The Impact of Popular Mobilization in Britain and the Caribbean

  • Seymour Drescher


Once institutionalized in 1788–92, abolitionist petitioning followed the same pattern for the next half-century. There were successive extra-Parliamentary campaigns in 1806–7, 1814, 1823, 1830–1, 1832–3 and 1838. All except that of 1806–7 were characterized by a national petition campaign. The longest period without a general call for petitions was between 1792 and 1814. The polarization of politics after 1792 and the active governmental discouragement of public petitioning after 1795 deterred the uneasy London Committee from activity.1 Most historians view the whole period between 1793 and 1814 as a dormant period for popular abolitionism. In explaining the victory over the slave trade in 1806–7, they therefore tend to focus almost exclusively on Parliamentary activity.2 Yet the Parliamentary campaigns of 1806–7 were caried out amidst a simultaneous revival of popular canvassing. As in 1791, the abolitionists again adopted this more active strategy in the wake of an unexpected setback for slave trade abolition in Parliament in 1805. They concluded that in the absence of a clear public message an unpressured Parliament was unreliable. The network of local organizations was revived.


Slave Trade British Island Free Black British Policy Collective Resistance 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    At the end of November 1792, an informant at Reading reported to the government that the only people still justifying reform and Paine’s book were some Quakers (PRO HO 42/22 (1792), 270, from Lancelot Austwick, 23 November 1792). See also R. Anstey, The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition, 1760–1810 (London, 1975), 277–8;Google Scholar
  2. James Walvin, ‘The Impact of Slavery on British Radical Politics: 1787–1838’, V. Rubin and A. Tuden (eds),. Comparative Perspectives on Slavery in New World Plantation Societies; Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 292 (1977), 343–55. By early 1793 petitioning was under attack in Parliament. Edmund Burke dismissed a Parliamentary reform petition from 2500 Nottingham inhabitants in a general indictment: ‘Considering the manner in which signatures were usually procurred to Petitions, the probability was that very few Petitioners, who had subscribed to the present one had ever read it.’ A few days later, the antiabolitionists were attributing the vote of 1792 on the slave trade to the Commons’ submission to ‘clamours without doors’. In the Lords the even more vitriolic Lord Abingdon harked back to the ‘rage of petitioning that preceeded the Grand Rebellion in the year 1640’. (Diary, 22, 27 February and 11 April 1793.) Reform petitions were rejected as disrespectful of the House. See the Diary, 3, 7 May 1793. On the deepening crisis of legitimacy for petitioning see also the Parliamentary Debates of January and February 1795.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    Ibid., 321–409;Google Scholar
  4. J. Walvin, ‘The Public Campaign in England against Slavery, 1787–1834’, in D. Eltis and J. Walvin, The Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade (Madison, 1981), 67.Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    In the spring of 1805 the London Abolition Committee postponed calling a public meeting, but sent Clarkson on another tour among the local affiliates. Clarkson found the same enthusiasm for abolition. The Committee thought that private pressure on MPs would be more advisable than public meetings. See BL Add. Mss, 21, 254–21, 256, ‘Proceedings of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade’, 1787–1819 (3 vols), 3, 19 March, 29 April, 9 July, 1805; 7 March, 2 June, 30 July, 1806. On the call for grass roots pressure in 1805–7, see Friends House Library, London, Box H, Antislavery Tracts, open letters of Granville Sharp, 3 June 1805 and 30 July 1806. For 1814, see ibid., printed letter of Clarkson, 21 June 1814, accompanying a resolution and the form of a petition.Google Scholar
  6. 4.
    For the West Indian evaluation of the power of ‘popular opinion out of doors’, see George Hibbert, The Substance of Three Speeches in Parliament (London, 1807), Preface.Google Scholar
  7. See also Thomas Clarke, A Letter to Mr. Cobbett on his Opinions Respecting the Slave Trade (London, 1806), preface, 2. By 1807, Cowdroy’s Manchester Gazette was referring to General Gascoyne, MP for Liverpool, as the ‘member for the metropolis of Slavery’ (11 February 1807). Such observations were routine as well as polemic. See Observations on the Necessity of Introducing a Sufficient number of Respectable Clergymen into our Colonies (London, 1807), 4.Google Scholar
  8. 7.
