London in the Age of Revolutions
In 1785, Thomas Clarkson entered Cambridge University’s Latin essay contest; the prompt of the essay: “Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?” Clarkson began doing what he would later become extremely well known for: conducting research, gathering interviews, and piecing together evidence. 1785 was the moment in Clarkson’s life where he would discover the true horrors of the British slave trade as he tirelessly pursued all avenues of information and sources to thoroughly prepare for his essay. At first, he admitted only wishing to obtain “literary honor,” a reason many other students were entering for, but as he began collecting the evidence for his essay he started adopting a new perspective,
“I always slept with a candle in my room, that I might rise out of bed and put down such thoughts as might occur to me in the night…conceiving that no arguments of any moment should be lost in so great a cause.”
He became consumed with slavery in Britain; having won the essay contest and despite looking towards a promising career within the church he could not separate himself from the horrors of the slave trade.
Here was a man whom was privileged by British society and climbing the ladder to a life of relative ease within the Church of England. Clarkson had nothing to gain from his endeavors to end slavery nor did he have anything to gain from aiding to found the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. If anything, he would have likely benefitted staying in his prospective line of work as the Church itself served as an absentee owner for sugar plantations in the Caribbean.Yet Clarkson was swayed by none of this. Proving, at least for Clarkson, that some horrors in the world needed to be confronted, and he was more than willing to take it upon himself to help abolish the slave trade.
Clarkson embarked on several journeys for the abolition committee to gather evidence in order to sway the British public and Parliament to act against the slave trade. A crucial task of the committee was gathering testimony of people willing to testify before Parliament. Clarkson became the main point person for this job when in June 1787 he prepared for a trip spanning several months to “find witnesses, organize sympathizers, and gather more information...” So Clarkson set off on his journey setting his sights first on Bristol. In Bristol, he discovered large numbers of slave ship sailors perished there in high numbers, gained testimony concerning the inhumane treatment of a free black man named John Dean, and tracked down documents regarding a massacre of nearly three hundred Africans by British slave traders.
Arguably, one of Clarkson’s biggest investigative accomplishments was getting people to look at the inhumane conditions of slavery right before their eyes. Fast forward to the 1789 Parliamentary session. William Wilberforce, a Member of Parliament and part of movement to abolish the slave trade, is ready to introduce an abolition bill to Parliament. However, before reaching debate in Parliament, there were ongoing hearings about the slave trade in the Committee on Trade and Plantations of the Privy Council. The political powerhouse that was the West India Committee was a force to be reckoned with, and Clarkson was determined to find more witnesses as he rode across the country yet again.
Yet, Clarkson, being who he is, could not help but establish new branches of the abolition committee while on his travels, and his enthusiasm bore fruit when the chairman of one of the new branches sent him a “plate,” which was, “a diagram with top, side, and end views, of a fully loaded slaves ship, the Brookes.” The illustration of the Brookes, which Clarkson and other committee members expanded upon, visualized the tight spaces and great number of slaves the ship carried; which gave the abolition committee a weapon to levy against the West India Committee as they began publishing the diagram earnestly in newspapers and pamphlets. Such a find in investigative journalism cannot be downplayed, evidence such as the Brookes diagram was especially impactful during this time in Britain due to the religious climate at the time “because it seemed a sinister echo of a scene familiar to all: detailed drawings of the animals in Noah’s Ark.”
Clarkson drew upon specific dimensions of the Brookes: the breadth of the boy’s room is twenty-five feet, breadth of the women’s room is twenty-three feet and six inches, the height of the cabin is six foot two inches, and so on.He paid special attention to the living conditions amongst the slaves in the ship, specifying how closely they were all living amongst one another, “if when four hundred and fifty-one slaves are put into the different rooms of the Brookes, the floors are not only covered with bodies, but these bodies actually touch each other.”
The effect this would have had on the British public during this time can be further expounded upon by turning to the scholarship of Lynn Hunt in her book “Inventing Human Rights: A History.” Hunt notes the change in public opinion towards torture in Britain in the late 18th century and the transformation from viewing torture as a “sacrificial rite,” accompanied by festivity, to a more subdued form of anxiety which came from watching public torture. There was an individualistic and secular view which emerged after an evaluation of the individual body and pain. Pain was something more personal than before since it no longer belonged to the greater community nor could not be scarified on behalf of the individual for the greater good of the community or for religious purposes.
“In the new view, consequently, cruel punishment exacted in a public setting constituted an assault on society rather than a reaffirmation of it.”
