Heroes & Allies

Immediate not Gradual Abolition - Elizabeth Heyrick's call

Nearly two decades after Britain’s legal abolition of the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved Africans, Elizabeth Heyrick of Leicester condemned the continuing use of enslaved labour in its Caribbean colonies. In a pamphlet first disseminated across Britain and the United States in 1824, Heyrick provocatively questioned her country’s intentions as a “friend of emancipation, or of perpetual slavery,” and presented pro-emancipation position that challenged leading male abolitionists.

Her pamphlet Immediate, not Gradual Abolition (1824) criticised leading anti-slavery figures of the time for being too "polite" and “accommodating” of plantation owners in the Caribbean. Heyrick campaigned for the immediate abolition of colonial slavery, rather than the gradual approach favoured by William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and other abolitionists after the abolition of Britain’s involvement in the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved Africans in 1807, citing its privileging of planters’ interests over Black freedom. 

Born in 1769, Heyrick grew up reading works of revolutionaries and religious dissenters. Her calling to social reform sharpened after her husband’s death in 1795.  A devoted Quaker, Heyrick renounced the material world and committed herself to activism, becoming  a member of the Society of Friends. Heyrick’s overriding passion was for the abolition of slavery in the British colonies, something she believed, ‘in which we are all implicated; we are all guilty.’

Immediate, not Gradual Abolition was widely distributed at anti-slavery meetings across the UK in the 1820s and was influential in shifting public opinion to support the cause of abolition. The pamphlet also sold thousands of copies in the USA.

Women’s exclusion from Parliament did not dissuade Heyrick from pursuing alternative avenues in support of the abolitionist cause. Alongside the Birmingham Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves, Heyrick canvassed shops, promoting a successful boycott of sugar grown by slave labour, and collaborated on a women’s anti-slavery periodical, The Hummingbird.  Wilberforce disapproved of the women’s community-based efforts, describing the Ladies’ public campaign as “unsuited to the female character.”

By 1830 there were more than 70 women’s anti-slavery societies in existence and they became an influential force in the abolitionist movement.

Heyrick died in October 1831, two years before the passage of the Abolition Act. Her contributions to abolition required a two-fold effort: one that challenged gradual emancipation while operating in a society that discouraged women’s political intervention.  Her absence in popular narratives of British abolitionism reflects a wider eclipse of the contributions of women, people of colour, and the unfree people in the long struggle to end the enslavement of Africans.



The British Library

The British Library

Heroes & Allies

Meet the Caribbean's 'first' acknowledged Black poet

In 1745 an anonymous Jamaican painter created a portrait of the Caribbean’s first Black poet.

The portrait depicts Francis Williams, who was likely born into enslavement in Jamaica in 1692. His father was emancipated in 1697 and became a wealthy merchant with land and human property of his own. This makes Francis William's status problematic today as he and his family profited from the labour of enslaved Africans. Francis’s family wealth secured him rights and privileges that were usually preserved for white men. He attended grammar school and university in England, funded by the 2nd Duke of Montagu, then Governor of Jamaica, for whom Williams’s position offered a social experiment. Montagu wanted to know if Black people could be educated in the same manner as white people. While in England he wrote Latin poetry and lived the life of a gentleman. He returned to Jamaica in the 1730s and established a school in Spanish Town to educate other Black students.

The portrait depicts Williams as a rich, free man of letters. He is shown surrounded by books in his study in Jamaica and dressed in the attire of a learned English gentleman. The artist copied the style of European portraits of powerful men. This was unusual at a time when Africans were normally portrayed in art as captives and servants. In fact, the ability to commission an oil portrait was itself a sign of Williams’s achievement and status.

However, art historians have suggested that the portrait is actually a caricature. The painting was donated to the V&A by the descendants of the Jamaican planter Edward Long, a racist who ridiculed Williams in his 1774 History of Jamaica. If Long commissioned the portrait, the gentlemanly depiction and ridiculous proportions could be mocking Williams’s supposed arrogance. 

Regardless of the artist’s motivation, Williams’s very existence as a pioneering Black scholar challenged European ideas of Black inferiority that underpinned the whole system of transatlantic enslavement. 


Heroes & Allies

The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade

In 1787, the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the African Slave Trade was established. This British political group, known as abolitionists, objected to the transatlantic trade of enslaved people on humanitarian grounds and campaigned for its abolition. 

The minutes of that very first meeting on 22 May 1787 are shown here, recording the 12 original members. This included Granville Sharpe and Thomas Clarkson. Nine of its members were Quakers and three were Anglicans. The minutes begin:

‘At a Meeting held for the Purpose of taking the Slave Trade into consideration, it was resolved that the said Trade was both "impolitick" and "unjust".’

Printed media, aimed at the British public, was an effective campaigning method for the abolitionist cause. These minutes note that the group will ‘[distribute] Clarkson’s Essay [on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species] and such other Publications, as may tend to the Abolition of the Slave-Trade.' 

Between the 1780s and 1830s, a number of men and women of African descent – including Olaudah Equiano, Ottobah Cugoano, Ignatius Sancho and Mary Prince – published influential poems, letters, autobiographies and pamphlets that drew on their own experiences of enslavement and called for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery.


The British Library

The British Library

Heroes & Allies

The History of Mary Prince (1831)

'The history of Mary Prince, related by herself (1831) is the first published account of enslavement related by a Black woman.

Mary Prince was born around 1788 in Bermuda to enslaved parents. The book is a first-person account of the horrifically brutal treatment experienced by Prince and other enslaved people, detailing how she was treated by enslavers and within the system of slavery.

At the end of the narrative, Prince powerfully challenges arguments that she has heard in Britain in support of slavery: 

‘All slaves want to be free – to be free is very sweet. I will say the truth to English people who may read this history… I have been a slave myself – I know what slaves feel – I can tell by myself what other slaves feel, and by what they have told me. The man that says slaves be quite happy in slavery – that they don’t want to be free – that man is either ignorant or a lying person.’

Published in 1831, Prince’s History was hugely important in the campaign to abolish slavery. While ‘the idea of writing Mary Prince's history was first suggested by herself’ (Preface), Prince’s story was dictated to and transcribed by Susanna Strickland, and edited by Thomas Pringle. In 1828, Prince arrived in London with the Wood family and managed to escape their household. After the book’s publication, very little is known of Prince’s life.

A number of formerly enslaved men living in England, such as Olaudah Equiano, had previously published their memoirs. After the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, these first-hand accounts continued to play an important part in raising public awareness. Then, in 1833, just two years after Prince's account was published, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in Parliament.


The British Library

The British Library

Heroes & Allies

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745–1797) was an extraordinary man who became a prominent campaigner for the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.

Equiano was born in what is now southern Nigeria and sold into slavery aged 11. In his compelling autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, he tells of his early life in Africa, his enslavement and how he gained his freedom. This work shaped public opinion and influenced support for abolition.

The book – one of the first in Europe by a Black African writer – was an enormous success, selling out immediately in 1789. This, the second edition, was published the same year. It was widely read and Equiano toured extensively across Britain to promote it, becoming wealthy from its royalties. 

In the preface, Equiano writes that his ‘chief design … is to excite in your august assemblies a sense of compassion for the miseries which the Slave-Trade has entailed on my unfortunate countrymen.’ Specifically, he is addressing those in positions of authority, who have parliamentary power to abolish the trade of enslaved people.

In Chapter II, Equiano describes the ‘horrors of a slave ship’, including his first impressions of the white men on board and their treatment of him and other enslaved Africans. He writes:

‘I feared I should be put to death, the white people looked and acted, as I thought, in so savage a manner; for I had never seen among any people such instances of brutal cruelty; and this not only shewn towards us Blacks, but also to some of the whites themselves’.

Alongside his autobiography, Equiano was the leading Black anti-slavery campaigner and a founding member of the Sons of Africa, an abolitionist group formed by Africans in Britain. 