    In the election of October 1806 the Methodists had already circularized Yorkshire to vote for Wilberforce. (P.F. Dixon, ‘Politics of Emancipation’, D. Phil; Oxford, 1971, 115). See also Duke University Library, Wilberforce papers, William Hey to Wilberforce, 24 October 1806. ‘Might it not be said with equal propriety, that the Country carried the abolition, by almost generally insisting, at the late election, on a pledge from those who were about to be vested with the Country’s voice?’ (Leeds Intelligencer, 20 April 1807). The Yorkshire election of 1807 was described as more hotly contested than anything ‘since the days of the REVOLUTION’.Google Scholar
  9. During the campaign, the West Indian Edward Lascelles pledged to vote against any move to rescind abolition (ibid., 11 May 1807); he went so far as to promise to vote for slave emancipation if a repeal measure were introduced (ibid., 18 May 1807). Even the Whig Lord Milton was tarred with his family’s slave connection (York Herald, 6 June 1807). On the Opposition’s estimate of the significance of the abolitionist vote in Yorkshire, see Dixon, ‘Politics of Emancipation’, 116. A letter from a Methodist at Leeds urged a vote for the two abolitionist candidates (Wilberforce and Milton) and against Lascelles, the West Indian ‘Man-stealer’. (The Iris, or Sheffield Advertiser, 12 May 1807).Google Scholar
  10. 9.
    Naomi C. Miller, ‘John Cartwright and radical Parliamentary reform, 1808–1819’, English Historical Review, 83,329 (October 1968), 705–28;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. John Cartwright, Reasons for Reformation (London, 1809), 24. For 1814, see Bedfordshire Record Office, Samuel Whitbread Mss, Correspondence on the Slave Trade, no. 4169, John Cartwright to Whitbread, 30 August 1814.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Drescher, Econocide, chapter 9; Betty Fladeland, ‘Abolitionist Pressures on the Concert of Europe, 1814–1822’, Journal of Modern History 38 (1966), 355–73. The Morning Chronicle, 11 August 1814, reported the number of petitions to the Commons as 861 and the number of signatures as 755 000. If there were any complaints it was about the insufficient number of places set aside for signatures. Bedfordshire Record Office. Whitbread Mss, Correspondence, no. 4162, Joseph Brown, MD, to Whitbread, Islington, 21 June 1814.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 19.
    During the 1840s the major reason given for rejection of immediate emancipation by the French government was France’s financial situation. Guizot emphasized the requirement of a ‘sacrifice’ of 250 to 300 million francs to the planters. See BN NA 3631, Schoelcher Papers, letter of Jollivet to the Council of Martinique, 28 June 1843. See also S. Drescher (ed.), Tocqueville and Beaumont on Social Reform (New York, 1968), 172.Google Scholar
  14. While the colonists were advised to brace themselves for further piecemeal moves against slavery (BN NA 3631, Schoelcher Papers, Jollivet to Martinique, 14 February 1848), their strongest line of defence remained the indemnification of ‘250 millions’. (See ibid., Dupin to Martinique, 29 April 1847; and the Siècle, 30 July 1847.) There was still no mention of colonial slavery at the opening of the 1848 legislative session either in the Address from the Throne or in the discussion of the Chambers’ reply. (See Le Semeur, 29 December 1847, 408.)Google Scholar
  15. 20.
    Drescher, ‘Public Opinion’, 43–5. A year before British emancipation an address was presented to the British King on Parliamentary reform. Each of the 236 000 signatures was accompanied by an identifying address. Twenty committees spent three weeks alphabetically transcribing the names from 2000 sheets of parchment. The mile-long document was moved on rollers nine feet in diameter (Le Semeur, 18 April 1832). It was in such a context that British abolitionism had to compete. See ibid., 7 August 1833, 12 March, 1 August 1834, 21 December 1836, etc. (On the 270 000 women’s signatures for emancipation in 1833, see Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register 85 (16 August 1834), 401.)Google Scholar
  16. 22.
