118: African Americans in mid-Victorian Britain

In the 1840s and 1850s, as slavery continued in the United States, a considerable amount of information reached the British through the spoken and written testimonies of African Americans in Britain. A new genre of writing – the slavery narrative – was developed, and those publications were sold at public meetings. The income supported the authors, aided projects such as settlements in Canada and Africa, and helped pay owners of escaped slaves, setting them free legally.

Tracking African American ex-slaves in contemporary British newspapers confirmed that several high class individuals (including the Duchess of Sutherland, Earl Shaftesbury, Member of Parliament George Thompson and Lord Brougham) were regular associates and supporters. Locations, often nonconformist chapels and halls, were in quite obscure places, requiring a good atlas to find those venues. That raised questions of how did the ex-slaves get around Britain where the railway network was new and far from complete, and where did they stay. Who attended the gatherings and purchased the narratives, what did these people think of the dark-skinned people in their midst, and whose donations provided the funds to purchase freedom?

Slavery narratives have been copied on American websites, testimony to one major aspect of African American life. Some have been reprinted, the larger volumes having editorials and scholarly comments. Some narratives list people and places met around Britain. Seeking understanding of the impact of the individuals the narrative is less important than the evidence of where public meetings had been held, for that suggests local historians may find contemporary documentation and opinions missing from the narratives.

Take Moses Roper. Born into slavery in North Carolina around 1815 he had a white father. He escaped and made his way to Liverpool in late November 1835. He reached London where sympathetic Christians arranged a basic education in a boarding school in Hackney, followed by a period in Wallingford in Oxfordshire. He started at University College London but ill-health prevented further formal education. These sparse details are in the 68 page 1848 edition of his narrative. He lectured around Britain, and had his Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper from American Slavery published in 1837. In December 1839 he married Ann Stephen Rice in Bristol. They went to Ontario (then called Canada West) in 1844 and he remained there for two years, returning to Britain where he wrote an appendix to his book in 1846. It was published in 1848 in Berwick on Tweed having gone into five editions by 1843, and had been published in Welsh in 1841. Narrative had helped finance his education (Dumfries Chronicle quoted by the Aberdeen Journal, 8 July 1846).

The 1848 edition indicates sales had reached 36,000. It sold for two shillings (£-.10p). Several pages list locations (almost all Nonconformist) in Wales, Scotland and England where he spoke, and they include Oswaldtwistle (Lancashire), Leominster (Herts), Yeovil (Somerset), Axminster, Dorking and Towcester. Roper had told his tale widely between 1835 and 1844, in 1846 and in the 1850s. After twelve years the public appearances of this ‘nearly white’ escaped slave still drew crowds. For sight of the 1848 edition see docsouth.uncedu/neh/roper/roper.htm.

Black people did not have to be escaped slaves to benefit from mid-Victorian charity, as an Antigua-born blacksmith remarked in Chester in 1854, ‘All a coloured man needed to do to make a living in Britain was to attend religious meetings and speak out against slavery and the United States’. (Howard Temperley, British Antislavery 1833-1870 London: Longman, 1972, p 224) That some claiming to be escaped slaves were liars was noted by British abolitionists. (Temperley, British Antislavery, p 224 quotes from the Anti-Slavery Advocate, May 1854 regarding a West Indian jailed for three months for being an impostor and that the Advocate warned of such tricks in August 1853.)

In October 1851 James Watkins gave two lectures in Wigan, both ‘numerously attended’ (Preston Guardian, 25 October 1851). In April 1852 in Lancaster Watkins ‘a fugitive slave’ spoke at two meetings, telling of the horrors of slavery. A collection was made to help redeem his parents from slavery. The second lecture was extremely well attended (Lancaster Gazette, 1 May 1852). Watkins had escaped from Maryland and became well known in Britain’s provinces through the 1850s (Richard Blackett, Building an Antislavery Wall, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State UP, 1983, p 216).