Equiano did not live to see the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. He died in 1797, leaving his English wife and two daughters behind.


The British Library 

The British Library 

Heroes & Allies

The Only Surviving Manuscript Letters of Ignatius Sancho

This letter is among the only surviving manuscript letters of Ignatius Sancho, the most famous Anglo-African in 18th-century Britain.

According to Joseph Jekyll’s 1782 biography, Sancho was born on a transatlantic slave ship and brought to England as a child. He managed to secure help from the noble Montagu family and became a shopkeeper, composer and an accomplished writer. 

In the collection, Sancho’s 15 handwritten letters (dated 1776‒80) mention friends from all walks of life – from members of the nobility to authors. The letters convey Sancho’s literary sophistication, warmth and gentle humour. Often he uses a playful, unconventional style, and remarks: ‘I hate fine hands ‒ & fine Language. Write plain honest nonsense’ (f. 16v). 

At times, the letters demonstrate sharp engagement with current affairs. He condemns English politicians saying, ‘I am Sir an Affrican – with two ffs – if you please - & proud am I to be of a country that knows no politicians – nor lawyers … nor Thieves’ (ff. 17r‒v). 

We see Sancho at the heart of his large family, showing love and admiration for his West Indian wife, Anne: she is ‘truly [my] best part – without a Single tinge of my defects’ (f. 16r). We also catch frequent glimpses of Sancho’s life as a grocer, sending out goods to customers but also receiving generous gifts. 

In 1766 Sancho wrote to Laurence Sterne – one of his favourite authors ‒ outlining his life story and asking him to ‘give half an hours attention to slavery’. Sterne replied, and the two struck up a friendship. When their correspondence was published in a posthumous edition of Sterne’s Letters (1775), it made Sancho famous. 

In 1782, two years after Sancho’s death, a book of his letters were published in Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African. This was the first published correspondence by a writer of African descent, and became a powerful text in the campaign to end slavery.


The British Library

The British Library

Heroes & Allies

Toussaint L‘Ouverture: A Revolutionary Leader Who Helped Topple Slavery

Some may look at this photo and just see a man on horseback; however, the circulation of this image held a lot of weight in the 18th century. 

Printed in France in 1802, this image depicts Toussaint L’Ouverture: a formerly enslaved, revolutionary leader, and "Chief of the Black Rebels of Saint Domingue'', as the inscription reads on the bottom of the image.  

In 1791, tens of thousands of enslaved people in Haiti, formerly known as Saint Domingue, revolted against those who held them in captivity. They burned plantations, property and defeated French troops. Led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, the formerly enslaved people defeated French troops sent to extinguish the rebellions.

This image would have struck fear into the hearts of the European plantation-holding elites because it showed an armed Black man, leading other Black men against their white oppressors. It underscored a harsh reality - that the enslaved could overthrow the system of slavery if they organised together and fought their enslavers.  

Haiti goes down in history as the second nation to gain independence after a European war. This was after the United States declared independence from Great Britain in 1776. Toussaint L’Ouverture’s leadership, however, led Haiti to become the very first Black nation to declare independence from a European ruler. 


The British Library

The British Library

Heroes & Allies

Am I Not a man and a Brother? The Abolitionist Medallion

'Am I not a man and a brother?' This was the question posed on the medallions worn by abolitionists. The medallion was initially designed for Josiah Wedgewood, a famous pottery manufacturer.

The design became popular and could be found on leaflets, snuff boxes, pots and in homes. The design indicated an allegiance to the abolitionist movement and solidarity with Black people suffering the atrocities of the transatlantic trade of enslaved people. Wedgewood himself was on the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which was founded in 1781 by Thomas Clarkson.

By 1788, the distribution of the medallion had expanded to the United States. Medallions were sent to Benjamin Franklin and the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. The imagery and messaging on the medallion had an extreme impact in appealing to the emotions of people and broadening abolitionists' efforts.

Although chained and in a submission position, the man presents as non-threatening, with great dignity. The medallion brings into question the humanity of both the enslaved and enslavers inflicting such violence.

It became the main symbol of the British abolition movement leading up to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. The abolition served as a foundation for the emancipation of the enslaved across all British colonies in 1838. The abolitionist medallion has been coined as one of the first logos used for political gain.


Heroes & Allies

William Wilberforce: A Leading Voice for Emancipation

William Wilberforce was known as the voice of the abolitionist movement in Parliament, leading the charge to pass legislation to end the slave trade and slavery. Wilberforce was largely influenced by John Newton, a former enslaver and human trafficker turned preacher and abolitionist, and his conversion to Evangelical Christianity. 

Wilberforce was elected MP for Kingston upon Hull at age 21. Wilberforce was not formally involved until he was asked by his close friend, the newly-elected Prime Minister, William Pitt, to become the parliamentary spokesman for the campaign in 1787.

The London Committee, part of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, made occasional contact with Wilberforce from October 1787, predominantly to ask him to raise the issue in debates. He formally joined the Committee in 1791 and became their spokesman in the House of Commons.

Beginning in the 1790s, he sponsored multiple abolition acts which failed to pass until The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which ended the legal trading of slaves. This Act did not end slavery. Wilberforce and other abolitionists continued to campaign throughout the next 30 years until the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 was passed.  

Wilberforce passed away several days after the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in Parliament, aged 74. 


Heroes & Allies

Granville Sharp’s Campaign Against Slavery

One day in the winter of 1765, a lawyer named David Lisle savagely beat an enslaved boy called Jonathan Strong who lived with him in his house in London. He struck the boy on the head and face with a pistol then threw him into the street. Somehow he survived and found his way to a street called Mincing Lane in the City of London, where William Sharp, a famous doctor, had his surgery.

Jonathan Strong was spotted by the doctor’s younger brother, Granville Sharp, who rushed him in to the surgery. ‘The boy seemed ready to die,’ Granville Sharp later said. The two Sharp brothers sent him to hospital and paid for his care. When he was better they found him a job. For the first time in his life, Strong was no longer enslaved and had some money of his own. 

Two years later David Lisle saw him in the street and arranged for him to be kidnapped. Lisle then sold him for £30 to a man called James Kerr, who owned a plantation in Jamaica. Kerr planned to send Strong to Jamaica to work as a slave.  

But Strong, who had learned to read and write, sent a message to Granville Sharp, who came to his aid. Sharp succeeded in persuading the Lord Mayor to release Jonathan Strong. James Kerr then tried to take Granville Sharp to court in order to force him to release Strong. But Sharpe began to study the law and became so knowledgeable that he was able to force Kerr to give up trying to have Strong handed over to him. Sharp wrote a book on slavery and the law. 

One day in 1772, a man called James Somerset came to Sharp’s house looking for help. He had been brought to London from Virginia three years earlier by the man who had owned him for twenty years, Charles Stewart. After two years in London, James Somerset escaped. 

Charles Stewart hired slave-hunters, and two months later, James was kidnapped and taken to a ship on the Thames to be sent to Jamaica to work as a slave on the sugar plantations. But James was saved by people from his church who had him released, and with Granville Sharp’s help he took his case to court. 

What Granville Sharp wanted to do was to use the case of James Somerset to prove that enslavement was not legal in Britain. The court case was reported in all the newspapers and everyone awaited a final decision. 

The judge, called Lord Mansfield, delivered his judgement in Westminster Hall in London on Monday, 22 June 1772. His decision was that Charles Stewart did not have the right under English law to seize James Somerset on English soil and deport him to the colonies. Therefore James Somerset was a free man.


Walk to Freedom

The Black Jacobins by C.L.R James

Cyril Lionel Robert James, pen name C.L.R. James, was born in Trinidad. He was a cultural historian, cricket writer for The Guardian, and political activist who was a leading figure in the Pan-African movement. 