    C. Duncan Rice, ‘Literary Sources and the Revolution in British Attitudes to Slavery’, in C. Bolt and S. Drescher (eds), Anti-Slavery, Religion, and Reform (Folkestone, Kent/Hamden, Conn., 1980), 319–34, esp. 326–7.Google Scholar
  17. The dramatic impact of the abolition campaign in the reordering of priorities may be seen in S. J. Pratt’s lengthy poem, Humanity, or the Rights of Nature (London, 1788). The preface announced that African slavery had been moved up to the leading position in the poem because of the ‘emulative Benevolence’ now coursing through the Empire. Pratt also reversed the standard sequence of British libertarian poetry. Usually the muse of liberty or of civilization was traced from antiquity to the present in a series of begats, passing from people to people and reaching its apotheosis in Britain. Humanity followed the spread of slavery from Egypt to Greece, to Rome, to Portugal, to Spain and to the Americas, until ‘Humanity’ began to radiate from Britain. Pratt’s case is merely illustrative. A more detailed analysis would be necessary to demonstrate the longer-term literary shift away from the assumed inevitability of tropical slavery in British creative writing. At the very least, Rice correctly asserts that a definitive change had occurred by the time of the defeat of Napoleon. (On Equiano’s response to Pratt’s poem, see Shyllon, Black People, 233, 257–8.)Google Scholar
  18. 23.
    Drescher, Econocide, 107, 111. Anstey, Atlantic Slave Trade, 326–9; Dale H. Porter, The Abolition of the Slave Trade in England, 1784–1807 (Hamden, Conn., 1970), 97–9.Google Scholar
  19. 25.
    Hansard, Parliamentary Debates, 28 (1814), 448, speech of George Canning, 29 June 1814.Google Scholar
  20. 26.
    Mary Turner, Slaves and Missionaries: The Disintegration of Jamaican Slave Society, 1787–1834 (Urbana, Ill. 1982), 105. Manchester was clearly a case where art imitated political life. The petitioning was well underway when Oroonoko opened at Manchester’s theatre. When the existing versions of the play were deemed insufficiently abolitionist, it was rewritten to conform to Manchester’s new militancy. Oroonoko was still playing in February 1788 (Manchester Mercury, 27 November 1787, 18 February 1788). See John Ferriar, The Prince of Angola: a tragedy altered from the play of Oroonoko (Manchester, 1788), preface). All degrading references to the black hero were removed. Newspapers also noted the increase in performances of Oroonoko elsewhere: World, 16 January 1788.Google Scholar
  21. See John Ferriar, The Prince of Angola: a tragedy altered from the play of Oroonoko (Manchester, 1788), preface). All degrading references to the black hero were removed. Newspapers also noted the increase in performances of Oroonoko elsewhere: World, 16 January 1788.Google Scholar
  22. 30.
    See, above all, C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins (London, 1938);Google Scholar
  23. Sidney Mintz and Douglas Hall, ‘The Origins of the Jamaican Internal Marketing System’, Yale University Publications in Anthropology, 57 (1960), 1–26;Google Scholar
  24. Michael Craton, Testing the Chains: Slave Rebellions in the British West Indies, 1629–1832 (Ithaca, New York, 1982), 242–323; J. Walvin (ed.), ‘Introduction’, Slavery, 16;Google Scholar
  25. M. Craton, ‘Slave Culture, Resistance and the Achievement of Emancipation in the British West Indies, 1783–1838’, ibid., 100–22, esp. 102.Google Scholar
  26. 32.
    B. W. Higman, Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 1807–1834 (Baltimore and London, 1984), 394.Google Scholar
  27. 34.
    James Stephen anticipated a long historiographical tradition with his notion that slave systems existed primarily on the basis of psychological terror, akin to a superstitious belief in ghosts. This mentality supposedly disappeared forever with the St Domingue Revolution (The Crisis of the Sugar Colonies (London, 1802) 27 and 72–5). Henry Brougham took immediate exception to Stephen’s psychological theory of slave subservience in The Edinburgh Review, 1 (October 1802), 224. On this point see also David Geggus, ‘British opinion and the emergence of Haiti’, in Walvin, Slavery, 122–49. The impact of Haitian independence on the pace of British abolition was ephemeral. See ibid., 149, and Geggus, ‘Haiti and the Abolitionists: Opinion, Propaganda and International Politics in Britain and France, 1804–1838’, forthcoming in David Richardson (ed.), Abolition and its Aftermath in the West Indies, vol. 1, The Historical Context, 1790–1870 (London, 1985).Google Scholar
  28. 35.
