Feature: Anti-Slavery after Emancipation

Our November feature is an exclusive extract from Richard Huzzey’s ‘Freedom Burning: Anti-Slavery and Empire in Victorian Britain’, published last year by Cornell University Press, in which he explains why the book looks beyond the abolitionist societies to the wider reform movement. 

The Victorian era can be seen as a period of anti-slavery decline – a decline indicated by the fading influence of anti-slavery societies, by the rise of racial thinking, by the stirrings of imperialism, and by the apathy of many Britons to the Northern cause in the American Civil War. This has been an influential view amongst historians, who have located the dotage and decline of British anti-slavery sentiment in the first decade of Victoria’s reign.1

However, judging the health of anti-slavery sympathies from the institutional survival of abolitionist organizations is a mistake. Historical research has slowly begun to pick apart the complex network of interests and agendas that made up this “movement” before 1834 and to understand it as a shifting patchwork of alliances.2 A focus on anti-slavery societies distorts the fate of anti-slavery ideas in this later period; if the abolitionist societies were in decline, it does not follow that British anti-slavery sentiment was necessarily in decline too. To study the history of free trade after 1846 through the institutional fate of Britain’s Anti-Corn Law League would strike historians as very curious. Doing the equivalent for the history of anti-slavery is looking for signs of life in all the wrong places.3 A national abolitionist society was no longer the principal vehicle for anti-slavery ideas. Instead, it was an era of anti-slavery pluralism, no longer obvious which policies best advanced the nation’s opposition to slavery.

Unless, like contemporaries, we wish to reserve the epithet “anti-slavery” for some favoured recipe of methods and techniques, it makes sense to take seriously anti-slavery in all its chaotic and pluralist forms. As historian Howard Temperley notes, the epithet “abolitionist” could also apply to “a host of individuals and groups – for example those British Ministers, government officials and naval personnel who gave their energies (and sometimes their lives too) in the struggle against slavery”. He is right to invoke a metaphor that the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson described in his 1808 history of slave-trade abolition. Clarkson, in his youth, saw diverse campaigners as tributaries uniting in a great anti-slavery river, cascading towards a sea of freedom. Clarkson lived long enough to see the British anti-slavery sentiment split, after 1833, from one tide into numerous estuaries, streams, and puddles, emptying into quite different destinations (although he would have found it too painful to adapt his metaphor to reflect this fact).4 This diversity should not blind us to the continued influence of anti-slavery ideology in Victorian Britain. Without any clear agenda to unite strands of anti-slavery opinion in the Victorian period, differences became more obvious, as campaigners’ responses to victory demonstrated.

On the day of West Indian emancipation, the London-based Anti-Slavery Society instructed the British public that “a day of such vast moment to the welfare of one part of the empire, and to the honour of the whole, ought not to pass unnoticed.”5 In the glow of victory, it was possible for abolitionists to forget their internal disagreements over whether it was right that planters received £20 million of financial compensation and freed people suffered a period of compulsory work.6 These disputes set aside, on the evening of emancipation day the anti-slavery elite gathered for a feast in Freemason’s Tavern to toast their success. Beyond self-satisfaction, neither the parliamentary leaders of the emancipation struggle nor the British public at large had any great sense of what an anti-slavery nation should do next; the Anti-Slavery Society had no plan to rally support for abolitionist movements in Europe or the Americas.

A group of radical campaigners calling themselves the Agency Society differed from their elders and betters on this and they would be a leading force in the Victorian British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (BFASS). Frustrated with the caution of parliamentary leaders such as Buxton, these men had declared independence from the Anti-Slavery Society in the summer of 1832, wanting to pursue more vigorous agitation against pro-slavery MPs seeking re-election.7 It is not unlikely that “an Antislavery House [was] returned by an Antislavery public for the first time” in the 1832 elections thanks to them, as some members claimed.8 However, members of the Agency Society certainly were far more focused than their Anti-Slavery Society collaborators in seeking, after the death of West Indian slavery, a new cause. In February 1834, six months before the emancipation celebrations, they had reorganized themselves as a “British and Foreign Society for the Universal Abolition of Negro Slavery and the Slave Trade”. This new group intended to support abolitionist groups abroad and advance the cause of global emancipation. They were mostly campaigners who, unlike the anti-slavery establishment, rejected patience and compromise with the government’s cautious ministers in the early 1830s.9