Clarkson and the committee had brought this form of cruel punishment into the public setting with the publication of the diagram, reaffirming the shifting opinions on personal space and autonomy.
Clarkson had been amassing evidence for years when in 1790 it was time to boil down everything he had gathered into a single publication. Assembling countless interviews, documents, diagrams and other evidence, Clarkson and the abolition committee published The Abstract of the Evidence delivered before a select committee of the House of Commons in the years 1790 and 1791, on the part of the petitioners for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.
“In consequence of the numerous petitions which were sent to Parliament…in the year 1788, for the ABOLITION of the SLAVE TRADE, it was determined by the House of Commons to hear evidence upon that subject,” the preface to The Abstract reads.
The boiled down version of The Abstract is as thorough and extensive as one could expect from the more than 100-page document. However, as impressive as the document is in confronting the slave trade, Clarkson makes an interesting admission in The Abstract’s preface which sparks an interesting debate as to whether it would meet non-journalistic standards.
“It may be necessary to anticipate that some one may ask the editor why he has given in this abstract the evidence on part of the petitioners only, and omitted that which has been adduced on the other side. To this the editor might reply, that it is the business of the slave merchants and planters…
In instances, such as these, we see Clarkson’s skills as a propagandist, organizer, and journalist all shine through.
In August 1838, some forty years after The Abstract is published, slavery is abolished “in the largest empire on earth,” and Thomas Clarkson was still alive to see it happen.
Stephen Sayre: The Attempted Self-Made Gentleman
Stephen Sayre, a New Englander who came to London in the 18th century, spent his time crafting a person he never was: a gentleman
When London Was the Capital of America, by author Julie Flavell, paints a portrait of eighteenth-century London in the years before the War of Independence, which may leave readers wondering whether or not London actually was the capital of America. Reading Flavell’s work certainly paints the picture of London as being more populated with those from the American colonies and the West Indies than Englishmen themselves. For instance, you have the Laurens family, Benjamin Franklin, New Englander Stephen Sayre, and plenty of other elite families from the American colonies populating London during this time. The American experience and the London experience were both vastly different, and many coveted the potential lives London could offer them over anything else. The reasoning behind so many felt a powerful urge towards London was because ten years before American independence, the fledging nation-state had no clear identity.
“Considered from afar, the colonies were presumed by Londoners to be vague extensions of the mother country, the British nation writ large. The perceptive Henry Laurens commented that many Englishmen looked upon the colonies ‘as being only, in a distant county of the kingdom’, outlying extensions of England.” Without an identity of their own in the colonies, more and more colonists began coming to London after 1763 in hopes of finding an identity, or making entirely new ones for themselves. Stephen Sayre was determined to craft his own identity in London.
“Stephen wanted to be a gentleman. Perhaps the seeds of his ambition were planted in the glimpses of a more exciting, pleasurable world afforded by his sisters’ store-bough frivolities and the chatter of New York newspapers. The colonial American thirst to know about London would only be equaled in the nineteenth century by the demand for stories about New York, the ‘big city’ of the young Republic.”
Stephen Sayre provides us with a suitable example of a young man whose main purpose of coming to London was to self-fashion himself into someone that he never was, nor ever could be no matter how hard he tried. Sayre was a New Englander by heritage and his family was “respectable but unremarkable…typical, ordinary colonial Americans, hardworking Yankee stock who made their livings as artisans and farmers.”
He graduated from Princeton in 1757 and joined the army, not the clergy as many of his classmates did, and from there he jumped around from various London connections to the next, but always kept his goal of becoming a gentleman at the forefront of all his decisions. To be perceived as a gentleman, a member of the English genteel, was the goal of colonial Americans and this was evidenced by whether they succeeded in appearing like the gentrified English. More than anything, what Sayre was looking for was a chance. His first chance came with Lord Sterling, when in 1762, Sterling sent him to Connecticut to check on a land company which was establishing new settlements. But his greatest achievement in his journey to acquire status was when he gained the confidence of wealthy merchant Dennis De Berdt.