The 48 page Narrative of the Life of James Watkins was published in 1852 (a third edition was printed in Birmingham in 1853). He spoke in Sheffield in March 1854 telling audiences he had purchased the liberty of three siblings, and his wife and three children on their way to Britain were delayed because an American ship refused his wife as she ‘was tinged with African blood’ (Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, Sheffield, 1 April 1854, p 2). Her surname was Wells, and no forename seems to have been noted. The nineteenth edition of his memoirs notes British support had enabled him to purchase the liberty of a brother and two sisters. His children (again, no names) attended the grammar school in Birmingham where he lived for several years. The Birmingham newspaper Aris’s Gazette published his letter dated 18 May 1854, which also advised ‘I intend to commence some little business in this town’. His wife was with him in Barnsley in June 1854.

They lived in Birmingham for six years then his free-born wife returned to America as she was unwell, and he moved to Liverpool then Manchester. In 1856 he was at the Wesleyan chapel in Stoney Middleton (north of Bakewell, Derbyshire) addressing two hundred people. The 1860 edition of his now 104 page autobiography Struggles for Freedom says this was at the invitation of Lord Denman (son of a Lord Chief Justice of England). He spoke at the Corn Exchange in Belfast in mid-November 1856 to a crowded audience and received ‘loud and continual applause’, ending the meeting by singing a hymn. On 12 May 1859 at the Methodist chapel in Pepper Street, Chester, Watkins, now in his tenth year touring the British Isles, addressed one thousand people; the lecture to be repeated in another Chester hall the following week. His autobiography went into a nineteenth edition in Manchester in 1860. He was in Yorkshire in mid-1861 having been registered in Manchester in the census earlier that year. Page 56 of the 1860 edition stresses Watkins’s appreciation of ‘the thousands and tens of thousands of the poorer classes … who have received me with unexampled kindness’. Over a dozen pages list places where he had spoken, from Altrincham to Beeston, Bridlington to Crewe, Matlock, Nottingham, Pickering, Shrewsbury, Warrington, to Wigan.

He was in Baltimore, Maryland when the U.S. census was taken in 1880. A professional lecturer perhaps with a small business that paid enough for his children’s school fees, Watkins surely had a steady income from all those editions of his autobiography. He had been seen by many thousands of Britons, at public meetings and out and about in those towns.

When John Anderson (see this site’s page 107) reached London in 1861 he appeared at a meeting at the Portman Hall, London, on 19 June which raised funds for him, charging admission fees and selling his photograph for one shilling. The majority of the purchasers ‘were of the poorer class of the community’ (Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 23 June 1861). He greeted by a packed meeting at Exeter Hall, London at the beginning of July 1861, chaired by industrialist Harper Twelvetrees who edited his narrative in 1863.

Twelvetrees ignores the ‘poorer classes’ and their purchases, but does name several locations in London and south-east England where Anderson appeared in 1862. A search in contemporary newspapers shows Anderson spoke at the Welsh ferry port of Holyhead and thus may have visited Ireland, but this is not mentioned by Twelvetrees. Anderson, like so many African Americans, had been kept illiterate and British sympathizers arranged for him to attend the village school in Corby, Northamptonshire. He was sent to Liberia at the end of 1862: and disappears.

Library reference sources (notably COPAC) and careful attention to the publication dates of on-line editions of the narratives suggest that these booklets sold by the thousand. Who purchased them, how many were read, let alone what impact they had in Britain is unclear, and a similar vagueness appears when we try to asses who attended the public meetings where escaped slaves spoke. Watkins referred to the ‘tens of thousands of the poorer classes’ and Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper’s observation about the ‘poorer class’ shows that audiences were all manner of Britons.

Frederick Douglass, in a letter written in Liverpool and published in The Times on 6 April 1847 stated ‘I have travelled in this county 19 months, and have always enjoyed equal rights and privileges’. In June 1853 the fugitive William G. Allen (free-born but married to a white woman) informed America’s leading abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison that they had safely reached England, and noted ‘the entire absence of prejudice against color’ in Britain. He also commented that Samuel R. Ward ‘whom it is hardly possible to be blacker’ had faced ‘no barrier to the best society in the kingdom’ (Liberator, 22 July 1853).

The U.S.A. was a race-minded society whereas Britain was class-based. The identities and comments of those ‘poorer’ Britons seem to be an untouched aspect of mid-Victorian British history.

See also page 106 on this site.

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