107: John Anderson, “so famous a year or two ago” (1862)

When the nonconformist Christians of the village of Corby, Northamptonshire, opened the British School so the local children would no longer attend the Anglican (Church of England) school, they had no idea that it would have a pupil whose fame stretched to the U.S.A. and Canada. This was thirty-year-old John Anderson, who was both an escaped slave and – according to some – a murderer. Slavery in the U.S.A. not only removed all civil liberties from the slave, but the slaves were kept in ignorance through illiteracy and kept in place by patrols which checked on black people who were found by themselves or on the highway. Some freedom could be found in Northern states but the risk of recapture remained; so thousands of fugitive slaves made their way to Canada where slavery had no legal status and they were free. John Anderson – he was also named Jack Burton – started to make his escape to Canada in 1853. In Missouri he was stopped by Seneca Digges or Diggs and they struggled, and Digges died.

Anderson reached Canada and freedom, worked on the railway and in construction, and time passed. Then he was identified as the assailant of Digges and an American lawyer issued legal papers. The magistrate in Brantford, Ontario had Anderson put in prison. The matter became a cause celebre, for slavery was not recognised in Britain or Canada, and defending yourself against a move to put you into slavery surely could not be supported by law (outside the U.S.A.)? Stabbing Digges was not murder but manslaughter and that was not listed in the treaty that permitted accused to be sent to the U.S.A. Canadian leaders saw the challenge as an attack on their statehood.The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society of London took up the matter. Its secretary Louis Chamerovzow issued an affidavit (which falsely claimed Anderson was British and had committed no crime) and the Queen’s Bench, London moved to issue a writ of habeas corpus on the governor of Canada, the sheriff of Toronto and the keeper of the prison. It was stated that Anderson had not been charged or tried with any crime for an offence in Canada or in any other part of the Queen’s dominions. Indeed he was not guilty of any crime “cognizable by the law of England” (The Times, London 16 January 1861 p 10), another example of erroneous thinking. The writ was issued.

There were several lawyers involved, Anderson spent time in prison, but finally it was noticed that the warrant did not use the word “murder” and so he was released.

The Anti-Slavery Society advertised for donations from “friends of humanity” (The Times, 23 January 1861, p 5; and 25 January p 3). In Toronto the claim by U.S. officials that Anderson should be charged with the murder of Digges “in the State of Missouri, in the year 1853” were rejected as criminality was determined by the laws of Canada (The Times 27 February 1861, p 12). A British John Anderson Committee was formed, with London soap powder manufacturer Harper Twelvetrees (chair) and member of parliament the future Lord Kinnaird (treasurer) in July 1861.

It was agreed in February 1862 that no further writs of habeas corpus would be issued in England “into any colony where there is a lawfully established court of justice authorized to issue such writs” (The Times 25 February 1862, p 5). This is seen as an important event in the development of the British Empire dominions of white settlement.

Anderson made his way to Britain where he had supporters among abolitionists, earlier escaped slaves who had settled in Britain including William Craft – he was “surrounded by several other men of colour who had effected their escape from slavery” noted the Morning Chronicle on 3 July 1861 – temperance campaigners and others in many walks of life. His photograph was sold, and at a London meeting on 19 June 1861 the majority of the purchasers “were of the poorer classes of the community” (Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 23 June 1861). Anderson was sent to Corby’s village school after weeks of touring – including chapels in Holyhead (North Wales Chronicle, 5 October 1861), a Band of Hope meeting in London (Leeds Mercury 12 October 1861) and another temperance meeting in east London (Essex Standard 13 December 1861). He also appeared in Brighton, Worthing, Hastings, Deal, Dover, St Albans, Luton, Margate, Ramsgate, and Hemel Hempstead as well as other London venues.

Several British newspapers reported in June and July 1862 that he was at school in Corby (Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle, Manchester, Blackburn, a Welsh-language paper in Denbigh and so on). There the 30 year old, once accused of murder, was studying with village children. The story of his life (by Harper Twelvetrees) was published in 1863, a common occurance in England and one which both encouraged British abolitionists and which supplied some income for the ex-slave. He names Craft, “Benjamin Jackson (a coloured gentleman)” and teacher William G. Allen an African American who found sanctuary in Dublin then London after he married a white pupil, and noted the Liberian minister in London had encouraged Anderson to settle in Liberia. The book also states that John Pool at Corby’s school had taught him, as had Revd J. G. Hewlett who had taken care of Anderson from October 1861. Noting that life in London was too hectic for Anderson the move to the Northamptonshire village was arranged in December 1861, and there he became literate and numerant. There is no mention of Dublin or Holyhead.

A celebration meal in London on 22 December was followed by Anderson, accompanied by John Pool, leaving for Liverpool. Anderson sailed for Liberia, West Africa on 24 December 1862. The steamship was the Armenian often stated as Armenia. His departure was widely reported in the British press: “John Anderson, the fugitive slave, who was so famous a year or two ago, left Liverpool for Liberia on Wednesday” noted the Dundee Courier and Argus of Wednesday 31 December 1862. Colchester’s Essex Standard of that date said “This man of colour, whose case excited so much interest in England and America a year or so ago, is about to settle in Liberia”. A similar summary appeared in Berrow’s Worcester Journal (3 January 1863, p 6) – his “case excited so much interest some time since, is about to leave England for Liberia, where he intends to settle”, the Leeds Mercury (29 December) called him “this celebrated fugitive slave”, and the Bristol Mercury (3 January 1863) noted his departure from Liverpool.

The Armenian sailed via Madeira to the coast of West Africa, and we can presume that Anderson reached sanctuary in Liberia. Nothing more has been uncovered on Anderson but the several risks he took in his life are reflected in that the Armenian was lost at sea in 1865. Canadian historians and reference books have details. Telvetrees’s book has been republished. Corby became a steel-making town and its nineteenth century school and Anderson’s youthful companions are of a different era.

INFORMATION ON ANDERSON, IN ENGLAND AND LIBERIA, WOULD BE APPRECIATED – LEAVE ANY RESPONSE IN THE BOX AT THE FOOT OF THE PAGE. The National Archives in Kew has Foreign Office file FO881/1083 from 1860, which may contain interesting information.

For the Canadian aspects see Patrick Brode, The Odyssey of John Anderson (Toronto: Osgoode Society, 1989).

See also page 118 on this site.

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