For seven years, the De Berdt family would provide the background of status Stephen was searching for. Stephen became the commercial agent for the De Berdt household and made trips to the West Indies and America to collect debts and rally business for De Berdt’s firm, which was in a financially unstable condition at the time. Sayre during this time in his life was like another 18th century London character, Henry Marchant. Marchant took an eleven-month sojourn to England as a colonial agent for Rhode Island, he was dispatched to London in 1771 to straighten out Rhode Island’s wartime claims and counterclaims of stamp tax collectors. Merchant was also a New Englander, but with a much higher class than Sayre ever possessed. Merchant had a background as a trial lawyer, was a student at the College of Philadelphia, was tutored by Edmund Towbridge in legal studies and became assistant to Rhode Island’s attorney general in 1770.
Everything Sayre wanted, Merchant had or rather Merchant was born into and privileged with. Merchant’s London, as a legal tourist, was infinitely different from Sayre; he had status, power, wealth, gentleman status and connections which Sayre often pined after: “his (Merchant) letters of introduction, from eminent attorneys and politicians in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts, ensured that he would be welcome among his brother lawyers in London.”
Being a businessman and merchant in London was increasingly common and on the rise throughout the century as colonies and colonists began playing a bigger role. Yet, for Sayre, as a New Englander, his heritage and status were seen differently compared to southern colonists such as Henry Laurens. Interestingly, Merchant did not run into this issue of New England class strife in London. Likely because his role as colonial agent had scored him some political power despite their influential abilities declining after the Stamp Act crisis. For southerners, such as Henry Laurens, this was even more different. After Henry Laurens arrived to London he was already firmly within the upper crust of South Carolina society, coming to London for him was icing on the cake many from South Carolina were expected to do. Sayre, however, experienced London differently, “New Englanders had a reputation as an underbred people, engrossed with the sordid business of making money.”
Londoners likely had a more positive view of those from the southern colonies because of their strong ties to the slave trade and slave plantations. Which is not to say the northern colonies too did not engage in slavery, but southern colonists were more recognizable, “to Georgian Londoners, typical Americans were the mixed-race folk of the mainland and West Indian plantations.” Sayre’s fledging merchant identity also put him in a contentious position with the further developing British identity at the time concerning economics. The Bank of England and the Royal Exchange were relatively new and with this financial strength Britain “saw themselves as a world power with a difference.” This part of British society was meant for the wealthy English genteel not New Englanders such as Sayre.
Sayre enjoyed and prospered during his time with the De Berdt family, but all of this came to an end with Dennis’s death. However, things were not over for Sayre and his life in London after the death of Dennis De Berdt. Sayre’s life after 1770 highlights another realm of life in London: politics. Firstly, De Berdt likely influenced how Sayre viewed the political landscape of London. De Berdt was “a religious dissenter, a Protestant who refused to conform to the established Church of England.” When Britain first tried to tax the colonies in 1765, De Berdt supported colonial opposition.
Furthermore, De Berdt’s circle of religious dissenters and nonconformist thinkers had stronger ties to the New England colonies than the southern plantation colonies. Such circles which supported colonial opposition, and in some cases, outright colonial freedom, were becoming more common. Take for example, the relationship between John Laurens and Thomas Day. The circumstances between these two sets of people are different, but showcase the politics towards the colonies Londoners were starting to develop.
Under Day’s influence, John Laurens began arguing against slavery amongst American acquaintances of his in London and he “no longer wanted to be defined by his plantation origins” but rather “the standards of the wider cosmopolitan world he had come to know.” Despite more reserved stances on slavery, Henry Laurens was also more of an American patriot than he would have liked to admit at times for fear of losing status in London during the times he lived there. Merchant also had his own stances about slavery that were influenced by his time taking notes during the landmark Somerset v. Stewart case which was presided over by Lord Chief Justice Mansfield.
After hearing the first day’s arguments of the case, Merchant believed James Somerset should be freed. This was in line with an idea among American elites “that the slave trade was a foreign imposition, reluctantly imported by the colonies.” Marchant resembled Henry Laurens in that he was not an outspoken abolitionist, like John Laurens was. He was more increasingly worried about what many elite colonists were worried about because of the Somerset case: their own rights. “Marchant worried about how British juries and politicians were increasingly creating distinctions between the rights of American colonists and the rights of Englishmen living in Britain.”
Men such as the Henry and John Laurens, De Berdt, and Merchant highlight an intersection between genteel status and politics. Simply put, one could be politically active, and even part of the political opposition, if you had economic means and were still presentable as a gentleman with all the accessories of the English genteel. John Wilkes, for instance, upon his election as MP for Middlesex in 1768 demonstrates this. Wilkes was in favor of parliamentary reform and was becoming a voice of the new, rising middle class in London, yet “however pure Wilkes’s cause might have been, the man himself left much to be desired.” He was part of a club who conducted mock black Sabbaths ending in orgies and preferred the company of prostitutes to his wife. Which is not to say there weren’t genteel Londoners who participated in such endeavors, but Wilkes did not put effort into putting on genteel accessories, nor was he rather concerned about such things.