The nervous Whig government tried to ease the pain of the Emancipation Act for West Indian slaveholders by allowing an ameliorated, regulated kind of forced labor to continue for a short time under the new name of “apprenticeship”, despite the howls of protest from many abolitionists. Loosely based on long-standing laws for apprentices in Great Britain, the Caribbean variant imposed physical punishment and compulsory labor on the newly-manumitted black population. Concerns about the treatment of apprentices emerged in the first year after emancipation but met with faltering official investigation. Both Lord Melbourne’s Whig administration and the leaders of the Tory opposition were committed to the terms of the 1833 Emancipation as a solemn compact with the West Indian planters and they would hear no talk of renegotiation. Thomas Fowell Buxton, Wilberforce’s successor as leader of the parliamentary anti-slavery faction, was hesitant to push the fragile ministry too hard. Parliamentary investigations of abuses of the system led nowhere in 1836 and 1837.10

Instead, Joseph Sturge, a Birmingham-based Quaker associated with the Agency group, emerged as the leader of a serious campaign on apprenticeship. He travelled to the West Indies with companions Thomas Harvey, William Lloyd and John Scoble in 1837 to investigate for themselves. Emphasizing that their mission was “entirely independent of the Anti-Slavery Society”, they sought to gather first-hand evidence of abuses under the system of apprenticeship. Sturge and his compatriots acted on their own initiative, though they drew support from a sub-section of the Universal Abolitionist Society’s membership.11 The death of King William IV in June 1837 triggered a general election, but it came too early for Sturge’s combination to make apprenticeship a key point of debate in the constituencies. Regardless, in the first few months of Victoria’s reign, these abolitionists turned to the task of reviving anti-slavery pressure in the hopes of building a parliamentary majority to end apprenticeship immediately.12

In the winter of 1837-8 Sturge published his own account of the horrors uncovered by the expedition and the narrative of James Williams, an abused Jamaican apprentice. “Apprentices get a great deal more punishment now than they did when they was slaves,” asserted the eighteen-year-old Williams to his readers.13 A “Central Emancipation Committee” was founded to mobilize the anti-slavery public, once more harrassing government ministers and MPs. This “take-over by the provincial immediatists” caught the public mood. Sturge seemed likely to build a parliamentary majority to abolish this continuing form of slavery. Behind the scenes, the Colonial Secretary, Lord Glenelg, encouraged the Governors of the British West Indies to make a local termination of apprenticeship. He was motivated not only by public pressure on parliament, but by fears that resistance to two more years of apprenticeship would provoke free people in Jamaica and other colonies to revolution.14 Concerned to assert sovereignty over their own affairs and recognizing that the weak ministry was unlikely to withstand further pressure, the colonial assemblies chose to end apprenticeship themselves rather than wait for the inevitable.15

So, on the morning of August 1st 1838, the sun rose over the Caribbean alongside another, slightly purer, kind of freedom for black Britons. In Britain, Sturge and his allies celebrated this new victory for radical abolitionism. Daniel O’Connell, the Irish nationalist, was particularly keen to launch a British crusade against global slavery off the back of the apprenticeship agitation. In the eyes of this democratic admirer of the United States, slavery prevented America from being the perfect blueprint for British reform and Irish independence.16 On the same day as these celebrations, Thomas Fowell Buxton separately published a small private edition of a book he had been working on throughout the tumult of the apprenticeship controversy. His main concern after the emancipation act of 1834 had been Britain’s plodding efforts to suppress the transatlantic slave trade, and he wanted the government to establish a model farm on the river Niger to diffuse Christianity, commerce, and free-labor farming across the continent.

These divergent concerns shaped two new abolitionist societies, the BFASS and the African Civilization Society. The BFASS – which hoped to be the national voice of anti-slavery concerns – was founded in 1839 as a result of Sturge and O’Connell’s ambition for Britain to attack foreign slavery. Its personnel were drawn from amongst those campaigners who had led the Negro Emancipation Committee’s fight against apprenticeship.17 Meanwhile, Buxton’s plans found form in the African Civilization Society. He published his findings on the slave trade publicly and used meetings at the venerable Exeter Hall – a famous rallying place for charitable and religious causes – to spread his ideas.18 However, his dream perished in 1841, just four years before Buxton himself, with a disastrous expedition up the Niger. The BFASS proved longer lived, with its successor organization surviving to the present day, but it was to have a different role to its predecessor Anti-Slavery Society; despite radical ambitions, the group was less successful in leading a popular national movement than in providing information about foreign slavery to the British government or maintaining links with American abolitionists.

