To listen to Episode 2, visit the show page.
Rebecca Onion: Welcome to the second episode of History of American Slavery, a Slate Academy. My name is Rebecca Onion, and I’m Slate’s history writer.
Jamelle Bouie: And I’m Jamelle Bouie and I’m a Slate staff writer.
Onion: In each episode we’re talking about a different chapter in the history of slavery in America, and starting the conversation with the life of a single person.
Bouie: In this episode, we’re talking about Olaudah Equiano.
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“My life and fortune have been extremely chequered, and my adventures various,” wrote Olaudah Equiano in his autobiography. That’s an understatement! Most of Equiano’s 12-year enslavement was spent as a sailor on board merchant and slave ships, though he was enslaved for a brief time on a plantation in Virginia. Like other sailors who lived during the 18th century, Equiano saw more of the globe during and after his enslavement than most of his contemporaries, visiting various American colonies, Nova Scotia, Turkey, Portugal, Italy, even the Arctic.
Though there’s now some controversy over his true origins, Equiano wrote that he was born in Igboland (now Nigeria) in 1745. Kidnapped from his village along with a sister, he was brought to a slave ship on the coast at the age of 11. His narrative describes his harrowing experience during the Middle Passage.
He was sold and sold and sold, and went from ship to ship. One slaveholder named him Gustavus Vassa, after a 16th-century Swedish king—a grand name, perhaps a joke along the lines of the tradition of naming enslaved people Pompey or Cesar. Finally he was bought by a Quaker merchant, Robert King, and worked as a clerk. King allowed him to conduct trades of his own in order to save money to buy his freedom, which he eventually did, for 40 pounds, in 1766. He was then 21.
Equiano continued to travel, including to the West Indies and the American South, encountering and reporting the dangers involved in being a free black man in slave societies. After a prolonged spiritual crisis, he converted to Christianity. He was the commissary for the British government’s Sierra Leone expedition in 1786, traveling with a group of African Britons whom the government was trying to resettle in a colony there.
In Britain, Equiano married Susannah Cullen, an Englishwoman, and had two daughters. He joined the abolitionist movement, lecturing and speaking across the country. His autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African Written by Himself, was a best-seller. Copies were sold to the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York, and the Duke of Cumberland; it went through nine editions between 1789 and 1794. Being firsthand testimony of the nature of the beast, it was also a key document used in the struggle to outlaw the British slave trade. That goal was met in 1807, 10 years after Equiano died.
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Bouie: Hi, Rebecca.
Onion: Hi, Jamelle.
In today’s episode we’re talking about the shape of slavery in the second half of the 18th century. We’ll discuss what it was like to voyage across the Atlantic in a slave ship during the height of the transatlantic slave trade. And we’ll also explore the early development of an effective abolition movement in England. But first, let’s talk a little more about Olaudah Equiano.
Bouie: So, you did a lot of the research for this episode and around Equiano. What was the scale of the slave trade around this period?
Onion: Eventually the numbers are around 472,000 people, who were forced to migrate to the United States. So that’s different from—the transatlantic slave trade as a whole, the numbers are 12.5 million people.
Bouie: Oh wow. So that 472,000 who came to the States is just a fraction.
Onion: Yes. Only 3.6 percent of the total number of Africans who were brought to the Americas came to the United States. And then of course there were the people who were born into slavery in the United States, which is a different story.
Onion: You know Equiano’s story, which has him landing first in the West Indies and then coming up north, is an unusual one. Most people would have just ended up in the West Indies, or in South America, and just were there—and that’s the end.
Bouie: The part about the narrative that really sticks out to me is his transformation into an abolitionist. He seems like an unusual figure to have in this movement that I assume was mainly white and Europeans. Is the narrative his attempt to convince the literate public that this is a bad thing that should end? And did he give speeches? Was he a sort of Fredrick Douglass kind of person who was at the forefront, or do you know what his position was, in this, the beginning of the British anti-slavery crusade?
Onion: His autobiography was published in 1789 and it was appealing to people on a number of levels. On a moral level, abolitionists loved it, but it’s also sort of a travel narrative—he goes on an expedition that looks for the Northwest Passage, you know, he goes to Turkey—he’s everywhere, basically.