Yet, whereas John Laurens fought against slavery Sayre’s involvement in politics didn’t stem so much from a fervent passion as it did more with economic and class gain. For instance, his opposition to Massachusetts Governor Francis Bernard on behalf of De Berdt was not one entirely rooted in colonial support but prospective gains, “the prospect of inheriting the Massachusetts agency from old Mr De Berdt came into his sights.” Sayre continued to deepen his political connections, and a successful result on his part was being elected sheriff of London. But most interesting about Sayre’s political life is how he ended up as the first ever American to be imprisoned in the Tower of London for an alleged plot that he was going to kidnap George III. His politics were not nearly as radical as Wilkes and furthermore he had elevated his status considerably, but this may prove what “ignorance and impudence will do in London.”
Stephen Sayre spent over a decade in London crafting himself into a man he never was, and, as London saw fit, one he never could be. His story may well be a titular example of a young man whose attempts to became a gentleman were constantly hindered by an already rigid, classist, and traditional society.
Thomas Clarkson had nothing to gain from his endeavors to end slavery, nor did he have anything to gain from aiding to found the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. In fact, many of those who were in James Phillip’s bookstore and printing shop on May 22, 1787 did not have any reason to abolish the British slave trade. Men like Clarkson, Granville Sharp, James Ramsey, later William Wilberforce and John Newton, did not have any economic, class, or political reasons to take this stance. In fact, by working to abolish the slave trade, they put themselves in the opposition of English public opinion.
Yet, there was something that convicted those who were part of the newly formed antislavery committee which pushed them towards this endeavor. Call it a sense of greater morality or justice, and while their original goal was not emancipation for slaves, they still took this task upon themselves which held no precedent in all human experience. This being the case, the committee faced several struggles and competing interests in Britain during their campaign.
When talking about the slave trade, you cannot separate it from its inherent capitalist nature. In the trade, people were profit and this profit is what kept Britain running. In fact, being a sailor on one of the slave ships, or being an absentee plantation owner, was considered a viable career others would lust after. John Newton, before joining the cause, dreamt of hitting it big in the slave trade and to become an entrepreneur and experience adventure. By the mid-18th century, the always expanding British Empire had outposts in its thirteen colonies and India, and the empire’s greatest wealth could be found in sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Britain had essentially cornered the market on slaves in the colonies and elsewhere, “supplying African captives to French, Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese colonies as well as to Britain’s own. In peak years, they carried some forty thousand chained men…”
Nowhere in the British Empire was the slave trade more successful and important than the Caribbean where sugar was crowned king. “Just as oil drives the geopolitics of our own time, the most important commodity on European minds then was sugar, and the overseas territories that mattered most were the islands so wonderfully suited for growing it.” In this way, we can see how both economic interest and class status kept the slave trade going. Not only was sugar economically viable to Britain, it was considered a commodity that provided people status and comfort in society. The work at Codrington plantation, with its harsh working conditions and climate, demonstrated “how the benefits of slavery were enjoyed by the highest reaches of British society–and therefore how difficult it would be to uproot.” Economic wealth and class status were intertwined in Britain, and extremely so during the 18th century. And to remove the slave trade would mean taking away the means of genteel status of plantation owners and removing “that one vital link and the empire was gone.”
So how would the committee overcome the slave trade which was rooted in British economics and class? The antislavery committee’s route was to be through Parliament. However, approaching the abolition of the slave trade through government channels would prove difficult as well. First, the legal status of slaves in England was not something that had been defined at this point. The status of slave legality “was surprisingly uncertain.” “Many slaves were given freedom by their British masters or allowed to earn it; some simply took it themselves, slipping away to small but growing communities of blacks in London.”
It wasn’t until Granville Sharp took on the Somerset v. Stewart case was a precedent for slaves set. The case can be summarized as such: James Somerset, a slave from Virginia, escaped from his master, Charles Stewart, and the court was made to decide his status following an attempt by Stewart to recapture Somerset and place him on a ship to Jamaica to be enslaved once again. Sharp argued that the law allowed no one to be a slave in England while the opposing side argued that Somerset was Stewart’s property and thus belonged to him.
