Sheffield’s Forgotten Influence on The Anti-Slavery Movement

by Daniel Johnson & Rashid Iqbal
William Wilberforce (1759-1833)
Artist: Anton Hickel
Mary Anne Rawson (1801-1887) at the 1840 Anti-Slavery Convention.
Artist: Benjamin Haydon
Olaudah Equiano (1745–1797)
Artist: Unknown

Introduction

When we think of the great anti-slavery activists in Britain the first name that comes to mind is that of William Wilberforce (1759-1833).

As an MP and leader of the parliamentary movement to abolish the slave trade, he is often seen as the most important abolitionist of his time. So how did Sheffield contribute to abolition? Anti-slavery in Britain was much more of a national movement than is commonly thought. Societies and activists from across the country were incredibly influential in the abolition of slavery and the city of Sheffield is a definitive first in this movement. The work done and the promotional material created by abolitionists in Sheffield and other cities were crucial in gaining the public support needed to end slavery and the slave trade in British dominions across the world.

Britain and the Slave Trade 

Britain was one of the major players of the Atlantic Slave Trade during the 18th and 19th centuries. Over 11 million Africans were transported across the Atlantic to be sold into slavery in America and The West Indies.[1] These slaves were then subject to inhumane and harsh treatment. This stimulated negative feelings amongst the British public, eventually leading to a wide backlash when they began to realise the horrors and cruelty that slaves faced on a daily basis. All over Britain societies were formed to protest at this barbaric practice. Posters such as the one ‘Addressed to the Labouring Classes’, printed at the Sheffield Iris, became common.

Sheffield Local Studies Library, MP 546 VL, Poster Addressed to the Labouring Classes

The poster shows a master whipping a slave whilst the slave begs for him to stop. It also talks about the ‘SIN OF SLAVERY’ and describes slavery as consisting of ‘outrage, robbery, cruelty and injustice’. Posters such as this had a great effect on people across Britain as many people were unaware of the true nature of Atlantic slavery beforehand. Similarly, material such as the ‘Appeal of the Friends of the Negro to the British People’, which was also produced in Sheffield, helped to gain support for the growing anti-slavery movement in Britain.[2]

Sheffield Societies   

The Sheffield Ladies Anti-Slavery Society was arguably the most progressive and radical group in Sheffield. In 1827 they were the first society in Britain to call for immediate emancipation of slaves.[3] Women who were apolitical at this time came in to the forefront through their protest against anti-slavery. The lack of progress made by male abolitionists in Parliament opened up the way for ladies associations, such as in Sheffield, to make large contributions to the movement.[4] The abolitionist cause provided many women in Sheffield with their first taste of political activity.[5] The Sheffield Ladies Society successfully contributed to the boycotting of sugar produced on slave plantations. They argued that for every six families using East India sugar one less slave would be required.[6] The Society kept accounts of the slave population in the West Indies in their annual reports. Their annual reports also give us great insight into the sentiments of the society.

Sheffield Local Studies Library: Local Pamphlets Vol. 129 No. 14 and Vol 130. No.12, (042 S)), The Fifth Annual Report of The Sheffield Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, for 1830

The report describes the anti-slavery movement as being ‘of light, of liberty, of knowledge, of mercy, of truth and love’ whilst describing slavery itself as ‘Darkness, ignorance, oppression and tyranny’. This powerful language shows how passionately they felt about the movement and how they saw it as a battle of good vs. evil. The Sheffield Ladies Anti-Slavery Society lived to see the triumph of the Abolition Act of 1833, which they contributed towards, whilst the more conservative men’s societies had disappeared in 1831.

A Leader: Mary Anne Rawson

Mary Anne Rawson (1801-1887) arguably had the greatest influence on the anti-slavery movement in Sheffield. Rawson was a prominent anti-slavery activist born in Sheffield to a wealthy family. She supported a number of societies which featured promoting education and religion among the poor. Her key focus however was the anti-slavery movement.[7] She viewed slavery as the greatest social evil.[8] She was a founding member of the Sheffield Ladies Anti-Slavery Society which she led from the 1820s to the 1850s. In 1837 she was also a founding member of the Association for the Universal Abolition of Slavery.[9] The Association produced material such as the, ‘Appeal to the Christian Women of Sheffield’ which attempted to appeal to the ‘best and warmest sympathies of women’s hearts’ and argues that slavery is ungodly and cruel.[10] Ultimately Rawson believed that it was the duty of Christian women to stand firm and obey God rather than man.[11] Rawson also appealed to Christians through her book, ‘Hymns for Anti-Slavery Prayer-Meetings’ in which she compiled anti-slavery poetry which was regularly used at Ladies’ Anti-Slavery meetings in Sheffield.[12] This poetry inspired many young Christian women to take up the cause of activism and denounce the horrors of slavery.

Further Activists

There were a number of other individuals in Sheffield that contributed to the shaping of the anti-slavery movement. Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) visited Sheffield in 1790.[13]

A freed slave, he was able to tell of the horrific treatment people suffered whilst enslaved. He was kidnapped at the young age of 11 and taken away from his family to be sold into slavery.[14] His most famous work, The Life of Olaudah Equiano was advertised in the Sheffield Register ahead of his visit.[15] Equiano’s book was among the many pieces of work that sowed the seeds of Sheffield’s great anti-slavery movement and his visit helped to inspire supporters of anti-slavery.