Onion: So there’s that appeal to it. But the real appeal of it is the moral force of it. His autobiography is published just two years after the British abolitionist movement really gets off its feet. So he becomes a speaker for them, he travels around. Apparently he did really well in Ireland, where, you know, people had reason to have fellow feeling about British oppression.
Bouie: No surprise there.
Bouie: I noticed you had a little hesitation about Equiano’s birth. Do we have any questions or any concerns about the veracity of his account?
Onion: Well, a couple of years ago, a biography was written by a professor named Vincent Carretta, who found two documents indicating that Equiano was born in what was called Carolina, which would have been South Carolina. So a baptism record, and a muster list, so a list of crew members on a ship that he served on later in his life, in which he declared his birthplace to be South Carolina. So, the question is, was he born in Nigeria, did he actually experience the Middle Passage?
And, when I interviewed the first person that we’re going to talk to today, Marcus Rediker, professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Rediker had a really compelling (to me) argument. He’s not arguing that Carretta was wrong—you know, he’s not arguing about the veracity of that evidence. Rediker said, “I kind of don’t know if it matters. You know, if he didn’t experience the Middle Passage, then he certainly talked to a lot of people who did.”
Onion: Since we have so few, we have so little information that comes, even at that degree of secondhand-ness, from people who went through that experience, he says, “Ah, it’s still really valuable to me.”
Onion: I don’t know. Do you buy it?
Bouie: I buy that completely. It makes total sense to me that someone who was clearly ingenious, and clearly intelligent, would just talk, and ask people what happened to them, out of just basic human curiosity. And then, retain those stories, and in telling his own stories incorporate them into his narrative.
Onion: Yeah, and that still seems to me, like, worth listening to.
Bouie: Right, exactly.
You know, and speaking of that reminds me of something else that I wanted to bring up at some point early in this series, which has to do with exceptionality.
So, Equiano is one of the only people whose voices we have about the Middle Passage. You know, of the people that we’re going to be talking about in this series, we’re talking about nine, and pretty much all of them got out of slavery by the end of their lives, in some way or another. So, we have people who bought themselves out, people who sued for freedom, people who were emancipated. There’s only one person who died in slavery, which—
Bouie: —which that would be the norm, for an enslaved person, you were going to die in slavery.
Onion: Pretty much.
So there’s a lot of questions this brings up for me. The perspectives we get on slavery are often coming from someone who in some way or another managed to get out. It’s sort of inevitable in some way, because it’s the way that narratives get saved and documents get saved.
But the problem is, I worry that it, it skews our historical understanding to the point where we think, “Oh, the people who didn’t get out didn’t try hard enough or didn’t, you know—why couldn’t everyone just do what he did?”
Bouie: Right. When what is true is that we have these stories precisely because they are so remarkable. We should expect that the average person trapped in this was just not going to get out.
Bouie: We’re going to take a bit of a break, but when we come back, we’re going to return to professor Rediker and talk more the Middle Passage, and then we’ll speak a lot more about British abolitionism.
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Bouie: We’re back, and we are talking about the Atlantic slave trade. This is an interview I couldn’t make, but Rebecca spoke to someone really interesting. Rebecca, can you tell us more about who you spoke with?
Onion: Yeah I had a really great conversation with Marcus Rediker, a distinguished professor of Atlantic history at the University of Pittsburgh, and author of many books, including one that’s called The Slave Ship: A Human History.
Rediker: We know that in the West African port of Ouidah, which is in Benin, about a million people were exported over the full course of the operation of that port in mostly the 17th and 18th century. We have documentary evidence reflecting the point of view of those million people from exactly two people.
So, the violence of the slave trade, part of it at least was the annihilation of individual identity and the ability of people to tell their own stories, so that when you get a document like Equiano’s, his autobiography, which reflects upon his experience on board a slave ship, it is an extremely precious document.
Now, he’s writing this many years later—he’s publishing his autobiography some 30-odd years after the experience of the slave ship, but one gets the very strong sense that this is the kind of thing no one would ever forget.
So, he wrote, “The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slave ship—which was then riding at anchor and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror, which I am yet at a loss to describe [nor] the feelings of my mind.”