The conclusion of the case was highly anticipated as there was no legal precedent for slaves in England; Somerset v. Stewart was going to make history for slaves one way or another. Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, presiding over the Court of King’s Bench, oversaw the case. Mansfield found was presiding over a case “in which the right to property clashed with the right to liberty.” Mansfield ruled in Somerset’s favor and he was freed, but this did not give slaves rights nor did it affect the slave trade in any way, despite many believing Mansfield’s decision had outlawed slavery. Mansfield instead “carefully couched his decision in a way that would set Somerset at liberty without automatically freeing other slaves.”
While the Somerset case didn’t end slavery, nor emancipate slaves, in England, it gave the antislavery committee needed publicity and support. To get things moving they had to tackle Parliamentary channels. This is where William Wilberforce, an ardent Evangelical, a man of higher class, and an M.P. in the House of Commons comes on the scene. Wilberforce was more conservative than the other members of the committee on certain issues, but he was willing to be their voice in Parliament.
The route to debating the issue of abolishing the slave trade began in the late 1780s in the Committee on Trade and Plantations of the Privy Council. Wilberforce and the antislavery committee were made to supplement evidence to make their case and go up against the political lobbying powerhouse, the West India Committee who represented the plantation owners and interests of the West Indies. In 1789, Wilberforce introduced what would become one of many abolition bills to Parliament. Wilberforce had public support in the form of antislavery petitions at the very beginning and later the support of M.Ps in the House of Commons, but the antislavery committee still had to face “the strong West Indian influence in Parliament itself.” After all, many of those who were absentee plantation owners, or had connections to the slave trade, were also within Parliament.
If you combine the influence of the West India Committee, which had more resources and wealth at their disposal, in Parliament with the fact that Wilberforce had to argue for abolishing the slave trade in the House of Commons makes for an uphill battle. Even if the abolition bill did pass in Commons, which it did on several instances, the House of Lords, the English elite, would not pass it. This was why drumming up public support was so crucial, and why Clarkson’s role of amassing evidence to present to Parliament and the public on the horrors of the slave trade was needed. The greatest weapon they had at their disposal in this regard was the illustration of the slave ship the Brookes, which the committee published in newspapers and pamphlets to demonstrate the physical conditions of slaves on the slave ships. The Brookes diagram was especially impactful during this time in Britain due to the religious climate “it seemed a sinister echo of a scene familiar to all: detailed drawings of the animals in Noah’s Ark.”
Religion also served as a roadblock to abolish the slave trade. Since the Reformation, Britain’s official church was the Church of England, and a great majority of people in Britain belonged to the church. The Church of England was not free from the grips of slavery; in fact, they had their finger firmly on its pulse. The Church served as an absentee owner, or rather their missionary arm, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, was an absentee owner. John Newton at one time also thought of slavery as the natural way of things and wanted to focus on converting slaves not emancipating them.
How could he think otherwise? Newton’s entrenchment in the slave trade had warped him into thinking it was acceptable, and the Church’s backing, no matter how explicit or implicit, can be viewed as a sign of support for slavery in their believers’ eyes. Newton wished for wealth, adventure, and promoting the life of God in life and “for some thirty years afterwards, John Newton seems never to have heard God say a word to him against slavery.” Of course if men like Newton weren’t part of the Church of England what was left for them? Catholics and Protestants weren’t welcome, and Quakers even less so. To associate oneself with the antislavery movement meant rubbing elbows with the Quakers which meant being in the minority, and no one was very excited about being in that camp.
The struggles of the antislavery committee to overcome economics, class status, their own government, and religious beliefs highlights the sets of competing viewpoints in Britain during this time. But it also shows how human rights developed over the course of this movement. What developed the most over the course of this movement arguably was empathy. Thinking back to pieces such as Josiah Wedgewood’s “Ain’t I a Man and a Brother,” to Olaudah Equiano’s personal narrative, and Clarkson’s investigative work developed empathy within the British public.
Equiano’s enslavement narrative was invaluable to the movement’s cause, and the movement likely would not have been successful if not for Equiano. “The tens of thousands of Britons who read Equiano’s book or heard him speak got to see slavery through the eyes of a former slave.” Equiano’s personal narrative shows how, at its core, the goal of the antislavery movement was so simple. As complex as it was to fight for the movement, its message revolved around empathy, and personal narrative. And it was this development of empathy which would come to propel the arch of human rights, and the creation of social movements, into the present day.