Impact

After a great deal of petitioning and protest from around Britain, Parliament would eventually pass a series of Acts abolishing slavery and the slave trade. From the Act of 1807 through to the Act of 1873 there were many activists across Britain who successfully spread anti-slavery sentiment in cities like Sheffield. It is because of societies like the Sheffield Ladies Anti-Slavery Society that all four candidates in the Sheffield election of 1832 declared themselves in favour of abolition.[16] It is also thanks to these activists that large petitions were able to be brought before Parliament and persuade MPs to end slavery across Britain and its empire once and for all. The efforts of these individuals can be seen today in the Human Rights Act of 1998 which states that, ‘No one shall be held in slavery or servitude’ regardless of race, religion or nationality.

Daniel Johnson & Rashid Iqbal


 References

  • [1] R. Segal, The Black Diaspora: Five Centuries of the Black Experience Outside Africa (New York, 1995), p. 4.
  • [2] Sheffield Local Studies Library: Local Pamphlets Vol. 129 No. 13 and Vol. 130 No.18, (042 S)), Appeal of the Friends of the Negro to the British People; on Behalf of The Slaves in Their Colonies, 1830.
  • [3] C. Midgley, Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns 1780-1870 (London, 1992), p. 107.
  • [4] C. Midgley, Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns 1780-1870 (London, 1992), p. 50.
  • [5] J. Walvin, ed., Slavery and British Society 1776-1846, (Louisiana, 1982), p. 63.
  • [6] C. Midgley, Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns 1780-1870 (London, 1992), p. 61.
  • [7] C. Midgley, Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns 1780-1870 (London, 1992), p. 75.
  • [8] C. Midgley, Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns 1780-1870 (London, 1992), p. 165.
  • [9] E. Clapp and J. Jeffrey, ed., Women, Dissent and Anti-Slavery in Britain and America, 1790-1865 (Oxford, 2011), p. 69.
  • [10] Sheffield Local Studies Library: Local Pamphlets Vol. 107 No. 5, (042 S)), An Appeal to The Christian Women of Sheffield, From The Association For The Universal Abolition of Slavery, 1837.
  • [11] E. Clapp and J. Jeffrey, ed., Women, Dissent and Anti-Slavery in Britain and America, 1790-1865 (Oxford, 2011), p. 66.
  • [12] Sheffield Local Studies Library: Local Pamphlets Vol.129 No. 9, (042 S)), Hymns for Anti-Slavery Prayer-Meetings, 1838.
  • [13] A. Twells, Colonialism, Slavery and The Industrial Revolution: A Case Study: The Empire in South Yorkshire 1700-1860 (South Yorkshire, 1992), pp. 60-61.
  • [14] J. Walvin, Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery (London, 1992), p. 28.
  • [15] A. Twells, Colonialism, Slavery and The Industrial Revolution: A Case Study: The Empire in South Yorkshire 1700-1860 (South Yorkshire, 1992), Document 26.
  • [[16] Sheffield Local Studies Library, 913.4274 S, Lecture given by Lewis, N. ‘Sheffield and The Anti-Slavery Movement, 1823-1833’, 1933.

 Bibliography

  • Clapp, E. and Jeffrey, J. ed., Women, Dissent and Anti-Slavery in Britain and America, 1790-1865 (Oxford, 2011).
  • Midgley, C. Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns 1780-1870 (London, 1992).
  • O. N. ‘Some Women of Sheffield: A Century’, Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 3 February 1934.
  • Segal, R. The Black Diaspora: Five Centuries of the Black Experience Outside Africa (New York, 1995).
  • Twells, A. Colonialism, Slavery and The Industrial Revolution: A Case Study: The Empire in South Yorkshire 1700-1860 (South Yorkshire, 1992).
  • Walvin, J. Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery (London, 1992).
  • Sheffield Local Studies Library, 913.4274 S, Lecture given by Lewis, N. ‘Sheffield and The Anti-Slavery Movement, 1823-1833’, 1933.
  • Sheffield Local Studies Library, MP 546 VL, Poster Addressed to the Labouring Classes, 1800-1850.
  • Sheffield Local Studies Library: Local Pamphlets Vol. 129 No. 13 and Vol. 130 No.18, (042 S)), Appeal of the Friends of the Negro to the British People; on Behalf of The Slaves in Their Colonies, 1830.
  • Sheffield Local Studies Library: Local Pamphlets Vol.129 No. 9, (042 S)), Hymns for Anti-Slavery Prayer-Meetings, 1838.
  • Sheffield Local Studies Library: Local Pamphlets Vol. 64 No. 7, (042 S)), Speech Delivered By The Late Rev. Thomas Smith, A.M., at a Public Meeting Held In The Town Hall, Sheffield, on The 30th Day of April, 1823, For The Purpose of Petitioning Parliament For The Abolition of Slavery Throughout The British Dominions, 1823.
  • Sheffield Local Studies Library: Local Pamphlets Vol. 107 No. 5, (042 S)), An Appeal to The Christian Women of Sheffield, From The Association For The Universal Abolition of Slavery, 1837.
  • Sheffield Local Studies Library: Local Pamphlets Vol. 129 No. 14 and Vol 130. No.12, (042 S)), The Fifth Annual Report of The Sheffield Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, for 1830, 1830.
This page was added on 11 October 2016.

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