So, he’s talking about that moment when he’s come from the interior, he’s never seen the sea before, he’s never seen a sailing ship, and with his child’s eyes he sees this really quite magnificent European technology, the deep-sea sailing ship, and he’s just astonished. He’s shocked, he can’t believe that such a thing exists. And then he goes on board and immediately the astonishment turns to terror. And here’s what he says when he goes on board.
“I was immediately handled and tossed up to see if I were sound by some of the crew.” What he means is that they literally tossed him around to see if— that his body was strong.
And he continued, “And I was now persuaded that I was got into a world of bad spirits and that they were going to kill me. Their complexions too, differing so much from ours, their long hair and the language they spoke, which was very different from any I had ever heard, united to confirm me in this belief. Indeed, such were the horrors of my views and fears at that moment, if 10,000 worlds had been my own I would have freely parted with them all to have exchanged my condition with that of the meanest slave in my own country.”
Bouie: What’s great about Rediker’s reading is that Equiano’s language—and this will tell you a bit about the kind of nerd I am—sounds really Lovecraftian, really H.P. Lovecraftian in his description of terror. And there’s even a part in the narrative where Equiano says something to the effect of “I was so terrified that I would have jumped off the slave ship—if not for the netting.”
Which raises another, I guess, kind of nerdy question—kind of nerdy and morose question—what, Rebecca, were slave ships like physically? In my head I picture this vast frigate, but I have actually no sense of what they looked like.
Onion: Well, I think we’re the same kind of nerd, because this is actually one of the reasons I really loved Marcus’ book The Slave Ship. Because he talks a lot about this.
What fascinates me about it is that the technology of the ship was evolved over time. So that some of the affordances that were present by the time Equiano was on one had been built in response to “Oh, we’re forcibly transporting a bunch of people across the ocean and they’re going to revolt and they’re going to try to commit suicide, so what can we do!?”
So, if you’ve seen the famous image of the slave ship Brookes, which later on in this episode we’re going talk about the use of that image in British abolitionism, but there’s that famous image of bodies crammed on to the lower deck. Marcus told me that often, in those lower decks there’d be holes drilled in the side so that people could nominally breathe—although probably not that well.
Bouie: Probably not, no.
Onion: You know, one of the ways that people could tell—you wouldn’t have holes drilled in the side of the ship that was carrying grain or whatever.
So those holes, and then there’s, um, a couple of things that were built into the ship to discourage revolt. So there’s a thing called a barricado, which was a bulwark at midship, sort of like a defense, so that if there was an uprising, the people who were running the ship could retreat behind the barricado, with their guns, and basically mount an anti-mutiny defense.
Bouie: It really seems like, if folks were this concerned about revolution on their ships, than maybe they just should have stopped shipping slaves, but—a really easy solution to the problem. But, you know, that’s me.
Onion: Well, I guess it was financially worth it, was the thing.
This sort of digresses from the question of what the ships were like, but one of the major points that Marcus makes throughout his writing was that part of the reason it was worth it is that a lot of the people working as more common sailors on the ship were oftentimes really poorly treated and poorly paid. And a lot of times pressed into service or exploited, and also whipped. So, Equiano at one point observes one of these sailors being whipped and says, “Oh man, if they would do that to one of their own, what would they do to us?” Which was exactly the sentiment that a captain might want him to have.
Onion: But yeah, that’s one of the reasons it was able to make a profit, is that there were other exploited laborers involved.
Bouie: So did this profit-making and money-making drive any further innovation in the construction of ships?
Onion: Yes. One of the important things was, you know, you have to get your cargo there, as alive as you can.
So it seemed like the people who were making these innovations were constantly trying to simultaneously try to be as cruel as they could be in order to maintain an atmosphere of terror, as Marcus would argue. While also, you have to have just enough care or, maybe, restraint, that people can’t kill themselves. So the nettings that Equiano refers to were poking out of the side of the ship so that you couldn’t jump overboard. Because people would otherwise.
Bouie: I mean, yeah, that’s the thing, in the crass, most economic sense, that the captains were carrying valuable property, so it was really in their interest to keep that property, uh, alive, at least.
Onion: Yes, and that’s one of the things that Equiano also mentions, is that he refuses to eat initially, when he gets on the ship. ’Cause he’s stunned and miserable.
Onion: And he’s basically whipped for not eating.