By the late 1830s, newspapers had begun to discern the differences between rival bands of anti-slavers. Press judgements were colored by broader concerns about religious denomination and political partisanship. One article in The Times contrasted the African Civilization Society, patronised by Prince Albert, Anglican churchmen, and Conservative leader Sir Robert Peel, with the “anti-slavery farce” of the BFASS. The latter faction harbored “the inferior devotees of the anti-slavery pantheon”, who were radicals, dissenters, or, worst of all, Irish. Good Anglicans and Methodists, the newspaper suggested, had become wise to “the crafty dissenting objects for the promotion of which that great noble cause had too often and too notoriously been desecrated.”19 Victorians increasingly distinguished between a universal opposition to slavery and the prescriptions of particular abolitionist tribes. This was in part due to the divisive influence of American societies on their British counterparts. Transatlantic disputes over the role of women in anti-slavery societies were dismissed by some commentators as “one of the most paltry affairs which ever unsettled a great cause”.20 More fundamentally, alignment with radical Americans linked British activists with their allies’ “bigotry” and “zealotry”. When, in 1852, The Spectator argued that “progress is made in spite of the party that unduly monopolizes that title” of “abolitionist”, it was referring to Britain as well as America.21 Another journal noted, five years later, that Britons had started “looking beyond the Faneuil Hall and Exeter Hall aspects of the anti-slavery cause” and thinking “beyond the narrow sphere of anti-slavery societies.”22

Newspapermen ceased to identify any particular abolitionists as an “anti-slavery movement” with authority over what was, or what was not, good anti-slavery policy. To speak of anti-slavery was, for The Times of 1861, to speak of “England, for no ‘Christian and philanthropic class’ has any monopoly here of hatred for negro slavery”.23 Indeed, politicians, writers and members of the public picked and chose which strategies they believed would best advance those goals. There was no great consistency in the contemporary language used to differentiate between schools of anti-slavery policy, but there was an important conceptual divide. The Spectator’s distinction between “abolitionists” and “anti-slavery” can be usefully adopted to distinguish between the surviving societies and the wider currency of anti-slavery sympathy in Victorian Britain. There were great varieties of opinion within these divisions. Historians of the United States have understood anti-slavery ideas to exist on a spectrum – ranging from colonizers and moderate free soilers to radical abolitionists and racial egalitarians.24 The prevalence (but also the limits) of British anti-slavery sentiment can only be grasped by adopting a similar range of inquiry. Alongside the well-studied failures of progressive abolitionists, it is critical to study the vibrant “moderate” – perhaps “conservative” – veins of anti-slavery opinion in Victorian Britain. Anti-slavery had never been a heterodox impulse, but a multivalent ideology; with slave-trade abolition and colonial emancipation as targets, different values and beliefs had been easily elided and allied. Because anti-slavery sympathizers held a common goal and shared beliefs in the wrongness and mistakenness of slavery, it makes sense to think of anti-slavery sentiment as an ideology, even as adherents differed.25 While people might shun involvement by themselves or their co-religionists in slave trading or slaveholding, we should distinguish this moral distaste from anti-slavery as a political attack on the legality of human enslavement.26

After 1838, contending factions struggled to define the meaning and to claim the mantle of anti-slavery. Some developed sufficient differences to become separate, rival species of anti-slavery despite sharing a common ancestor in their opposition to the ownership of human beings as property. Britons held various, sometimes unique, configurations of opinion on a host of pregnant questions arising from emancipation. Questions about racial equality or labor relationships or the proper ways to promote anti-slavery abroad divided Britons. Even if a handful of campaigners differed amongst themselves over whether their particular society was the best vehicle for anti-slavery, they represented just a fraction of a wider public culture of anti-slavery opinion.

While the abolitionist societies declined as a popular force, it would be wrong to dismiss their impact entirely, particularly on a local level. In many ways, it was the unity and national authority of a London leadership over a national movement that declined most markedly, while regional groups revived and declined periodically. The BFASS saw itself as the country’s leading society, but suffered from splits and divisions even with its own local auxiliaries.

