Advocates of Freedom: African American Activism in the British Isles

By Dr. Hannah-Rose Murray

In 1838, formerly enslaved African American Moses Roper declared that “you have heard the slaveholder’s side of the story, now it is time for the slaves to speak.” Roper and numerous other Black activists emphasized an international philosophy of Black rights from their unique position on British soil, the basis of which rested on their literary, visual and oratorical testimony. As we watch the #BlackLivesMatter protests unfold across the world, Roper’s bold stance reminds us that survivors of slavery were protesting and campaigning for equality, declaring in multiple ways that their Black Lives Mattered centuries before.

My research recovers and amplifies African American testimony from the British Isles during the nineteenth century, with a particular focus on those who had been enslaved in the southern states of the U.S. My forthcoming book, Advocates of Freedom: African American Transatlantic Abolitionism in the British Isles (Cambridge University Press, 2020) tells the story of extraordinary individuals who journeyed across the Atlantic to lecture in England, Ireland, Scotland and even parts of rural Wales to educate the British public on slavery. Many individuals sought temporary reprieve from American soil, others permanent; some raised money to free themselves or enslaved family members, and others sought work with varying degrees of success. Between the 1830s and early 1900s, Black women and men lectured in large cities and tiny fishing villages, wrote and published narratives, stayed with influential reformers, and appealed to different classes, races, and genders, with no discrimination against profession, religion, or age. Whatever their reasons for visiting, Black abolitionists exhibited whips and chains, sometimes together with their scars; read runaway slave advertisements from southern newspapers; created visual panoramas and used fiery rhetoric to tell their stories.

During this period, millions of British and Irish people witnessed formerly enslaved people lecture. They vociferously read about their lives through slave narratives or pamphlets, watched antislavery panoramas unfold, purchased daguerreotypes and raised money to free enslaved individuals and their families. Activists inspired poetry, songs, woodcuts, pamphlets, children’s literature, wax models, religious remonstrances, along with hundreds of editorials and letters to the press. It is therefore unsurprising that British newspaper editors littered their reportage with accounts of formerly enslaved individuals as well as their speeches, adverts for their narratives, and their letters to editors. From the John O’Groat Journal to the Royal Cornwall Gazette, Victorian Britons followed the movements of Black Americans from the 1830s until decades after the American Civil War, often cramming into tiny churches or town halls to curb an insatiable appetite for details about American slavery.

In their lectures, they talked about their escape, the brutality of slavery, the rape and brutalization of Black women, the separation of husband and wife, mother and child on the auction block, the hypocrisy of American independence, boycotting slave-produced goods, the history of the abolitionist movement, the racism they experienced both in the U.S. and in Britain and Ireland, and Black heroic figures like Madison Washington, Toussaint L’Overture and Margaret Garner. But primarily, they travelled here to share their testimony to British audiences and convince them that the beating heart of slavery rested on white supremacy; the rape of black women, and the brutalization of black bodies and souls.

Over the last eight years, I have tried to map some of their speaking locations on my website (www.frederickdouglassinbritain.com) and so far, the grand total is 4,600. It’s interesting to observe that African American lecturers went to rural Cornwall and as far as the Orkney Islands in the Scottish Highlands; more lectures were given outside London or southern England. Incredibly, the maps represent a mere fraction of the actual number of lectures given, but regardless, they are all stitched together in a complex patchwork of protest that reached nearly every corner of Britain.

Activists like Frederick Douglass (who led a very successful tour of Britain and Ireland 1845-1847) recognised that slavery had polluted the American landscape. In 1846, he declared to a Liverpool audience that slavery was “a cancer that was eating America’s vitals.” He personified slavery as a large monster or a disease that had woven itself into the fabric of American institutions and its people, quite literally choking the life from Black citizens. Five years later in Belfast, the Reverend Henry Highland Garnet described the U.S. nation as “staggering under the putrid corpse of American slavery.” From their own personal and traumatizing memories, Douglass and Garnet well understood that instead of exorcising or curing the disease of slavery, the U.S. had failed to live up to its own self-professed declarations of freedom, which is still unfortunately true for today.

It’s well documented that the #BlackLivesMatter movement has strong historical roots but the parallels with Ida B. Wells’ anti-lynching campaign are particularly pressing when we consider the modern lynchings of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and not to forget Black trans folx like Tony McDade and Iyanna Dior, to name a fraction of those murdered by U.S. police in the last eight years.

Britain has its own legacies to reckon with. The nation had clapped itself on the back for abolishing the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in the British Empire by the end of the 1830s, and celebrated white abolitionists like William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson for their activism while ignoring the heroic efforts of black abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano, Ignatious Sancho and Mary Prince. This is still the case today: the nations’ invisibilisation and abuse towards Black lives reveal a picture of systemic racism which has manifested itself in police brutality against individuals such as Mark Duggan, Leon Patterson, and Jimmy Mubenga. In the nineteenth century, Black activists were unafraid of pointing out British racism and its colonialist past, the nation’s role in the slave trade and establishing slavery in the Americas and the West Indies, and for the development of racist thought. As the Rev. Samuel Ward described it to a York audience in 1854, since the Tudor Times, British soil “was reddened with the blood of my race.” He also pointed to the lacklustre response of the British government who completely ignored the numerous cases of Black British sailors docking in American ports like Charleston, and were kidnapped and sold into slavery.

As we wrestle with the legacies of slavery, it is worth remembering that African Americans took radical steps to expose slavery to international audiences in the nineteenth century, and the digital maps I have created represent a partial and as yet incomplete visual illustration of how activists forged networks, exploited railway connections and lectured in numerous hamlets, villages, towns and cities. They show that on a daily basis, Britons walk past sites with a rich history of Black activism. In lieu of heritage plaques and statues, the maps are visual monuments to African American activism and their consistent challenges against white supremacy. Regardless of the networks they were able to create or those that were bestowed upon them, they travelled widely and reached nearly every corner of the British Isles.


 

Dr. Hannah-Rose Murray is an Early Career Leverhulme Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. Read more about Hannah-Rose Murray’s research in this field here, or (if you’re in the UK) sign up to Hannah-Rose’s Virtual Black Abolitionist Walking Tours here. Advocates of Freedom: African American Transatlantic Abolitionism published by Cambridge University Press, will be released in September 2020.