And so, I asked Marcus about that passage, and he talked about the narratives of slave ship doctors, is that they’ll talk about the different ways they try and get people to eat. And a lot of times they wouldn’t eat in part because they had this—they’re depressed, basically. They had, uh, what was then called melancholia. Like a sort of receding-from-the-world feeling.
But, the doctors and the captains would have all these instruments—Marcus mentions something called the speculum oris, which was an instrument that would overcome a hunger strike. So, like a speculum used in a gynecological exam, it’s two prongs they put down someone’s throat and sort of cranked open so that you could pour gruel down.
So that’s an example of, you know, an example of technological evolution that was meant in order to get as many people as possible across.
Bouie: One thing I think of with regard to the Middle Passage, is the scene from 12 Years a Slave—the movie, not the book—but, it isn’t the Middle Passage, obviously.
Solomon Northup is being transported from Washington, D.C., where he was sent after his kidnapping, to somewhere down south, I think in South Carolina, I don’t recall.
But on the ship, his fellow captives, at least one of them is trying to revolt, and the rest are sort of given up, “This is our lot, we’re not going to escape from this.” And, what that makes it seem like is that the whole process of being transported on these dark, dank ships is itself a form of conditioning, control. For an enslaved person’s eventual life after the ship.
Onion: For sure. And in fact Marcus in particular makes a really strong argument for this.
Rediker: Although we know a tremendous amount about the plantation system—we have hundreds of really excellent studies of plantation slavery—it’s fairly new for us to be studying [the] slave [ship], which with the plantation is the key institution of the entire system. In other words, no slave ship, no plantation. So, what happened on board the slave ship as both a matter of discipline and the effort of the captain to create slaves, that’s very important as a process and that will continue on land.
But equally important is the process of resistance, that each slave ship was kind of this seething cauldron of conflict and resistance, and already very important things are happening among the Africans—who, by the way, are of many different ethnicities—but they are learning to cooperate with each other. They are learning to communicate. They are learning to fight back together. And this sometimes involves peoples who were long-term enemies in West Africa. Suddenly on board that ship they realized that they had greater problems than each other.
And so they would learn to bond together. And one thing that many scholars of the slave trade have noticed is that a fundamentally creative process is going on on those lower decks, under those extreme and horrible circumstances. Something positive is happening. These—these multiethnic African people are creating what anthropologists call “fictive kinship.” That is, people who are in no biological way related to each other are beginning to call each other “brother” and “sister,” and they are starting to rebuild the kinship system that has been shattered by the process of the enslavement.
This is a very important thing, because it not only shows the will of the enslaved to do something on their own behalf, it shows a kind of creativity and it lays the basis for another culture of resistance that will form in the plantation system. I think one of the most important things I learned in studying the slave ship is that it is a place of extreme oppression—that is certainly true—but it is also a place of extreme and heroic resistance, and both those things must be kept in mind.
Bouie: That sounds incredible, and inspiring. It also sounds like in addition to everything terrible about a slave ship, it’d be really difficult. I mean, for one, people aren’t speaking the same language. Like how do you get over that barrier?
Onion: Yes, that is a big problem when it comes to trying to mount a resistance. In the Amistad revolt, which Marcus also wrote about, there was a critical mass of people who spoke Mende to each other. So that was one of the factors in that revolt that allowed it to proceed the way that it did.
Marcus also mentioned that on ships that had revolts, there has to be some way to try to get out of the manacles, because you can’t resist if you are still chained.
In the Amistad revolt, he found out that two of the people on board were blacksmiths and so that might have been how they figured out how to get out.
Bouie: And they would also need weapons, wouldn’t they?
Onion: Yeah, and that was another issue. A lot of times, the gunroom on the ship would be well-fortified and well-protected. For obvious reasons. Another technological way that a slave ship could keep control.
You know, there’s a couple of instances of a child, or a woman, among the enslaved gaining more access to various parts of the ship through the indulgence of the sailors in one way or another. And so there are some instances where they could sort of figure out a way to circumvent those problems.
Bouie: Right. And then of course if you manage to communicate, plan, escape, get weapons, take command, you also need to be able to sail the damn thing. This is terrible—I will fully admit to this being terrible, but I find something very comic, or at least tragicomic, about these brave people beating the odds, and taking command of the ship, and then just being like, “Crap, now what?”
Onion: Yeah, we have gallows humor about this.