    On the role of black slaves in saving and expanding British slavery see Roger N. Buckley, Slaves in Redcoats: The British West India Regiments, 1795–1815 (New Haven, Conn., 1979), esp. 140–4; Drescher, Econocide, 167–70; Craton, Testing, 165. The impact of the St Domingue Revolution on metropolitan attitudes is equivocal in both the short and long run. It was the West Indians who took the lead in tying the St Domingue uprising to the abolitionist movement (Morning Chronicle, 3, 16, 23, 27 February 1792). William Dickson’s diary indicates that in Scotland it was the also antiabolitionists who first availed themselves of the ‘St. Domingo affair’ and the danger of metropolitan agitation. (Diary, Perth, 5 February 1792.) The abolitionist response to the uprising was defensive. One tactic was to publish accounts of British West Indian tranquillity and safety from insurrection. (Public Advertiser, 5 March, 9 April 1792.) Later historical assumptions about St. Domingue’s role in bolstering Parliamentary support for abolition have never been very closely argued or empirically based. On the contrary, Henry Dundas, moving in 1792 for gradual abolition in 1800 reasoned that one could proceed cautiously with British abolition. It ‘had nothing to do with the disorders in Saint Domingo’. As the responsible Minister, his official information was ‘that our islands were in a state of the most perfect tranquility’. (Diary, 24 April 1792). In voting to postpone abolition for at least three years the House of Commons apparently agreed that immediate abolition was not imperative.Google Scholar
  29. 38.
    E. D. Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World (Baton Rouge/London, 1979), Chapters 2 and 3. ‘After 1807 marronage became increasingly individualistic, and rebellion took on creolized forms’ (Higman, Slave Populations, 393).Google Scholar
  30. 43.
    The Public Advertiser of 22 July 1760 carried an account of the ‘free Negroes’ bringing in 17 pairs of ears, and two heads of rebelling Jamaican slaves. Before 1790 Jamaica’s maroon ‘slave catchers’ were regarded in Britain as part of ‘the strength of that island’. See [John Campbell], Candid and Impartial Considerations on the Nature of the Slave Trade, etc. (London, 1763), 105.Google Scholar
  31. 45.
    Compare Walvin, ‘Introduction’ to Slavery, 10; Craton, Searching for the Invisible Man (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), 142–9, 172;Google Scholar
  32. Barry Higman, Slave Population and Economy in Jamaica (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), 231–2.Google Scholar
  33. 46.
    See Walvin, ‘Introduction’ to Slavery, 10, citing M. Craton Searching for the Invisible Man: Slaves and Plantation Life in Jamaica (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), and Testing, 163, 267;Google Scholar
  34. B. W. Higman, Slave Population and Economy in Jamaica, 1807–1834 (Cambridge, Mass., 1976). On the shift to sugar, see Higman, Slave Populations, 71, Table 3.9; on the reduction of labour,Google Scholar
  35. see ibid., 187; and on abolition of the trade as the decisive variable,Google Scholar
  36. ibid., 394.Google Scholar
  37. 51.
    For their own reasons abolitionists usually accepted, and even seized upon, the idea that Africans were more rebellious than Creoles. See ‘Africanus’, Letter XI, Norwich Mercury, 13 November 1787. West Indian MPs claimed that Grenada and St. Vincent were saved by the loyalty of British colonial blacks. (Morning Chronicle, 19 February 1796.) See also Craton, Testing, 165–6, and Edward L. Cox, Free Coloreds in the Slave Societies of St. Kitts and Grenada, 1763–1833 (Knoxville, Tenn. 1984), 80–90.Google Scholar
  38. 55.
    Turner, Slaves and Missionaries, 162–3; Mary Record, ‘The Jamaica Slave Rebellion of 1831’, Past and Present 40 (1968), 108–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. 56.
    Craton, ‘Slave Culture’, 121: ‘The news from Jamaica in 1832, though, overwhelmed the remaining opposition to emancipation.’ See also William A. Green, British Slave Emancipation: The Sugar Colonies and the Great Experiment 1830–1865 (Oxford, 1976), 112. On the other hand see the more negative assessments of Dixon, ‘Politics of Emancipation’, 203, and Anstey, unpublished third chapter of his manuscript on British emancipation (page 21).Google Scholar
  40. 57.
    Dixon, ‘Politics of Emancipation’, 304, ff. The King himself opposed emancipation (ibid., 305, Letter to Goderich, 5 June 1832).Google Scholar
  41. 58.
    Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, 27 February 1832. The convergence of Anglo-Caribbean antislavery agitation was abundantly clear during the campaigns against colonial apprenticeship. See Alex Tyrell, ‘The “Moral Radical Party” and the Anglo-Jamaican campaign for the abolition of the Negro apprenticeship system’, English Historical Review, 99; 392 (July, 1984), 481–502.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Seymour Drescher 1986

Authors and Affiliations

  • Seymour Drescher
    • 1
  1. 1.University of PittsburghUSA

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