The Black Jacobins (1938) by C.L.R. James (1901–1989) is a classic history of the Haitian Revolution of 1791–1804. 

In 1791, enslaved Africans in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) rose up against the profoundly brutal slave regime. Led by Toussaint L’Ouverture and later by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the revolutionary struggle lasted for 12 years and resulted in the abolition of slavery in Haiti and Haitian independence. James describes the Haitian Revolution as ‘the only successful slave revolt in history’ (Preface, vii) and Haiti was the first independent Black republic outside of Africa.

James’ pioneering account of these events helped transform the way we look at colonial history. His Marxist analysis of the Haitian Revolution puts enslaved people at the centre of their own story, demonstrating that their freedom came out of their collective mobilisation and not as a result of the good will of abolitionists. He focuses on the achievements and political personality of Toussaint, whose remarkable leadership brought about the end of enslavement in Haiti. Throughout the book, James draws parallels between the Haitian uprising and anti-colonial struggles in the 20th century.

Throughout The Black Jacobins, James highlights the challenge and dilemma of "independence" in a world still dominated by capitalism and imperialism. Of Dessalines’s proclamation of independence and taking the throne as emperor in October 1804, James notes that he ‘… entered into his inheritance, tailored and valeted by English and American capitalists, supported on the one side by the King of England and on the other by the President of the United States’ (p. 305). 

James had previously dramatised the events of the Revolution in his 1936 play Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History and, in 1967, he turned to drama once again with his second play on the subject, The Black Jacobins. 


The British Library

The British Library

Walk to Freedom

The Escape of Ellen and William Craft

Ellen and William Craft were born into slavery in Georgia in the south of the United States. They married and, fearing that they would be separated from one another and their future children sold into slavery, they planned a daring escape in 1848.

Ellen’s mother was raped by a white slave master and as a result, Ellen was light-skinned and able to ‘pass’ for a white person. Their plan involved Ellen posing as a man with William acting as her faithful “man servant”. Ellen cut her hair and wore men’s clothes and in this disguise, they planned to head north to the free states via steamboat and train.

Ellen couldn’t write, as slaves weren’t taught to, so she bandaged her hand to avoid being asked to sign her name. They knew if they were caught, they would be separated and tortured but the plan worked, with Ellen sitting undetected in the ‘whites only’ carriage of the train.

The Crafts settled in Boston until the passing of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which gave slave owners the power to travel from the south and recapture slaves who had escaped north. American abolitionists helped the Crafts to raise enough money to flee to the relative safety of the UK. Here, they helped further the abolitionist cause by creating a stage performance to shine a spotlight on the terrors of enslavement.


Emily Zobel Marshall - Leeds Beckett University 

Emily Zobel Marshall - Leeds Beckett University 

Walk to Freedom

The Trelawny Maroons and the Second Maroon War of 1795

What figures or groups come to mind when you think of liberation in the British Caribbean? 

This aquatint from 1801 by J Mérigot from the King's Topographical Collection in the British Library shows British troops caught in an ambush by a group of Maroons in 1795. It depicts some of the first enslaved people who were able to successfully escape from enslavement for an extended period before defeat by armed British troops. They are known as Maroon communities, and they existed on several islands. This particular group depicted, the Trelawny Town Maroons in Jamaica, was one of the two largest known Maroon groups at the time. 

The image depicts Maroons in Ambush on the Dromilly Estate  in 1795. Some Maroons managed to escape slavery in 1655 when the British invaded the then Spanish colony of Jamaica, while others escaped captivity from British owned plantations. Due to their intimate knowledge of the land, they typically settled in mountainous areas or forests where Europeans were not fully familiar.

As the Maroons became more established, they made efforts to liberate others in captivity, waging wars against colonial efforts, encouraging slave rebellions, and raiding plantations. Despite eventually signing treaties with the British in 1739 ensuring peace, allocation of land, and some political autonomy, Maroons were unsatisfied with the quality of their “rights.” This ignited the Second Maroon War which lasted from July 1795 and ended in March 1796.

Outnumbered by British troops, the Trelawny Maroons were not only defeated, but then exiled to Nova Scotia until 1800 and then moved to Sierra Leone. Although defeated, the long term success of the Maroons led the British Army to create the West India regiments where men of African descent served as military officials in the Caribbean.

This was a small step in the British recognizing how essential Black men were both in the fight against slavery and colonialism and for the protection of their colonies



Walk to Freedom

Moses Roper: the first fugitive slave lecturer in the UK

Moses Roper, an author, lecturer and activist, was born into slavery in 1815 to an enslaved mother and her master.

Following numerous attempted escapes from plantations across North Carolina and Florida, Moses successfully escaped to New York. Then, after travelling around various anti-slavery states out of fear of recapture, Moses travelled to London where he began his career as an abolitionist lecturer.

Moses’ career would take him across the UK, where he was the first fugitive enslaved person to lecture on the cause of abolition. He would also be the first fugitive enslaved person published in Ireland, when his letter to the Limerick Chronicle was published in 1838.

Moses Roper’s Narrative of My Escape from Slavery (1838) is noted for its gritty depiction of the horrors of slavery. However, his narrative, much like his career, has often been overlooked; his legacy overshadowed by that of Frederick Douglass, another enslaved turned abolitionist.

Historians Fionnghuala Sweeney and Bruce Baker have attempted to uncover details of Roper’s life. In doing, so they have revealed his influence, as well as his links to Wales. They point to Roper’s vivid enslaved narrative as the root of a ‘literary ground of fugitive activism’. However, Roper’s style was not always well received. He refused to adapt his descriptions of violence and displays of slavery paraphernalia for the Victorian audience, drawing much criticism from newspapers and other abolitionists.

Following the birth of his first daughter, and the decline of his career following an argument with fellow abolitionist Thomas Price, Roper and his family moved to a cottage in Cardigan. Whilst in Wales, Roper would release three editions of his narrative in Welsh whilst lecturing across the country. He would return to the US alone to lecture in the 1880s, before dying from ill health in 1891.




Walk to Freedom

The Haitian Revolution: Britain's greatest imperial disaster?

In October 1791, rumours began to circulate around London of a huge and gory catastrophe in the French colony of St Domingue (present-day Haiti); a revolt by enslaved people far greater than anything the New World had ever known.

Now known as the Haitian revolution, the uprising saw 100,000 enslaved people take revenge on their masters, fighting back with machetes and firebrands (pieces of burning wood). Plantations across the island lay in ashes and hundreds of Europeans were slaughtered.

Prime Minister at the time, William Pitt “the Younger” along with his advisors sent 15,000 soldiers over to St Domingue in an attempt to quell the revolt, reconquer the land and re-enslave the population. This cost the treasury close to £10 million (£1.5 billion in today's money). 

Almost every person in the country, it was claimed in Parliament, lost an acquaintance in the Caribbean campaigns and men would no longer enlist for fear of being sent to the West Indies. The Foxite Whigs demanded the troops be withdrawn but the ministry refused. It had abandoned any hopes of conquest, but it now feared the effect such a reversal might have on its own slave colonies.

Even so, the cost of occupation remained unacceptably high, and local commander, Thomas Maitland, favoured withdrawal. Dramatic advances by Toussaint L'Ouverture finally clinched the matter, and in September 1798 the surviving British troops were evacuated. Slavery's three hundred year history in Saint Domingue thus came to an end.

At this time, the campaign to abolish the trade of enslaved people was already underway and was reaching a new climax. The Haitian Revolution is thought to have been one of the stepping stones on the way to the final emancipation. However, it wouldn’t be until 1833 when the Slave Emancipation Act would finally be passed, costing £20 million in ‘compensation’ to enslavers - a debt that British taxpayers continued to repay until 2015. Following the act, it would be a further six years until all slaves in the Caribbean would finally be freed.