Bouie: You kind of have to have a bit of gallows humor.
And for those revolts that didn’t succeed, what happened to them? Even attempting this has to come with tremendous risk.
Onion: Marcus pointed out that we used to think that slave revolts were rare on ships, and now we know there were many, but there were still few that were successful in so far as people made their way back to Africa. And if you failed, there are some pretty awful stories of what the captains would do. Marcus pointed to one example of a captain punishing a revolter by cutting off his head and making the other enslaved people pass it around, from person to person. So bringing home, right into your hands, what will happen if you try this again.
Bouie: That is, ah—I don’t even have—it’s just really awful. I also wonder if people who decide to go into this business, of being captains of a ship, did they know this was what they were getting into?
Onion: Well, what’s startling it is that they were kind of public about it. Not public in terms of the general public, but they would write this stuff down and talk amongst themselves. You know, trying to trade knowledge on how to handle these people who they didn’t necessarily see as people and they saw as a series of workplace problems.
Bouie: And relative to the world outside the particular world of slaving, how were they regarded? Were they seen as necessary but unsavory people to be around? I mean, what was their social status?
Onion: I asked Marcus this question, and he answered me with, uh, a really interesting life story.
Rediker: This question you pose can be answered through the life experience of a man who was actually a very famous slave ship captain, and I refer to John Newton. Now, John Newton’s name may not be known to most of your listeners, but everybody will know his song “Amazing Grace.” You see, the way the myth about John Newton normally goes is that he was trapped in this ungodly work on board a slave ship. He had a kind of Christian conversion, left the sea, and then, you know, became the writer of the famous song “Amazing Grace” talking about his own wretchedness, and then he became an abolitionist. But in truth, the story didn’t really happen that way.
What happened with John Newton is that the actually had his Christian conversion, then he went several voyages as a slave ship captain, and in that period his Christianity and his slave trading were perfectly compatible. It’s kind of hard for us to imagine this, but he would sit in the captain’s cabin with a group of enslaved Africans literally beneath his feet, writing letters about how his goal in life was to—was to do well by his fellow creatures.
Like many people in the slave trade, he considered the Africans to be subhuman, to be some different species of animal, and therefore the normal things, the normal requirements of human religion simply wouldn’t apply to them. So, Newton is a perfect example of how in the period before the rise of abolitionism, a great many people considered slave trading to be respectable.
And of course, Newton did finally turn against it and we must give him credit for that. When he did turn against it, he was an extremely powerful speaker against the slave trade—he did actually give testimony in a parliamentary investigation—and the reason why he was so effective was because he knew exactly what happened on board those ships. And in fact, some of the things that he discussed—the horrors of the slave ship—were things that he himself had done.
Let me give you an example. He was asked about the use of instruments of torture on board slave ships, and he said, “It was known”—notice the passive construction—“that thumbscrews might be used on slave ships,” basically as a means of torturing those who had resisted. Well, what he didn’t mention was something that he had noted in his journal, never meant to be published, some years earlier, in which he described himself using thumbscrew—thumbscrews on children to make them reveal who had organized a conspiracy on board one of his slave ships.
Bouie: OK, first: I did not know that the guy who wrote “Amazing Grace,” of all songs, was a slaver. Um, which would be as if Jefferson Davis came back from the dead and wrote “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
In that interview professor Rediker mentioned that before the British abolition movement, it was common to be a slaver and a Christian, and to see no contradiction between the two. Next we’re going to talk about the evolution of that movement and when it emerges during this period, but before then, we’re going to go to a little break.
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Bouie: When we left you, we were talking about slave ships and slave captains. Equiano, if you remember, eventually made his way back to Britain, a free man.
Which gives us an open pathway to our next topic, the British anti-slavery movement. We’ll be talking about it and its relationship to abolitionism because of its relationship to the American slave trade and our own abolitionist movement, which itself took flight in the 19th century.
Onion: Yes, we’re going to speak with Adam Hochschild, who is an author, and he wrote a book called Bury the Chains: Profits and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves. He also has written a number of other books that we really like—
Bouie: Right. I’m a huge fan of his very famous book King Leopold’s Ghost, about the African Congo. It is also a book you should read if you get the chance.
