Skip to 0 minutes and 8 seconds Welcome to Wilberforce House Museum here in Kingston upon Hull, birthplace of the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce. Abolitionism in the 18th and 19th centuries was never entirely a parochial affair. Rather, it is best understood as an international movement that rested on dense networks that linked together abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic. It is important to stress that what we are dealing with here is organized abolitionist activity, which peaked during the period of the American Revolution, which sparked intense debates around the issues of slavery and freedom.
Skip to 0 minutes and 49 seconds The first organized anti-slavery society in the shape of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society appeared in 1775, but the real expansion came in the years immediately following the American Revolution– that is, after 1783. By the mid-1790s, there were at least 16 of these societies that spanned the Atlantic world from London to New York, from New York to Paris, from Paris to Philadelphia. The men who ran these societies with surprising efficiency were regularly in contact with each other, as through the channels they created, they circulated huge amounts of abolitionist propaganda– books, pamphlets, prints, and artifacts. Josiah Wedgwood’s famous image of the kneeling slave, together with the motto “Am I not a man and a brother?”
Skip to 1 minute and 42 seconds which was cycled and recycled throughout the 18th and 19th centuries– more iconic still was the plan in section of the slave ship Brookes, which again originated in the United Kingdom and was widely imitated. By 1790, there were at least four versions of this print in circulation, including a Philadelphia version and a French version, which was published complete with a 14-page description. We now know that thousands of copies of this print were published during the 18th century, making it one of the most instantly recognizable images associated with the anti-slavery movement, a visual cue that brought home the enormity of the slave trade and made abolition a matter of urgent international concern. Abolitions also developed common strategies, chief among them petitioning.
Skip to 2 minutes and 37 seconds In the British case, there were two early petition campaigns in 1788 and 1792 involving some 400,000 people. As it turned out, those early campaigns were the precursors of the mass campaigns of the 19th century. Between 1828 and 1833, when British colonial slavery came to an end, parliament was deluged by 5,000 petitions signed by 1 and 1/2 million Britons. The National Female Petition of 1833 was signed by over 185,000 women, making it the largest single anti-slavery petition ever presented to the House of Commons. This device of petitioning was widely imitated. In the United States, early abolitionists also petitioned state legislatures, although those campaigns were not the same or not of the same scale as those in the United Kingdom.
Skip to 3 minutes and 39 seconds A better comparison would be with the mass campaigns of the 1830s, where thousands of Americans came forward to sign petitions against the slave trade. In fact, the numbers were so large that in 1836, the US House of Representatives went so far as to pass a gag rule, effectively stipulating that all of these petitions should be simply laid on the table and not discussed or debated. Another common strategy was the employment of paid anti-slavery agents.
Skip to 4 minutes and 11 seconds This strategy seems to have begun in Britain around 1831, when the American anti-slavery society set up an agency committee to run a small team of paid anti-slavery agents, chief among them George Thompson, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest anti-slavery orators of the age. Interestingly, Thompson visited the United States around 1834 at the express invitation of William Lloyd Garrison. Inspired by Thompson’s example, many American societies set up teams of paid anti-slavery agents, men and women, black and white. Frederick Douglass, for instance, for a time was a paid agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society, as were many other black activists during this period.
Skip to 5 minutes and 4 seconds Estimates vary, but we think that around 1836, ‘37, the American Anti-Slavery Society was employing somewhere in the region of 100 paid anti-slavery agents, although not all of these agents would have been active at the same time. Nevertheless, some of these agents, men like Charles Burleigh and Charles Linux Remond, went on to carve out careers for themselves as paid anti-slavery agents, careers that took them to the United Kingdom, thereby cementing the ties that existed between British and American abolitionists. There were other common strategies, among them the boycotting of slave-produced goods, a campaign that in the British case at least started in 1790 and was widely imitated. Another important factor was the involvement of women in the anti-slavery movement.
Skip to 5 minutes and 55 seconds During the 1820s, thousands of women in Britain started organizing separate anti-slavery societies, and in many cases proved more active than their male counterparts. Besides campaigning, British women regularly contributed to anti-slavery bazaars in the United States, thereby cementing the ties that united anti-slavery women on both sides of the Atlantic. The World Anti-Slavery Convention, which met in London in May 1840, was another symbol of international cooperation, even if it did expose some of the very real differences that existed between British and American activists. What we are dealing with here, in other words, is a transatlantic movement that had its origins in the late 18th century and persisted right up until the 1860s.
Skip to 6 minutes and 46 seconds Abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic worked in close cooperation with each other, sharing ideas, strategies, and on occasion, personnel. As I said at the outset, anti-slavery was never entirely a parochial affair. It was from its origins an international movement, drawing its strength and potency from the close ties that existed between British and American abolitionists.
Professor John Oldfield is Director of the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation, and a leading expert on transatlantic abolitionism.
In this film, shot at the Wilberforce Institute and Wilberforce House Museum in Hull, he explains the transatlantic crosscurrents of antislavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. Abolitionism is understand as an international movement that rested on dense networks that linked together activists on both sides of the Atlantic. These networks shared propaganda and imagery, circulated petitions, and worked in close co-operation with each other. British and American abolitionists shared ideas, strategies and – on occasion – personnel.
After watching the film, please visit the digital resource Frederick Douglass in Britain, which maps the 19th-century speaking tours of the famous African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass across the UK. You can also explore the site’s other map, showing the locations where other black abolitionists spoke in Britain. The resource is the work of Hannah-Rose Murray, a University of Nottingham PhD student and one of this course’s facilitators. It is a window onto 19th-century society, showing for the first time how African Americans reached nearly every corner of Britain, interacting with British audiences to win support for abolition and combat the deeply entrenched racism of the period.
Please share any observations in the comments. If you are based in the UK, did you find evidence of Douglass or other abolitionists speaking in your city? Are you surprised by the extent of this transatlantic network and how far it reached into British towns?