Walk to Freedom

The Krios People and the Province of Freedom

The Krios population are descendants of various African peoples who had formerly been enslaved and then resettled by the British in modern day Sierra Leone.  

These primarily Black and mixed-race inhabitants included people from the Maroon population of Jamaica who fought valiantly for their freedom against the British. One group of those resettled in the West African country were Black loyalists. These were formerly enslaved people who had fought for the British during the American Revolution. 

Africans who had been liberated by the Royal Navy from illegal trans-Atlantic enslavement ships and Black Londoners made up other groups of people sent to live in Sierra Leone.  

In 1786, the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor, proposed a scheme for repatriation to a territory in Africa where they could be free and govern themselves. High hopes were set, and the British Treasury fronted the project, providing materials such as clothes, tools and weapons for the settlers. 

On 10 May 1787, English ships anchored on the coast of Sierra Leone in an area then called Frenchman’s Bay. Aboard were 380 free Black formerly enslaved people, ready to create the Province of Freedom where ‘they could become architects of their own destiny.'


Messy Motivations

The many ingredients for the abolition of slavery

While it might be easy to think the journey to the abolition of slavery was smooth and straight, that is far from the truth. The abolition of the slave trade and eventual emancipation in the British Empire was a journey that took a long time and many missteps before reaching the conclusion we know and celebrate today. 

Commerce: the important economic links between the British Caribbean and its North American colonies broke down following American independence from British rule. The Industrial Revolution shifted the popular demand from sugar to cotton. Britain's sugar colonies, such as Jamaica and Barbados declined as British cities like Manchester and Salford grew in importance for their manufactured goods.

Resistance: starting with the grand defeat in the French colony of St. Domingue (now known as Haiti), the wind of reinforced resistance swept across the Caribbean. The Bussa Rebellion of 1816 in Barbados, the Demerara Rebellion in 1823, the Samuel Sharpe Rebellion of 1831 in Jamaica. The revolts were very important and helped to end British slavery. These revolts also shocked the British government and made them see that the costs and dangers of keeping the system of slavery in the West Indies were too high.There were fears of another major rebellion in Jamaica and many terrified plantation owners were now ready to accept abolition, rather than risk a widespread war. 

Political Power Shifts: Parliamentary reform in 1832 saw the members of the West India Interest in the Parliament swept from power and influence.

Religious Coalition: the many campaigns promoting the immoral nature of enslaverment made the feeling against slavery in the UK almost universal. In addition, the pressure was mounted by a coalition of non-conformist churches as well as Evangelicals in the Church of England.


Messy Motivations

The Very Recent History of Compensation Payments to Slave Owners

While the slave trade might seem like part of our distant past, it might surprise you to know that British people have been paying towards the compensation of slave owners right up until 2015.

In order to end the slave trade in 1833, the British Government borrowed £20 million from the Treasury in order to compensate slave owners for their ‘loss of property and earnings’, meaning enslaved people they had bought.

The loan was one of the largest in history, equating to £300 billion in today’s money and 40% of the country’s budget. It took the British government over 180 years to pay this back, using British Taxpayer money to do so until 2015. 

The way it was worded was that taxpayers were helping to ‘end the slave trade.’ The HM Treasury even tweeted about this fact in 2018, saying: “Here’s today’s surprising #FridayFact. Millions of you helped end the slave trade through your taxes.” The tweet was subsequently deleted but not before causing a huge controversy online.

In reality, every tax-paying person living in the UK - including those of Caribbean and African descent - has paid towards Britain’s debt to slave owners. Therefore, descendants of the formerly enslaved living in the UK during this time have paid towards this compensation to slave owners of their own ancestors, including the Windrush generation and victims of racial violence.

In contrast to the large sum of money paid to slave owners, not a penny was paid to enslaved people and many are now calling for reparations to be paid to the descendants of the enslaved. Where do you stand on this issue?


Messy Motivations

The Anti Slavery Bazaars

The Anti Slavery Bazaars of the mid 19th century were gatherings where American abolitionists sold their wares and promoted anti-enslavement ideas.

From around 1835 through to 1860, these events were particularly driven by middle class white women who opposed enslavement on religious grounds, seeing it as immoral. 

Hosted annually by the American Anti-Slavery Society, anti-slavery bazaars were major fundraising events for the Society. They influenced people from a wide range of backgrounds, ages, gender and races who were exposed to ideas as they came to buy homemade and manufactured goods. Items on offer included baked goods, clothing and common household items, plus books, art and abolitionist propaganda.

Although primarily run by white women, many Black women donated goods to be sold and white men also donated funds or goods.

The Weston Sisters also helped to boost the prestige of the fairs. Five educated middle class white women from Weymouth, Massachusetts, they were connected to the anti-enslavement movement after one of the sisters, Maria Weston Chapman married an abolitionist.

They became leaders in the Boston Female Anti Slavery Society which was heavily involved with the bazaars. Maria Weston Chapman also edited Liberty Bell, a collection of essays, stories and poems about enslavement and abolition, and helped connect the fairs with her wealthy and extensive connections throughout the state.



Messy Motivations

John Gladstone’s Influence, Power and Impact

John Gladstone was a man who used his power to influence politics, trade, industrial development and slavery in the 19th century.

Born to a merchant family, Gladstone first built his fortune in trade with India, and American tobacco and grain. He diversified his investments, moving into industries such as shipping insurance, property, warehouses and plantation estates in the West Indies.

In the first decades of the 1800s, it is estimated that his wealth increased by more than 12 times. As a wealthy and influential man, he involved himself in advocating for the continuation of slavery and planter's rights.

In a debate published in two Liverpool newspapers between Gladstone and abolitionist James Cooper, he argued that Black people were naturally lazy and unfit to be left to their own devices, that the enslaved people lead relatively happy lives and slavery should therefore be continued.  

Upon the Slavery Abolition Act, in 1833, Gladstone continued to profit from slavery, receiving one of the largest compensation payments, the equivalent of around £12 million in today’s money. He went on to invest in other areas of trade, notably in the railways in Britain, and funded the building of several schools, churches, and charitable institutions.  

Throughout his lifetime, Gladstone’s reach and influence was extensive. He was a director of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). He poured money into several railway lines that are still used today, such as the West Coast Main line. He was influential in politics too, serving several terms in parliament as MP and was the father of William Ewart Gladstone, a four-time Prime Minister and two-time Exchequer.


Explicit Content

The following story contains content which some readers may find disturbing and / or may not be suitable for younger readers. Themes may include racism, racist language, violence, sexual assault, death. Viewer discretion is advised.

Messy Motivations

The Zong Massacre

On 29 November 1781, more than 130 enslaved Africans were murdered by the crew of a British ship called Zong. 

Owned by the William Gregson trading syndicate which was based in Liverpool, they had taken out insurance on the lives of the enslaved people as cargo. So, when the ship ran low on drinking water following navigational mistakes, the crew threw the enslaved overboard.

When the ship reached its destination, the port of Black River in Jamaica, the owners of the Zong made a claim to their insurers for the loss of their “property”. The insurers refused to pay and when the case went to court, the jury ruled in favour of the enslavers, holding that in some cases the murder of enslaved people was legal and that insurers could be required to pay for those who had died. 

However, at a subsequent appeal, new evidence showed that the captain and crew were at fault, and ruled against the owners of the trading syndicate.

News of this massacre was taken up by the abolitionist cause and became a powerful tool in the fight for emancipation, a stark symbol of the horrors of the Middle Passage and transatlantic trade of enslaved humans. Formerly enslaved activist, Olaudah Equiano brought it to the attention of abolitionist campaigner Granville Sharp who even attempted (unsuccessfully) to have the crew prosecuted for murder.

Nevertheless, it helped to stimulate the abolitionist movement, and the following year, Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act 1788, which limited the number of enslaved allowed a ship, the first law regulating the trade of enslaved people. In 1791, insurance companies were prohibited from reimbursing enslavers for throwing enslaved people off ships.