Onion: In the introduction to this book, Adam wrote a paragraph that I found really compelling and interesting. And it went like this:
There is always something mysterious about human empathy, and when we feel it and when we don’t. Its sudden upwelling at this particular moment caught everyone by surprise. Slaves and other subjugated people have rebelled throughout history, but the campaign in England was something never seen before: it was the first time a large number of people became outraged, and stayed outraged for many years, over someone else’s rights.
So I asked Adam a little about, you know, his whole book is an exploration of that question—how people came to feel empathy and how they tried to get others to feel that way.
Adam Hochschild: To me, the remarkable thing is how suddenly this movement seemed to get off the ground. If at the beginning of the year 1787 you had stood up on a street corner in London and had given a speech saying slavery was immoral and should be abolished, nine out of 10 people would have thought you were a complete crackpot, because slavery had always been around. The Romans had slaves, the Greeks had slaves, you know, most people in Russia were serfs. It was just something that people in the world took for granted at that time. The 10th person might have said, “Well, that's a noble ideal but it will never happen. Look at how our whole colonial economy depends upon slavery. Where would we get the sugar for our tea if there weren’t slaves? It’ll never happen.”
A year later, 1788, in the early part of that year, half the debates in London debating societies—this was a huge spectator sport at that time—half of the debates had to do with the morality of slavery or the slave trade. Now, the birth of this movement is incredibly sudden, and it’s fascinating to me why it happened then and how it happened so suddenly. I think first of all it was a moment in time that was midway between the American Revolution and the French Revolution, and there were a lot of ideas about human freedom floating around in the air.
And I think that’s one reason it caught on quickly. It also caught on quickly because the people who really instigated it, who came together in a meeting on May 22, 1878, in Quaker bookstore and printing shop in London, were I think some of the finest community organizers of all time.
Bouie: So you have this motley crew of Quakers and Anglicans, non-Quaker religious people. How did they work together to pursue this goal?
Onion: Well, the list of techniques we discussed was really fascinating to me. They made a multimedia assault on the idea that slavery was OK.
Onion: One of the other ways that the activists tried to alert people to their concerns was to use visual media in a way that was kind of new for the time.
There was a famous diagram of the slave ship Brookes, which was built in 1781 for the merchant Joseph Brooks Jr. And it’s a particularly large slave ship but otherwise fairly typical. This was a broadside poster. William Alfred, one of the abolitionists, printed up this broadside in 1788, which became sort of iconic.
You’ve probably seen it. It’s an image of two decks of a ship, of people.
Bouie: Yes, I have seen it. Not in its full form. It’s at the American History Museum, I think, a partial image.
Onion: Yeah, I think it was printed a number of different ways. I’ve seen it appended to a sort of broadside that had more text underneath the diagram. The one we’re looking at right now, which we’ll include in our show notes, has less text.
So, what is going on in this image?
Bouie: What’s striking about it, where I think it gets its emotional and political power from, is it shows fairly detailed images of enslaved Africans, basically stacked next to each other of this ship.
And even now, looking at it today, you kind of feel claustrophobic looking at it.
Onion: Yes, it’s pretty horrifying. And the people are diagrammed with their full bodies and faces is one of the things I think makes it the most horrifying.
Onion: You can actually get a sense of what of bodies might look like in that space.
In the upper right-hand corner, there’s some text noting that this is the way the Brookes was configured even after the Regulation Act of 1788, which was meant to make slave ships more humane.
So there’s a point that the abolitionists are making that, “look how awful it is, and before the Regulation Act it was even more awful.”
Bouie: Did abolitionists use any images besides something like this that I think falls, like, on the side of shocking? But were there any, any less shocking but still powerful images that they used to make their points?
Onion: Yeah, I hadn’t put two and two together on this, but there’s a use of an icon that they pioneer, that was made in 1787 by a craftsman who was working for Josiah Wedgwood, who’s famously the man who made Wedgwood Pottery. And this is an icon that, it’s an image of a kneeling slave in chains, and around it there are words, “Am I not a man and a brother?” And you’ve probably seen that somewhere, as well.
Bouie: Yes. Though I can’t recall where, but I have an image of it in my eye’s mind.
Onion: And I think that’s the point of it—it’s connected to the cause in emotional import and in iconicity, but it doesn’t say, “We want you to act against slavery,” or have a lot of information about what was going on in slavery. It was just a plaintive and immediate message.
