Meeting of the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society, 3 October 1832, Friends Meeting House, Manchester
Long before the time appointed for the lecture, carriages were seen rolling up to the gates discharging their gay inmates…it is doubtful whether ever such an assemblage, purely feminine in its character, burst at once upon the eye of a lecturer, on any occasion and certainly never such as one was collected together in Manchester; an assemblage properly of ladies – comprised of persons of all persuasions, – met on a common cause – the cause of humanity – a cause in which everything human is interested – and none but the inhumane can oppose; nearly two thousand females, not one in mean attire- members of the first families of the town and neighborhood…mingling with the commonest drab, which have concealed the carnation tints of quakeress beauty…with eyes beaming with intelligence.
Manchester Times and Gazette October 6 1832 issue 208
With the slave trade abolished, a new organisation was required to campaign for the end of slavery in the colonies. Wigan-born Quaker, James Cropper, established the Society for the Amelioration and Gradual Abolition of Slavery in Liverpool in 1822. Through his lobbying the London Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1823. He attacked the ‘impolicy of the slavery in the West Indies appealing to reason and to free trade principles to show that a system of plantation cultivation by slave labour was inefficient, costly to the consumer and in the long run not in the interest to the planter.’ In 1831 the London Committee set up a system of agents to argue that colonial slavery was a Christian crime and should be abolished immediately. Liverpool-born George Thompson, whom the ladies of Manchester had come to see at Friends Meeting House, was their most celebrated lecturer.
The traditional arguments for and against slavery were now being enacted against a backdrop of slave insurrection and increasing disregard by the Jamaican planters for the amelioration legislation which had been enacted in London. A slave revolt had occurred after Christmas 1831, and resulted in the massive destruction of property of ‘whites and brown’. It was ruthlessly quashed, resulting in the reported deaths of thousands of slaves and three whites. Baptist and Methodist ministers were accused of incitement and attacked, their churches and property destroyed and tried for sedition. The Bishops who had voted against parliamentary reform at home were now seen to be aligned with the planters against the sectarian missionaries in Jamaica. The acrimony between dissenters and the established church which was now being played out in the colonies, and Jamaica in particular, was widely and graphically reported in the British press. The dissenters in the north-west would have read, with outrage, the report from the Jamaican Courier, ‘We hope he will award [the three Baptist ministers taken into custody] fair and impartial justice. Shooting is however too honourable a death for these men whose conduct has occasioned so much bloodshed, and the loss of so much property. There are fine hanging woods in St James and Trelawney and we do sincerely hope that the bodies of all the Methodist preachers who may be convicted of sedition may diversify the scene.’
In July William Knibbs, one of the Baptist ministers charged with sedition, came back to Britain from Jamaica and gave a first-hand account of his experiences to audiences in Liverpool and Manchester. He argued that the planters wished to ‘absolve themselves from the crown’, and would not allow the gospel to be spread in the West Indies. In Manchester he spoke to a horrified audience about a Methodist missionary being tarred and feathered.
East India Connections
The missionaries’ agitation for immediate emancipation and their oppression by the planters fired the populist movement. George Thompson and the agent for the West Indian planters, Borthwick, participated in a series of rowdy lectures in Liverpool. Borthwick caused outrage when he charged the Baptists missionaries with having instigated the slaves to rebellion. He also accused Thompson and the other anti-slavery leaders of self-interest, rather than humanitarian motives, in opposing the colonial system due to their connections with the East India trade. He argued that the plantation owners had the wishes of the slaves, ‘their children’, at heart and wished to develop the slaves gradually so that they could be placed ‘in the condition of English peasants’.
An alignment of causes
The 1832 Reform Bill extended the franchise to male ‘forty-shilling freeholders’, although most people, including all women, still had no vote. Elections took place at the end of the year. As candidates for parliament, including dissenters for the first time, took to the hustings anti-slavery was seen as a vote winner. At Knibbs’ Manchester meeting prospective parliamentary candidate, Mark Philips, stood up and pledged himself against the union of church and state, tithes and the corn laws and announced himself a convert to immediate abolition. He was to become one of the first MPs for Manchester.
Anti-slavery was a fashionable cause amongst the middle classes. Some charge it was to ease their consciences for the treatment of workers at home, who were treated no better than slaves. However, the movement was a populist one with its roots in the democratic agitation championed by Walker and Cooper over 30 years earlier. Seymour Drescher’s work analyzing the 1832 Methodist anti-slavery petition signed by 1.3 million men and women shows that ‘abolitionism burst into the public arena just as its artisanal social basis was rapidly expanding in the various mining and manufacturing regions especially Lancashire.’ As the address from the Free Trade Hall on New Years Eve 1862 was to show it was the working, industrious classes who were equal leaders in the humanitarian movement.
As reports of the rebellious proceedings of the West Indian planters and condemnation of their treatment of British Christians continued, it was generally perceived inevitable that more insurrections would continue as long as slavery persisted. The new Parliament voted through the Emancipation Act in 1833.
Since 1828 dissenters were no longer barred from political office, and those with wealth were enfranchised. There was now a new focus for the political campaigners of the north-west and a new generation of liberals leading the way. Most still had no vote, and many were living in conditions they felt were no better than those endured by the slaves. In America slaves continued to produce the cotton that was spun and weaved in Lancashire. Parliamentary reform and slavery continued to be emotive political issues.
A glimpse of the hidden histories of the black servants in Liverpool
I have just seen Django Unchained. The dining scene in the plantation house reminded me of Prestonian Samuel Leach’s (1829-1923) memoirs.
In his reminiscences of Liverpool in the first half of the nineteenth century Samuel recounted that the three Moon brothers had black servants from the Brazils whom they would take with them whenever they were dining out. Once all three had been together at a family’s birthday celebration. At the dinner table each brother had a black servant standing behind his chair ‘of course lightening the work for the servants of this family’.
He also recalled dining at the Cross Hotel in Bowness, in the Lake District, some years later ‘with Jefferson Davis, the President of the Southern Republic, who after his overthrow was touring with his family in Europe, when he had a splendid black man standing behind his own, his wife’s and his children’s chairs exactly in the same way- I don’t know why, but Darkies at that time used to be more common in the streets of Liverpool than they are today,  one used to brush past them quite as an every day thing.
Samuel Leach, Old Age Reminiscences 1915.
Lancashire Records Office.