Messy Motivations

Thomas Clarkson's Travelling Chest: A Case For the End of Slavery

It’s no secret that the transatlantic slave trade indicated a growth in British consumer demand. The import of specialty fabrics, sugar, tobacco and rum eventually became intrinsic to British luxury for those who could afford it.

Consumerism was inextricably linked to the continuance of human trafficking, enslavement and plantation growth. It was therefore deemed necessary that whatever mode of action abolitionists took didn’t interrupt the economical or social advancements produced through the enslavement of people. 

Thomas Clarkson, a lead abolitionist and lecturer, travelled the world talking to many people including men who had worked on boats that held enslaved black people captive. After building trust with them, many agreed to act as witnesses before the British Parliament in the case against the trading of humans. 

But he didn’t stop there. Clarkson had found a new, unique argument for ending human trafficking in the trade. Everywhere he went to speak, he carried a chest filled with valuable items from Africa. Audiences marvelled at these rare types of wood, dyes, fabrics and more. Clarkson did this to prove a point - not one that he or other abolitionists fully believed - to win over those who shared the widespread sentiment of valuing goods over human life.

Why go to Africa in pursuit of people when there are higher valued items such as spices, hides and more? Why not continue trade and meet the growing demand for imported goods since that’s what the public truly valued? The economy and trade could flourish without the human trafficking factor.

Although a warped logic, Clarkson’s ability to play into the consumerist ideology helped leverage the end of trading enslaved people. It is suggested that the propaganda tools and strategy he used in his campaign helped develop the prototype for modern campaigning to influence public opinion and could be regarded as a prime mover in the UK's first national campaign for human rights. 

Though slavery persisted until the 1830s, the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 was a pivotal moment in the fight for freedom and Clarkson certainly played a key role.


Messy Motivations

Justifications for Slavery and Reluctance for Emancipation

“An Emancipated Negro” - this disparaging drawing was made to aid the staunch opposition to end slavery in the British Colonies. This propaganda created in 1833 shows a Black man, skinny and malnourished, covered in leaves, chasing a fly with a dagger, shouting ‘Food’! (Note how the speech bubble is ironically shaped like Africa).

Disparaging propaganda like this was not uncommon in the fight to make Europeans believe that slavery was for the betterment of Black people. Arguments validating slavery, as illustrated in this drawing, extended into the Negro’s inability to feed themselves, manage finances, or create their own independent civilised societies. The argument was that Britain’s involvement was imperative to manage the lives of the formerly enslaved. 

‘To liberate half a million people only to permit them to sink into a wild, un-Christian and unproductive barbarism’.

Mrs AC Carmicheal, a slave owner in Trinidad, shared in her writings that one of her enslaved workers expressed a preference to remain in bondage than to enter into an apprenticeship. 

Within countless Parliament records, we can find arguments in defence of the British salvation of the Negro race - that without Europe, and more specifically Britain, the Negro race would fall into ruin, continuing their “heathenish” non-Christian beliefs and practices.


Fiona Compton - Know Your Caribbean

Fiona Compton - Know Your Caribbean

Rebellions & Uprisings

Bussa's Barbadian Rebellion

It’s important to remember that enslaved Africans resisted every aspect of enslavement; from being captured, to being trafficked across the Atlantic, to being forced into back-breaking labour on the plantations. Even while on the islands, with seemingly nowhere to go, enslaved Africans fought against their aggressors at every opportunity. 

All the Caribbean islands had to deal with rebellions. However, on the island of Barbados, the rebellions tended to be less ferocious compared to other islands due to the well-armed police force and the lack of ample hiding areas. While, Jamaica has over 35% of forest coverage, Barbados has less than half of this; most of the land having been cleared for sugar production.

On Sunday 14 April 1816, however, a major rebellion broke out in Barbados. This rebellion was carefully planned and organised by the senior enslaved men and women who worked on several estates and plantations.

An African-born enslaved man called Bussa led the rebellion. Very little is known about him, except that he was a ranger at the Bayley plantation in the parish of St Philip. A ranger was the head officer among the enslaved workers on an estate. He would travel the plantations and deal with day-to-day business arising between the estates. This meant that rangers travelled throughout the area. It’s likely that Bussa enjoyed the confidence and respect of both the Black community and white plantation owners.

Bussa planned the uprising with people from the different estates. This included Jackey, the driver at the Simmons estate, King Wiltshire, a carpenter at Bayley’s and Nanny Grigg, a literate domestic at Simmons.

The uprising started at Bayley’s estate. It was an attempt by the enslaved people to change the society on Barbados. They believed that Barbados belonged to them and wanted their freedom from the plantation owners.

The act to end the slave trade had been passed in the British Parliament in 1807. But in 1815, little had changed for the enslaved in Barbados. Expecting Governor Leith would return from his travels with their “free papers”, they would be disappointed. 

Bussa commanded about 400 men and women against the troops which included the West India Regiment, an all Black branch of the British Army. Bussa was killed in battle but his troops continued to fight until they were defeated by superior firepower. 50 enslaved people died in battle as well as one white civilian and one Black soldier. The punishment meted out on the enslaved population afterwards was shocking. 214 were executed and another 132 sent away to another island.

Bussa’s rebellion was one of many rebellions that took place in the Caribbean over the centuries, showing Black determination to gain their freedom.


The National Archives

The National Archives

Explicit Content

The following story contains content which some readers may find disturbing and / or may not be suitable for younger readers. Themes may include racism, racist language, violence, sexual assault, death. Viewer discretion is advised.

Rebellions & Uprisings

Maria of Curçao

Maria was an enslaved woman, a cook, tasked with receiving and caring for the newly enslaved arriving from Africa on the island of Curaçao, a Dutch Caribbean colony. 


Maria’s husband had been killed by an overseer named Muller. She made alliances with the African-born, newly enslaved arrivals, and devised a plan to kill Muller and, after him, every European enslaver on the island. 


Maria persuaded a group of rebels to kill Muller in the fields of his plantation. Maria was reported to have said, ‘that is good, go on’, when she was informed that Muller was dead. Maria urged the rebels to kill every European enslaver on the island and to take their money.


The rebellion that Maria initiated lasted two months. Eventually, the group of rebels, including one female leader named Agathia and Maria’s new lover, a man named Tromp, were captured and tortured. Tromp initially denied that Maria had been involved at all, but under the pressure of torture he and Agathia both confessed that Maria, seeking retribution for her husband’s murder, was the mastermind behind the plot.


Maria was captured and tortured but never confessed, remaining stoic and defiant to the very end. In 1716, she and 13 others were sentenced to death and burned at the stake. Their ashes were scattered into the wind and the ocean. In the official record, she remains unnamed, only referred to as ‘a woman – sentenced to do her harm.’



Fiona Compton - Know Your Caribbean 

Fiona Compton - Know Your Caribbean 

Rebellions & Uprisings

The Role of Polish Soldiers in Haiti’s Fight for Independence

Have you ever heard of the Polish community who live in Haiti to this day? 

They are the descendants of Polish soldiers whom, when faced with a choice between preserving the status quo or fighting for freedom, chose freedom – irrespective of origin, race or colour.

Enslavement had been abolished by the French Republic in 1794. However, after the overthrow of the Jacobins in France, both le Directoire (the governing five-member committee in the French First Republic), and later, Napoleon, courted the former plantation owners of the colony. They flirted with the idea of a “return to order” which, for the ex-enslaved, meant a return to the “aristocracy of the skin”. 

Upon hearing of the possible reimposition of enslavement, the formerly enslaved who had surrendered took up arms again. This time, they were not only fighting against enslavement, but also the French empire. 

In an attempt to defeat them, Napoleon dispatched 5,000 Polish troops, who were allies of France. Upon arrival many Poles died under the blades and musket balls of the ex-enslaved, and yet more died from yellow fever. But a significant portion of the Polish force did the unthinkable – they betrayed France and joined the ranks of the revolutionaries.