Bouie: What kind of people—we know they were Quakers and Anglicans, but specifically what kind of personality would be the kind of person evangelizing and going out and being an activist in the antislavery movement?
Onion: Well, Adam told me sort of an amazing story about a man called Thomas Clarkson.
Hochschild: To me, the most remarkable person in that first group and the real sparkplug of the anti-slavery movement in Britain was a man named Thomas Clarkson, who was 27 years old at the time of that meeting. He had been a divinity student at Cambridge and then had lost interest in pursuing a career as a minister, because he became so outraged about slavery.
After that first meeting, he became the traveling organizer for the anti-slavery committee. He got on his horse. He traveled around Britain handing out anti-slavery pamphlets, and recruiting witnesses who would be willing to testify on this issue before Parliament. Because these activists knew that if they were going to do anything there would have to be parliamentary hearings, and that lining up witnesses was a very important thing to do.
So, how could he find people who had had personal experience of slavery who would be credible witnesses before Parliament? And they wanted British witnesses, not former slaves. It was felt that British witnesses would have more credibility.
Well, Clarkson hung out in pubs near the docks in Liverpool and Bristol, keeping his ear open, hearing people talk, trying to judge which of the sailors around him had served on slave ships, and he persuaded some of them to come and testify before Parliament.
Bouie: Sounds like an intense guy.
Onion: They did a lot of presenting of this testimony to Parliament, the House of Commons, the House of Lords. And something they also did that was genius was to distill some of that testimony into a little booklet. Something they could read that was cheap and short that had the worst of it in there.
Bouie: Like an explainer?
Onion: Yeah, like an explainer! Exactly.
Bouie: Fifteen Reasons You Don’t Want to Have Slaves.
Onion: They got these, you know, they got the materials, this material into the hands of members of Parliament—it’s almost like the way a lobbyist might organize information.
Bouie: So, we have Clarkson, we have all the abolitionists, but they were a minority of British society. They weren’t a sizeable faction, although they eventually wielded great influence. What kind of people opposed them?
Onion: Before I talked to Adam, I had a feeling that there would be a lot of people opposed given the amount of money that was involved. And indeed he did tell me that there quite a few powerful people in Britain who stood against this.
Hochschild: The slave-owning interests and the slave ship owners were of course horrified that the source of much of their wealth would be threatened. They began producing their propaganda, their pamphlets, but they were a little slow on the draw. Because the coming of abolitionism really took them by surprise.
There are some wonderful debates in Parliament that took place over this subject. One of my favorite occasions was, at one point in the House of Commons where there also—there was—the shipping interests were very strongly represented. And a member of Parliament from Liverpool gave a speech saying, you know, “If our ships can’t fill themselves with slaves in Africa and take them to the West Indies, you know, these shipping companies will go bankrupt.” Whereupon an abolitionist-minded member of Parliament stood up and said, “Well, that's like saying I’m a highwayman and I have this pack of horses which are only suited for robbing gentlemen on the highway and cannot be put to any other purposes.” And he was right, you know—once the slave trade got banned, ship owners did find other use for their ships.
Bouie: Eventually, the British abolitionists—they won. How did they do that? How did they manage to succeed?
Onion: So, it took a while. That’s the lesson that I sort of got from this. I mean, they started in—the initial meeting that Adam was talking about was in 1787, and it finally happened in 1807.
Bouie: I mean, that took a while, but that’s a pretty rapid movement in some sense.
Onion: Well, from zero to 60, yeah. From nine of 10 people thinking you’re crazy to actually passing this. It’s fun to think of it as something that happened because people got convinced morally. And I think some people did, and lot of people did. But there’s some little ins and outs that are more about politicking.
Onion: For example, Adam told me about an abolitionist member of Parliament, James Stephen, who was a maritime lawyer and who was the great-grandfather of Virginia Woolf, bizarrely.
He sort of exploited the fact that Britain was at war with France. You know, he made the point in Parliament that British slave ships were also delivering slaves to French colonies. You know, he—he drove a sideways wedge, in some ways, by making the argument that we should make a law that British slave ships should not be allowed to deliver slaves to French colonies. And he said, “You know, Parliament didn’t quite realize that by doing that it had wiped out more than half of Britain’s slave trade.” That was a moment of sort of partial victory that, you know, made it sort of easier to get the rest of it eliminated.
