Anti-Saccharite Cultures v) Black London and Testimony

30 Sep

In this, the fifth and final blog entry on anti-saccharite cultures, I consider the importance of the presence of former slaves and slave narratives to the anti-saccharite movement.

Adam Hochschild records that by the 1780s there were upwards of five thousand black men, women and children in London. The British, attempting to undermine American colonist ‘property’, offered emancipation to any slave who abandoned their American owner. Many of these former American slaves arrived in Britain attached to military units soon to be discharged from service. Others bought their freedom after a period of service as domestic slaves for wealthy families, or managed to escape from bondage.  Although the majority of black people who living in London were unaccounted for by the general public, there were a number of exceptions. Below, I introduce two Atlantic creoles whose experiences, achievements and reputations became integral to the anti-saccharite movement:

Olaudah Equiano 

Olaudah Equiano became a much publicized celebrity for the anti-saccharite movement. Born in Nigeria in 1745 he was kidnapped with his sister and sold to slave merchants. He suffered the middle passage before becoming a slave in Virginia. In his early twenties he bought his freedom for £40 from a Quaker merchant captain working in the Caribbean. In 1787 Equiano moved to London and became involved with the abolitionist movement. Two years later he published the first slave autobiography of the era, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudajh Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. You can listen his book by clicking through on the image below.

Click on the image to be taken to a free audiobook of the Interesting Narrative, courtesy of learnoutloud.com

As the plight of former slaves in Britain became a subject of public inquiry,  the anti-saccharites endeavored to provide a platform and network for speeches at debating and political societies. From 1789, Equiano spent several years touring Britain and Ireland delivering anti-slavery speeches and promoting his Narrative. As a pragmatic self publicist he adapted his speeches to appease a variety of British audiences, weaving his account with popular culture, religious tropes of redemption and patriotic tales. Hochschild writes:

“Equiano subtly cast some of his anti-slavery remarks as compliments…(and) had noticed the most popular forms of literature around him – the adventure travelogue, the riches-to rags- to riches tale, the religious convert’s testimony – and skillfully combined them all” (2005: 173).

Equiano was an excellent communicator for both the boycott movement and the radical reform movement, the London Corresponding Society. In his work on the LCS, geographer David Featherstone (2008) points to Equiano’s role as the facilitator of contacts between Sheffield anti-slavery groups and London based activists. His experiences of living in three continents, and his communicative abilities as a translator, marked him out as an archetypal Atlantic Creole, a type of person:

“having by their experiences and sometimes their person…become part of the three worlds that came together in the Atlantic littoral. Familiar with the commerce of the Atlantic, fluent in its new languages, and intimate with its trade and cultures, they were cosmopolitan in the fullest sense” (Berlin, 1998: 17, in Featherstone, 2008: 15-16).

Although, his translation was specifically uni-directional for white audiences, in articulating enslaved suffering to a potentially sympathetic white audience, he navigated and adapted hegemonic binaries in communicating the suffering of black slaves into potential anti-slavery agitation and action. Many of the anti-saccharites and subsequent abolitionists and free produce activists (including Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Heyrick and Mary Birkett) read and paraphrased Equiano and interpreted his Narrative as a call for boycott. David Featherstone notes that  Lydia Hardy, the wife of the Thomas Hardy, the first secretary of the London Corresponding Society (LCS) wrote:

“the people here are as much against slavery as enny were and there is more people I think here that drinks tea without sugar than drinks with…all are very fond of Vassa’s book” (Hardy, 1792, in Featherstone, 2008: 93).

The success of Equiano’s Narrative, and Thomas Clarkson’s (1786) anti-slavery Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (a publication praised by Hochschild for its absence of religious moralizing), and the widespread support for the London Charity for the Negroe Poor signified the development of a newly mediatized and fictionalised politics of witness and spectatorship.

Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780)

Please click on the portrait to access Brycchan Carey’s 2003 paper on Sancho. The portrait of Ignatius Sancho was painted at Bath on 29 November 1768 by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). Apparently the portrait was completed in under two hours by Gainsborough who also painted Sancho’s patrons, the Montagu’s, at the same time.

Ignatious Sancho was a composer, writer and grocery shop keeper who spent most of his life in London. He started life as a child slave in Greenwich before persuading the Duke of Montagu to employ him as his butler. He wrote a great deal of letters, many of which survive today and act as powerful indicators that much in  Joseph Jekyll’s official biography of Sancho, the Life of Ignatius Sancho, was myth – he was not born on a slave ship on the Atlantic passage, and he did not know of any relatives who endured the journey.  In a  letter to Philadelphia Quaker Jabez Fisher from 1778, Sancho outlines his response to the ‘middle passage’ in a book by the abolitionist Anthony Benezet:

“The perusal affected me more than Ican express:- indeed I felt a double or mixt sensation – for while my heart was torn for the sufferings- which, for aught I know – some of my nearest kin might have undergone – my bosom, at the same time, glowed with gratitude – and praise toward the humane – the Christian – the friendly and learned Author of that most valuable book” (Sancho, 1777 in Carey, 2003:6)

Sancho was the first recorded African to vote in a British election, and his achievements were lauded by abolitionists as evidence of the ‘humanity and intellectual capacity’ of Africans (ibid., 2003).

Recommended reading

Carey, B (2003) ‘The extraordinary Negro’: Ignatius Sancho, Joseph Jekyll, and the Problem of Biography. British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 26, p.1-14

Featherstone, D (2008) Resistance, Space and Political Identities The making of Counter Global Networks. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell

Hochschild, A (2005) Bury the Chains. The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery. New York: Macmillan

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