Why would they do this? Many of the Poles came from serf families in Tsarist Russia, where conditions were similar to those of chattel slavery, and found themselves empathising with the plight of the enslaved people. Four hundred Polish soldiers survived this war and, upon victory over France, were granted honorary 'Blackness' and citizenship in the New Haitian Republic. 

They formed a distinctive community, known as the “Negroes of Europe”, in the newly independent Haiti which exists to this day. Some aspects of Polish culture melded with Haitian culture.



Fiona Compton - Know Your Caribbean

Fiona Compton - Know Your Caribbean

Rebellions & Uprisings

Sam Sharpe and The Christmas Day Rebellion

If we consider greed to be the fundamental driving force behind the trade in enslaved Africans, it is understandable why Sam Sharpe came to be so hated among the plantation owners of Jamaica.  

Literate and skilled at using his Baptist sermons to educate others, Sharpe was just the type of person plantation owners detested. The supposedly free labour of enslaved people scattered across the Americas produced incredible wealth for Europeans. Jamaican, Sharpe, by leading the largest rebellion in history, cost the island an incredible $70 million in damages during an incredible and sustained attack on enslavement.

Although Britain passed the law that ended the trade in enslaved Africans in 1807, it is important to remember this did not bring the institution of enslavement to an end across the territories the British ruled. 

Twenty-four years after the British had apparently brought this cruel system of exploitation to an end, Sam Sharpe rallied 60,000 enslaved people to demand their freedom and better treatment on Christmas Day 1831. Sharpe had insisted that any protests were peaceful; it was only acceptable to defend oneself from violent others, but violence inevitably ensued. Tensions rose and 14 white people were killed.

The British ironically sought the help of the Maroons; communities of formerly enslaved people who had freed themselves and established free areas in Jamaica. 

More than 200 freedom fighters were killed during the pitched battles but the British managed to regain control. Subsequent trials found anyone with even fleeting involvement guilty and they were then sentenced to death: some 310 people were executed. 

Before his own execution, Sharpe said: ‘I would rather die upon yonders gallows than live my life in slavery.’

The Christmas Day rebellion trials ended in 1832, and the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in Britain in 1833, proving Sharpe had been fundamentally successful in driving home the message that the institution of enslavement was no longer sustainable. 

Sharpe’s likeness is on the Jamaican $50 bill, a reminder the system of enslavement was solely concerned with wealth and not the treatment of the victims of the trade.


Rebellions & Uprisings

St Lucia Uprising

The island of St Lucia changed hands many times between the French and the British over the course of the 18th century, before the British finally took possession of the island in 1778 during the American Revolutionary War.

Hearing stories about the French Revolution from across the ocean, in 1791, the leaders of the enslaved community from the estates in Soufriere gathered before a planter’s house to request that they be freed from British enslavers.

This was reported to the Captain in the town. The leaders were then captured, tried and executed, their severed heads placed on spikes around the parish as an example to others who dreamed of freedom. Enslaved people across the island were enraged and began plotting their revenge. 

In 1793, one enslaved “mullato” (mixed race) woman, Flore Bois Gaillard, had had enough of the harsh treatment and several rape incidents of her owner Master Bellac and decided to escape. She escape to the woods where she met several Maroons (self-liberated formerly enslaved people) and where she quickly rose to leadership of rebel group French Army of the Woods.

In 1795, Flore Bois was among the troops to rise up in rebellion with the support of arms and troops from Victor Hugues, the Revolutionary Commissioner from Paris. Following a bloody series of battles, the British were defeated and fled from the island, along with many of the planters.

A year of freedom from enslavement followed on St Lucia. However, a year later, the British attacked again leading to one of the greatest battles between Africans and Europeans. Flore Bois once again was leading the charge with the freedom fighters.

In 1803, the British finally regained control of the island and restored enslavement. Rebels escaped to the rainforests where they set up maroon communities and, knowing the land much better than the British, managed to evade capture.



Rebellions & Uprisings

Louis Delgrès: Resisting French Re-Occupation of Guadeloupe

The theme of rebellion has clearly illustrated how European countries dealt with the African leaders of uprisings in the colonies. 

Louis Delgrès was a mixed race (then termed “mulatto”) leader of a rebellion on the French-ruled island of Guadeloupe. He resisted the French re-occupation of the island in 1802, as he knew that it would mean enslavement - and all its horrors - would return in force.

Delgrès was born free on the island of Martinique. An experienced military officer who had a long background fighting Great Britain in the many wars that country had with Revolutionary France, Delgrès had been held prisoner at Porchester Castle in Hampshire, South East England. 

Delgrès eventually took over the resistance movement on Guadeloupe when it was clear the previous leader was loyal to Napoleon. Delgrès believed that the "tyrant" Napoleon had betrayed both the ideals of the Republic and the interests of France's Black citizens, and intended to fight to the death. It was a major point of contention that although the French Revolution of 1789 was a working class push for equality in society, it apparently did not include the equality of the enslaved Africans working in French-ruled territories.

The French army drove Delgrès into Fort Saint Charles, which was held by the enslaved. After realising that they could not overcome the French forces and refusing to surrender, Delgrès left with 400 men and some women. 

At the Battle of Matouba on May 28, 1802, Delgrès and his followers were surrounded by the pro-slavery French. Rather than submit to capture, torture and possibly a return to enslavement, Delgrès’ soldiers ignited their gunpowder stores, committing suicide and hoping to kill French troops as well. Collectively, these 400 men, women and children chose death over a return to enslavement.

In April 1998, Delgrès was officially admitted to the French Panthéon, a mausoleum for the remains of French citizens who had distinguished themselves in some way. Delgrès' memorial is opposite that of Toussaint L'Ouverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution.


Fiona Compton - Know Your Caribbean 

Fiona Compton - Know Your Caribbean 

Rebellions & Uprisings

The Origins of Tire Machèt

Tire Machèt is a Haitian martial art, a form of fencing with machetes, whose origins lie in the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804.

Literally meaning “pulling machetes”, Tire Machèt is thought to have come about when the enslaved people of the island - then called Saint-Domingue - rose up to fight against their enslavers in the only successful uprising of the colonial era.

It’s thought to be a combination of African combat systems with European fencing. Free people of colour had sought social advancement through the French military where they learned the art of fencing.

When fighting broke out in 1791, the enslaved had only the machetes they had used to cut sugarcane and, as the conflict went on, they were not able to provide guns for all soldiers. And so, during the revolt the hybrid fighting style with machetes emerged.

On the website for the Haitian Machete Fencing Project, it explains how Tire Machèt is somewhat of a protected art:

‘In general, Tire Machèt is practised in relative secrecy. Family traditions are a closely guarded possession to be passed down through the generations, and only trusted members of the community are permitted to participate in (or even observe) training sessions. Students from farther afield must demonstrate great loyalty to their fencing "professor" in order to gain admittance.’

Tire Machèt is still practised in Haiti today. One master of the discipline is Alfred Avril who trained since he was a child, originally under his father. He continued the tradition and became a professor of the martial art in his own right.

After gaining the trust of Avril, a team of filmmakers were allowed to make a short documentary film about Tire Machet and the Professor himself. It was called Papa Machete.

Professor Avril passed away on December 1, 2014, and the mantle was taken up by his sons who now run the Haitian Fencing Project, preserving the art of the fighting style and offering training to “serious-minded foreigners” in Haiti.



Rebellions & Uprisings

Mutiny of the 8th West India Regiment

Not all those who arrived from Africa were enslaved. Black men were often bought directly from ships with promises of a better life than on a plantation. Many of these men made up regiments in British Colonies. They were tasked with defending Britain's colonial rule. Black soldiers were also responsible for punishing enslaved people, who attempted rebellion, alongside their British counterparts. This forced allegiance ignited a number of rebellions amongst the officers themselves.