Rather, the way in which anti-slavery ideas and sentiments impinged on British politics changed dramatically in the first years of Victoria’s reign, in ways that removed abolitionist societies’ role in marshalling or speaking for public opinion. Mass petitioning and the mobilization of public opinion had been a sporadic but important part of the crusades against the slave trade and slavery since 1787.27 The anti-apprenticeship campaign had suggested that Sturge’s followers could continue this tradition. Yet abolitionists failed to replicate such agitation again. In an era when anti-slavery was the avowed policy of the government, it was not clear what should be petitioned for or who should be petitioned. The successes of 1807, 1833 and 1838 had removed slave trading, slave-holding, and apprenticeship in Britain. All these were clear targets for legislative action by representative institutions, which might respond to popular agitation. Abolitionist groups found it increasingly difficult to build a popular coalition around a simple, moral objective. The legal status of slavery in the British Empire was a fundamentally more straightforward question than – to take examples – the relationship between free trade and the slavery, how to create an anti-slavery majority in the United States Congress, or the best method by which to induce Brazilians to suppress their slave trade. Finally, the benefits of petitioning were curbed after 1842, when public petitions ceased to trigger a parliamentary debate and, instead, were simply delivered to an impotent committee.28 Attacks on foreign slaveries encountered a new problem, since foreign authorities were less likely to listen to the opinions of the British public. The BFASS attempted petitioning the U.S. President and Congress in its infant years, leading only to ridicule in the press.29

The anti-slavery societies should not be forgotten in the period after emancipation, but they have enjoyed too much attention relative to other varieties of anti-slavery sentiment in Victorian Britain. The marginalization of abolitionist societies did not mean, as has been argued, that “[a]bolition had become, politically speaking, something of a marginal issue”.30 Sir George Stephen, a prickly opponent of the BFASS, suggested in 1853 that “as a national movement, the stimulus was gone” but that he did not doubt ‘the religious principle in which it had its source, or of the determination of the English character, when stimulated to action by the force of conscience.” If British feeling on the question, Stephen suggested, “may appear wanting in energy or unanimity, it is simply because no point is immediately presented to be the view on which the feeling can be brought to bear”.31 He was right.


1 Seymour Drescher, The Mighty Experiment: Free Labour versus Slavery in British Emancipation (Oxford, 2002), p. 166; Howard Temperley, British Anti-Slavery 1833-1870 (London, 1972), p. 167; Drescher, Abolition, p. 277; Christopher Lloyd, The Navy and the Slave Trade: the Suppression of the African Slave Trade in the Nineteenth-Century (London, 1949), pp. 101-3; Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: Metropole and colony in the English imagination 1830-67 (Oxford, 2002), pp. 338-9; Marika Sherwood, After Abolition: Britain and the Slave Trade since 1807 (London and New York, 2007), pp. 175-7.

2 For aspects of this perspective, see: David Turley, The Culture of English Anti-Slavery, 1780-1860  (London and New York, 1991), pp. 4-5, 227-8; Brown, Moral Capital, esp. p. 459.

3 Andrew S. Thompson, Imperial Britain: The Empire in British Politics, c. 1880-1932 (Harlow, Essex, 2000), pp. 11-12, similarly focuses on public debates, in his case outside of parties as much as outside of particular societies.

4 Thomas Clarkson, The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament (London, 1839) (first pub. 1808), map insert facing p. 164; Temperley, British Anti-Slavery, pp. ix, xvii. While Temperley considers the ‘abolitionist’ currents after 1833, this book explores and expands upon his suggestion that anti-slavery survived outside the societies. For a recent discussion of this problem, see William Mulligan, “The Fugitive Slave Circulars, 1875-76”, JICH, 37 (2009), pp. 183-205, at p. 184. Regarding Clarkson’s impact on later historians, see Brown, Moral Capital, pp. 5-8.

5 Times, 24 July 1834, p. 7.

6 On the politics and finance of compensation, see Nicholas Draper, The Price of Emancipation: Slave-Ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery (Cambridge, 2009).

7 Temperley, British Anti-Slavery, pp. 12-13.

8 Sir George Stephen, Antislavery Recollections: In a Series of Letters addressed to Mrs. Beecher Stowe, at Her Request (London, 1854), p. 167.

