovering the teachers were eating the good food, Rushton intervened to ensure it was equally distributed amongst pupils too," he recalls.

Binns isn't disappointed that few people seem to know about Rushton and his achievements. "He wouldn't have cared about being remembered," he says. "He was a radical who showed he didn't give a damn what people thought."

To mark the 200th anniversary of Edward Rushton's death, DaDaFest are holding a series of events around Liverpool including a service of thanksgiving at Liverpool Cathedral on November 22.

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