The map shows the plan of Prince Rupert’s Head, a military fort on the island of Dominica. Here, one of the biggest uprisings in the British Army, known as the Mutiny of the 8th West India Regiment, took place. Prince Rupert’s Head was separated from the mainland of the island by a swamp. The location attracted many mosquitoes. Consequently, tropical diseases spread among the European officers. By the date of the mutiny Friday, April 9th, 1802, the 8th regiment was mostly run by Black soldiers: 14 European officers, 21 Black sergeants and 475 Black privates.

Five of the 14 European officers were killed in the mutiny. Arriving with a large number of European troops, the governor of Dominica, Alexander Johnstone, negotiated a civil discussion with the mutineers. The following day, April 12th, Johnstone’s troops entered Prince Rupert's Head. Although the mutineers agreed to lay down their weapons, one shot rang out, inciting a face-off, resulting in the capture and or murder of all the Black soldiers. The mutiny was one of many rebellions, which contributed to widespread fears of arming Black men.


Rebellions & Uprisings

The "Dangers" of Drums

‘It is absolutely necessary to the safety of this Province, that all due care be taken to restrain Negroes from using or keeping of drums, which may … give notice to one another of their wicked designs and purposes.’

— Slave Code of South Carolina, Article 36, 1740.

In 1688, the governor of Jamaica had a doctor, Hans Sloane, who observed that enslaved people on the island were sometimes ‘allowed the use of Trumpets after their Fashion, and Drums ... But making use of these in their Wars at home in Africa, it was thought too much inciting them to Rebellion, and so they were prohibited by the Customs of the Island.’

Barbados followed this lead and in 1699, banned drums, horns or “any other loud instruments”. Masters were to conduct weekly searches of slave quarters and, if any of the named instruments were found, these were to be burned.

In 1711, and again in 1722, St. Kitts passed laws which banned the enslaved ‘from communicating at a distance by beating drums or blowing horns.' In 1717, Jamaica codified its earlier policy forbidding ‘the gathering of enslaved by the beating of drums and blowing of horns.' An enslaver would be fined more than $1,000 (in today’s money) if they were caught allowing an enslaved person to beat a drum or similar object, blow a conch shell, or gather together. 

It was obvious the way in which people of African origin could communicate over a distance to organise rebellions against their mistreatment was something the enslavers feared. This fear can be traced across the islands by the way many introduced their own laws to combat drums, trumpets and other means of secret communication. 


Fiona Compton - Know Your Caribbean 

Fiona Compton - Know Your Caribbean 

Rebellions & Uprisings

The Queens of Fireburn

Working conditions were awful in St. Croix, even 30 years after slavery was abolished in 1848. The largest of the Virgin islands, during the periods of enslavement, Danish law (St. Croix was Danish at this time) forced enslavers to pay for doctor visits and care for the old and disabled. After abolition, wages were so low families struggled to get by, and most were unable to pay for much-needed medical attention.

Hearing rumours of a Black man being beaten to death by the police, along with the already existing unrest due to the working conditions, a riot broke out. Labourers stormed the fort to demand better treatment and the impassioned labourers were fired upon by the police. The protestors then stormed the hospital and demanded to see their friend - who was not actually dead but ‘dead drunk’ (although badly beaten). But it was too late - the damage had been done and the Fire Burn commenced.

Protestors took to the streets, and set fire to any and everything, not really looking for riches, but burning everything in defiance of their mistreatment. Chanting and singing, beating sticks and blowing conch shells, reports later claimed women were behaving ‘more like fiends’ than the men.

This included four women - dubbed the Queens of The Fireburn. They were the forerunners in the burning of 50 plantations, and most of the town of Frederiksted, totalling almost two-thirds of the island. The main rebel queen, Queen Mary, was reported to have threatened to behead any man who fought back against the resistance.

Eventually, the rebellion was quelled, 12 men were executed and many others were killed during the fighting. And what of the Queens? Well, Mary, Agnes and Mathilda have had a fourth Queen added to their ranks after historian Wayne James discovered the participation of a woman named Susanna (known as ‘Bottom Belly’.) All four were sent to prison in Denmark. Later, they were returned to St. Croix to live out the rest of their life sentences.


Fiona Compton - Know Your Caribbean

Fiona Compton - Know Your Caribbean

Freed in Name Only


Juneteenth, the day commemorating the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States, is the country’s newest federal holiday – but it was actually first celebrated more than 150 years ago.

Slavery in the USA did not end overnight. Although President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on 1963, officially freeing enslaved people across the Confederate states, the American Civil War was still being fought. Enslavers in states including Texas were responsible for informing the people they kept in slavery, but many refused.

On June 19th 1865, following the Confederates’ surrender, Union soldiers reached Galveston, Texas, and enforced the freedom of enslaved people. Although this was not the end of slavery across the US – it would not be until December 1865 that chattel slavery was abolished in the Union border states of Delaware and Kentucky – the date began to be commemorated as early as 1866, with celebrations of “Jubilee Day” in Texas. By the 1890s, the Black community had taken to using the name Juneteenth – a shortening of June Nineteenth.

While celebration of the holiday declined in the first half of the 20th century, Juneteenth saw a revival in the 1960s, as the Civil Rights Movement connected its activism with the struggle for freedom from slavery. It spread beyond Texas, and by the 1980s it was being recognised by Black communities across the US. Festivities can include block parties, barbecues, prayer moments and speeches.

Juneteenth became a state holiday in Texas in 1980, and moves to recognise it as a federal holiday began in earnest in the mid-1990s. In 2021, Congress declared Juneteenth a federal holiday, granting workers an annual day off across the nation. It became the first new federal holiday since 1986. That day, too, was born of campaigning from Black communities: it was Martin Luther King Day.


Freed in Name Only

Incomplete Freedom: Emancipation Leads to Apprenticeship

A controversial solution to the economic insecurity that people feared would accompany the abolition of slavery was apprenticeship. This was another period of forced servitude before enslaved people achieved complete freedom. The main differences between enslavement and apprenticeships were a reduction in working hours and that the formerly enslaved workers would be financially compensated. Here, we reflect on why the apprenticeship model divided opinion.

Even those who supported emancipation within the British government and beyond felt that apprenticeship may be beneficial to the formerly enslaved. They felt it offered a framework for social and economic improvement for formerly enslaved people.

Those who were enslavers or in the trade of enslaved people saw apprenticeships as part of the compensation for the loss of a free workforce. They saw it as another opportunity for cheap labour before fully-free populations might finally demand full pay and better living conditions. 

In an attempt to appease these two conflicting opinions, the Abolition Act failed to give clear or direct guidance on what apprenticeships should look like. As such, conditions were far from perfect and the formerly enslaved suffered.

Magistrate roles were created in the colonies to control the formerly enslaved population and curb abuse by plantation owners. But magistrates could also extend the servitude of newly freed people they judged to be lazy, either by imprisonment or workhouse arrangements. 

Even when they were free and engaged in apprenticeships the formerly enslaved received very little pay. On the other hand, families that “owned” enslaved people were collectively compensated with £20 million pounds. This helped establish an unfair, oppressive system that has depressed the financial security of the descendants of enslaved people for generations. 


Freed in Name Only

Land Grants and Apprenticeships Post-Emancipation

The 1800s saw the gradual evolution of emancipation sweep across the islands of the Caribbean. Britain was one of the catalysts in this process by first abolishing the slave trade in 1808.

For many of the enslaved persons, apprenticeship was the stepping stone between slavery and freedom. The idea was to improve working conditions for former enslaved persons and grant them wages.

Property acquisition during slavery turned out to be important in determining who remained owners of the plantation post-emancipation. Former enslaved persons would work in a section of the plantation property in order to pay rent and afford living expenses. The majority would sell or turn over a significant portion of their crop to their enslavers to pay their rent and other bills. Enslaved persons wanted to have the lands transferred to them but that never happened. 