Bouie: Right. And I’m sure that with the United States becoming a separate country—with Britain losing this large colony that also used slaves, part of the economic rationale for holding on to the slave trade diminished as well.
Onion: I think so, except for so few slaves went there.
Bouie: That’s true.
Onion: That’s the question.
Bouie: The slave trade was abolished in 1807. When did Britain actually abolish slavery proper?
Onion: Well, it took a while, and I found out this was a debate between the British abolitionists from the beginning, with some people saying, “We need to also push for abolition of slavery in the colonies—we can’t just say British ships can’t carry slaves. We have to also say, Jamaica can’t have slaves, and Barbados can’t have slaves, and these other places.”
There’s another sort of school of thought—slavery in the West Indies was a terrible enterprise in many ways, but one of the many ways it was terrible is that it was so hard on people’s bodies that people died really quickly. And so, it was easier for planters to buy more slaves than it was to take care of the ones they had.
Onion: So the rate of attrition of people on these plantations was so high they were being replenished constantly by the slave trade.
So some of the abolitionists said, “You know, if we can get rid of the slave trade they’ll just lose all their slaves because they’re no good at treating them well. But some people adapted. And some of the planters started having doctors on the plantations and feeding their enslaved people better, and sort of making these—the kind of incremental improvements.
That made life at least a little easier for those people and allowed them to reproduce. So then by 1833, the abolitionists in Britain are, you know, people are starting to realize that, “no, it’s not just going to die out on its own.”
So that is when they finally got Parliament to pass a law emancipating the slaves of the British Empire.
Bouie: What stands out to me the most about the British anti-slavery movement is how international it is—I mean, it feels very modern. It feels very similar to, you know, the South African divestment movement in the ’80s. It just—even for as much as everything is different, it seems very familiar to me. And I was wondering if you and Adam talked about the internationalism of this movement?
Onion: Yes and there’s some interesting connections that he made.
Hochschild: One of the beautiful things about the abolitionists of this period is that it was very much an international network. They all knew about each other. When, for example, they came up with this marvelously effective poster, the poster of the slave ship in Britain, they sent off a bunch of copies to their friend Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia. They sent off a bunch of copies to their friend the Marquis de Lafayette in Paris. So, they were very much in touch with each other. And especially there were tight relationships between Britain and the United States, because they shared the same language.
When the abolitionists were plotting their final victory in Parliament in 1833, William Lloyd Garrison—who was perhaps the leading American abolitionist—came to Britain and hung out with the British abolitionists in their coffeehouses as they were planning their parliamentary strategy. He wrote about all this in the newspaper that he published back in the U.S. And he and Frederick Douglass, the former slave and another leading abolitionist, were two of the final visitors that Thomas Clarkson—then in his mid-80s—received before he died.
Bouie: That’s a really beautiful image just to think about it.
Onion: Isn’t it?
Onion: Something that’s less beautiful is the way they actually got the abolition of slavery through Parliament. Do you know this?
Bouie: I don’t.
Onion: They had to promise to pay the slaveholders for their slaves.
Bouie: OK, so this was a compensated emancipation.
Onion: Yes. That’s correct.
Bouie: Um, reparations for the slave owners, you could say.
Onion: Yes. There’s actually an interesting database that you can look at that we’ll put in the show notes that has all the names of the people who got that money. So you can put in the names of prominent people in Britain and see if they had uh—
Bouie: That is fascinating, and I’m going to do that as soon as we’re finished with this recording. That concludes our look at British slavery and British abolitionism, which again, we talk about precisely because of its connections to the American experience, and sort of how the American abolition movement developed.
Onion: Yes, and in the next episode we’ll talk with about slavery in the colonies during the Revolutionary period, which is actually right about this same time, or even a little before. We’re going to talk about the life of Elizabeth Freeman, who filed a lawsuit for her freedom in Massachusetts right after the war, that ended up laying the groundwork for the state to effectively abolish slavery. We’ll talk about the ways slavery was mitigated or eliminated in some states during the Revolution. And while we’re at it, we can do a little compare and contrast with what happened in Britain.
Bouie: Thank you for listening to this episode of The History of American Slavery, a Slate Academy. I’m Jamelle, and for Rebecca as well—see you next time.