9 Temperley, British Anti-Slavery, pp. 25-6.

10 Ibid., pp. 34-5; Izhak Gross, “Parliament and the Abolition of Negro Apprenticeship, 1835-1838”,             EHR, 96 (1981), pp. 560-76, at pp. 560-65.

11 Joseph Sturge and Thomas Harvey, The West Indies in 1837: Being a Visit to Antigua, Montserrat, Dominica, St. Lucia, Barbados and Jamaica (London, 1838), pp. v-vi; Elwood H. Jones, “John Scoble”, DCB/DBC.

12 Gross, “Parliament”, p. 565.

13 Hall, Civilising Subjects, pp. 320-23; A Narrative of Events, Since the First of August, 1834, by James Williams, An Apprenticed Labourer in Jamaica, ed. Diana Paton (Durham, NC, and London, 2001).

14 Alex Tyrrell, “The ‘Moral Radical Party’ and the Anglo-Jamaican Campaign for the Abolition of the Negro Apprenticeship System”, EHR, 99 (1984), pp. 481-502, quote at p. 490 and  assessment of Glenelg’s actions at pp. 498-9.

15 Gross, “Parliament”, pp. 560-76 and Tyrrell, “‘Moral Radical Party’”, pp. 481-502 provide the fullest account of parliamentary manoeuvres; see also Temperley, British Anti-Slavery, pp. 37-41. On the nature of apprenticeship and the colonial legislatures’ voluntary termination, see William A. Green, British Slave Emancipation: The Sugar Colonies and the Great Experiment 1830-1865 (Oxford, 1976), pp. 129-62.

16 Howard Temperley, “The O’Connell Stevenson Contratemps: A Reflection of the Anglo-American Slavery Issue”, Journal of Negro History, 47 (1962), pp. 217-33, at pp. 218-19. See Christine Kinealy, Daniel O’Connell and the Anti-Slavery Movement: “The Saddest People the Sun Sees” (London, 2010) on his abolitionism.

17 On apprenticeship campaigning and the formation of the BFASS, see Temperley, British Anti-Slavery, pp. 38-41, 62-6.

18 On its broader history, see “One of the Protestant party”, Random Recollections of Exeter Hall (London, 1838) for some accounts of its meetings and speakers.

19 The Times, 17 May 1841, p. 4. The newspaper had actually criticized the Civilization Society’s methods too, and similarly evoked Quaker influence on that occasion. Similar religious controversy dogged the launch of the Garrisonian Anti-Slavery League a decade later: Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction, Oct. 1846, pp. 252-3. On the breadth of support for the expedition, see Richard R. Follett, “After Emancipation: Thomas Fowell Buxton and Evangelical Politics in the 1830s”, PH, 27 (2008), pp. 119-29, at pp. 127-8.

20 Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, Apr. 1842, p. 116.

21 The Spectator, 13 Mar. 1852, p. 249.

22 Chambers’s Journal, Apr. 1857, p. 244.

23 The Times, 13 Sep. 1861, p. 6.

24 My distinction is similar, but not identical, to divisions drawn by American historians between supporters of immediate abolition and those who sought to stifle the spread of slave-holding. On the semantic differences between these terms, see David Brion Davis, “Review: Antislavery or Abolition?”, Reviews in American History, 1 (1973), pp. 95-99.

25 Michael Freeden, Ideologies and Political Theory: A Conceptual Approach (Oxford, 1996), p. 82.

26 A point emphasized by Brown, Moral Capital, pp. 17-18. This book adds a fourth stage to his schema, by examining the ideological and practical implications of abolition and emancipation on British politics.

27 Seymour Drescher, “Whose Abolition? Popular Pressure and the Ending of the British Slave Trade”, Past and Present, 143 (1994), pp. 136-66, at p. 166.

28 David Judge, “Public Petitions and the House of Commons”, Parliamentary Affairs, 31 (1978), pp. 391-405 at pp. 393-4.

29 Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal, Apr. 1842, p.116. On such difficulties see Temperley, British Anti-slavery, pp. 227-8.

30 Temperley, British Anti-Slavery, p. xvi.

31 George Stephen, “Introduction” in American Slavery Discussed in Congress, ed. George Stephen (London and Newcastle, 1853), p. viii.

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