Following emancipation, enslavers were compensated for their losses in human "property", whilst the actual enslaved Africans officially received nothing and were freed in name only.


Freed in Name Only

Limiting Futures Of The Formerly Enslaved and People of Colour

In the 18th century, many were uncomfortable with the idea of enslaved or manumitted (formerly enslaved) people gaining any sort of financial independence. This resulted in several acts of legislature, ranging from banning them from learning how to write, having managerial positions, owning land, inheriting from their white fathers or partners, or owning property.

For example, in Jamaica from 1711, it was illegal to employ a Black or mixed race person in public office, nor were they allowed to testify in court against whites. The Deficiency Act of 1715 removed free Black and mixed race people from holding supervisory positions on estates or plantations, and those who owned enslaved people had to wear a blue cross on their shoulder to identify their class.

In accordance with the Negro Law of South Carolina in 1740, the enslaved were not allowed to learn how to write. Anyone assisting their ability to become fully literate would be charged a £100 penalty. Even white slave owners weren’t allowed to willingly spread their wealth. A 1761 act limited the bequest of property or wealth to anyone Black or mixed race (be it their children or not) over the value of £1200.

There was an idea that the enslaved and manumitted were incapable of managing their own financial and professional freedoms. In 1815, Matthew Smith, a slave owner in Jamaica said: 

'Some of the free people of colour possess slaves, cattle, and other property left them by their fathers, and are in good circumstances; but few of them are industrious enough to increase their possessions by any honest exertions of their own.

'As to the free blacks, they are almost uniformly lazy and improvident, most of them half-starved, and only anxious to live from hand to mouth. Some lounge about the highways with pedlar-boxes, stocked with various worthless baubles; others keep miserable stalls provided with rancid butter, damaged salt-pork, and other such articles: and these they are always willing to exchange for stolen rum and sugar, which they secretly tempt the negroes to pilfer from their proprietors; but few of them ever make the exertion of earning their livelihood creditably.

‘Even those who profess to be tailors, carpenters, or coopers, are for the most part careless, drunken, and dissipated, and never take pains sufficient to attain any dexterity in their trade.’


Freed in Name Only

The Real Price of Freedom

After they had been kidnapped, trafficked across the Atlantic Ocean, abused, tortured and enslaved - if Africans dared to survive in the British Empire, they then had to pay to be free.

It was incredibly expensive for a formerly enslaved person to purchase their own freedom. There was no option for a payment plan. Many resentful plantation owners were unwilling to relinquish control and fearing a loss of income, raised the going rate for an enslaved person. This made it almost impossible for the enslaved to afford their freedom or the freedom of their loved ones.

Added to the 40-50 hour working week, the enslaved would earn money through extra field work, by selling food grown in their rare free time – or by offering trade services – as seamstresses, carpenters, or masons.

With prices as high as £175 for men (£23,260 today) and £120 for women (£15,950.34 today), only 20 enslaved people between 1834 and 1837 were able to pay for their freedom. Consider though, how incredible a feat this was for them to accomplish. 

Payments had to be made immediately, and should the appraised rate be higher than expected, the enslaved were allowed seven days to find the remaining balance. This made it virtually impossible for thousands of the hopeful to buy their freedom.

It is estimated that apprentices were charged a third more than the going rate for their freedom. At this time, an apprentice was a person working under a legal agreement while being trained in a trade. In Barbados, out of the 66,000 apprentices, only 749 were able to pay for their freedom – this is 0.88% of the entire population of the enslaved on the island at that time.


Freed in Name Only

The Sharecropping System

Despite the abolition of slavery in the US after the end of the American Civil War, formerly enslaved people found themselves in a difficult economic situation. Lacking the capital to buy their own land and without help from the federal government, many were left with needing to work for white farmer

Rather than accepting a wage from white landowners – often former enslavers who wanted to continue similar working practices – to farm their land, many formerly enslaved people worked on a “sharecropping” basis. Under this system Black farmers would rent and farm a “share” of the land and sell the crops, with the proviso that a certain portion of the crop was given each year to the landowner.

Although sharecropping allowed Black families a degree autonomy over their work and lives, as well as being an improvement on the gang labour they experienced while enslaved, the terms of the arrangements were often heavily favourable their landlords. Families found themselves working endlessly to pay off debts, and the prospect of owning their own land was remote.

While not all sharecroppers were Black – many poor white farmers were sharecroppers, too – sharecropping is seen to have had a detrimental impact on formerly enslaved people’s progress towards economic equality. Black farmers were far less likely than their white counterparts to be landowners, and the fruits of their labour were reaped by white landlords. 

With a changing economy and the migration of Black workers from the southern states to the north, sharecropping reduced in the 20th century and ceased to exist in the States in the 1940s. However, to this day it stands as an example of the repression and obstacles faced by Black people in the decades after emancipation.


Freed in Name Only

The 1619 Project

For better or for worse, you know a journalistic project has broken through if it becomes a culture war talking point, provokes an enormous backlash and prompts comment from candidates in a US presidential election. For New York Times reporter, Nikole Hannah-Jones, that’s exactly what happened.

Launched in August 2019, The 1619 Project seeks to recontextualise US history by considering the arrival of the first enslaved African people in the American colonies – in 1619 – as the jumping off point for the formation of the nation. While the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 is traditionally seen as the founding of the USA, Hannah-Jones argues that all US history since 1619 has been touched and shaped by the reality and legacy of slavery.

Beginning as a special issue of The New York Times Magazinethe project developed into a long-term endeavour, with materials appearing in additional magazine issues and other Times publications, including a podcast series entitled simply 1619

Although Hannah-Jones was later awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her work on the project, it was not before it became the subject of significant controversy. A number of historians wrote to the Times claiming that the project centres ideology over historical fact; these claims were rebutted by the magazine’s editor.

Discussion of the project also entered the political sphere, after Vice-President-to-be Kamala Harris tweeted praise for The 1619 Project. Conservative figures including then-president Donald Trump began to present it as historical propaganda and railed against the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools. Trump set up The 1776 Commission in response to encourage a “patriotic education” in schools.

Regardless of the backlash, the project continues to provoke conversation and provide materials for schools. For Black campaigners and educators, The 1619 Project remains a key touchstone in historical education.


Freed in Name Only

Vagrancy Laws Post-Emancipation

Although vagrancy laws in various forms date back to 14th-century England and do not inherently target any particular race, they stand as an example of the ways authorities sought to maintain white supremacy in the post-Emancipation southern US states.

After the American Civil War ended in 1865, many formerly enslaved people found themselves wandering long distances in search of work or dispersed relatives. Others simply sought to reduce the amount of time they spent working.

This presented two challenges for Southern white landowners and lawmakers. Firstly, without stolen labour, landowners faced a work shortage. Secondly, white communities saw wandering Black people as a nuisance or a threat.

Vagrancy laws addressed both of these “problems”. In the post-war years, Southern states introduced so-called Black Codes, sets of laws designed to control the activity of formerly enslaved people. As part of the controls available to authorities, vagrancy laws were updated or introduced. While these took different forms in different states, the general idea was mostly the same: Black people who were not in employment contracts were considered vagrants, and could forcibly be hired out to private employers or for public works.

The Black Codes outraged Northern states and were not enforced during Reconstruction, the 10-year period from 1867 when Southern states were under military rule from the north. Afterwards, though, Southern states introduced new, even more severe vagrancy laws. The continued forced labour of Black people was described by Douglas Blackmon in a 2008 book as ‘slavery by another name’. 

Vagrancy laws in the US persisted well into the 20th century, until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s challenged their fairness. In 1972, a Supreme Court decision ended them for good. However, local authorities to this day seek to punish vagrancy under other names.