The Great Anti-Slavery Demonstration of 1851 in London

William Wells Brown

The main text in this post is from ” Three Years in Europe: or Places I Have Seen And People I Have Met.” by William Wells Brown, published in London in 1852. It’s an astonishing piece of writing, and all the more extraordinary for the fact that William Wells Brown was born into slavery in Kentucky in 1814, escaping to Ohio aged 20. At the time of writing, he was still potentially at risk of being returned to slavery as a result of the Fugitive Slave Act  of 1850, which ”  required that all escaped slaves were, upon capture, to be returned to their masters and that officials and citizens of the free states had to cooperate in this law. ”  Officials who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave, and made them liable to a fine of $1,000. Brown’s freedom was finally secured when it was bought by an English lady in 1854. He was also an abolitionist lecturer, novelist, and historian, and the first published African-American playwright in 1858. Slavery in the United States was partially abolished by the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, for 3 million, out of 4 million slaves, and finally completely, by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865.

Fugitive Slaves in England.

The love of freedom is one of those natural impulses of the human breast which cannot be extinguished. Even the brute animals of the creation feel and show sorrow and affection when deprived of their liberty. Therefore is a distinguished writer justified in saying, “Man is free, even were he born in chains.” The Americans boast, and justly too, that Washington was the hero and model patriot of the American Revolution,–the man whose fame, unequalled in his own day and country, will descend to the end of time, the pride and honour of humanity. The American speaks with pride of the battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill; and, when standing in Faneuil Hall, he points to the portraits of Otis, Adams, Hancock, Quincy, Warren and Franklin, and tells you that their names will go down to posterity among the world’s most devoted and patriotic friends of human liberty.

It was on the first of August, 1851, that a number of men, fugitives from that boasted land of freedom, assembled at the Hall of Commerce in the city of London, for the purpose of laying their wrongs before the British nation, and, at the same time, to give thanks to the God of freedom for the liberation of their West India brethren on the first of August, 1834. Little notice had been given of the intended meeting, yet it seemed to be known in all parts of the city. At the hour of half-past seven, for which the meeting had been called, the spacious hall was well filled, and the fugitives, followed by some of the most noted English Abolitionists, entered the hall, amid the most deafening applause, and took their seats on the platform. The appearance of the great hall at this juncture was most splendid. Besides the committee of fugitives, on the platform there were a number of the oldest and most devoted of the slaves’ friends. On the left of the chair sat Geo. Thompson, Esq., M.P.; near him was the Rev. Jabez Burns, D.D., and by his side the Rev. John Stevenson, M.A., Wm. Farmer, Esq., R. Smith, Esq.; while on the other side were Joseph Hume, Esq., M.P., John Lee, LL.D., Sir J. Walmsley, M.P., the Rev. Edward Matthews, John Cunliff, Esq., Andrew Paton, Esq., J. P. Edwards, Esq., and a number of colored gentlemen from the West Indies. The body of the hall was not without its distinguished guests. The Chapmans and Westons of Boston, U. S., were there. The Estlins and Tribes had come all the way from Bristol to attend the great meeting. The Patons, of Glasgow, had delayed their departure, so as to be present. The Massies had come in from Upper Clapton. Not far from the platform sat Sir Francis Knowles, Bart.: still further back was Samuel Bowly, Esq., while near the door were to be seen the greatest critic of the age, and England’s best living poet. Macaulay had laid aside the pen, entered the hall, and was standing near the central door, while not far from the historian stood the newly-appointed Poet Laureate. [Alfred Lord Tennyson] The author of “In Memoriam” had been swept in by the crowd, and was standing with his arms folded, and beholding for the first time (and probably the last) so large a number of colored men in one room. In different parts of the hall were men and women from nearly all parts of the kingdom, besides a large number who, drawn to London by the Exhibition, had come in to see and hear these oppressed people plead their own cause.

The writer of this sketch was chosen chairman of the meeting, and commenced its proceedings by delivering the following address, which we cut from the columns of the Morning Advertiser:

        “The chairman, in opening the proceedings, remarked that, although the metropolis had of late been inundated with meetings of various characters, having reference to almost every variety of subjects, yet that the subject they were called upon that evening to discuss differed from them all. Many of those by whom he was surrounded, like himself, had been victims to the inhuman institution of slavery, and were in consequence exiled from the land of their birth. They were fugitives from their native land, but not fugitives from justice; and they had not fled from a monarchical, but from a so-called republican government. They came from amongst a people who declared, as part of their creed, that all men were born free; but who, while they did so, made slaves of every sixth man, woman and child, in the country. (Hear, hear.) He must not, however, forget that one of the purposes for which they were met that night was to commemorate the emancipation of their brothers and sisters in the isles of the sea. That act of the British Parliament, and he might add in this case, with peculiar emphasis, of the British nation, passed on the twelfth day of August, 1833, to take effect on the first day of August, 1834, and which enfranchised eight hundred thousand West Indian slaves, was an event sublime in its nature, comprehensive and mighty in its immediate influences and remote consequences, precious beyond expression to the cause of freedom, and encouraging beyond the measure of any government on earth to the hearts of all enlightened and just men. This act was the result of a long course of philanthropic and Christian efforts on the part of some of the best men that the world ever produced. It was not his intention to go into a discussion or a calculation of the rise and fall of property, or whether sugar was worth more or less by the act of emancipation. But the abolition of slavery in the West Indies was a blow struck in the right direction, at that most inhuman of all traffics, the slave-trade–a trade which would never cease so long as slavery existed; for where there was a market there would be merchandise; where there was demand there would be a supply; where there were carcasses there would be vultures; and they might as well attempt to turn the water, and make it run up the Niagara river, as to change this law.

It was often said by the Americans that England was responsible for the existence of slavery there, because it was introduced into that country while the colonies were under the British crown. If that were the case, they must come to the conclusion that, as England abolished slavery in the West Indies, she would have done the same for the American States if she had had the power to do it; and if that was so, they might safely say that the separation of the United States from the mother country was (to say the least) a great misfortune to one sixth of the population of that land. England had set a noble example to America, and he would to heaven his countrymen would follow the example. The Americans boasted of their superior knowledge; but they needed not to boast of their superior guilt, for that was set upon a hill-top, and that, too, so high, that it required not the lantern of Diogenes to find it out. Every breeze from the western world brought upon its wings the groans and cries of the victims of this guilt. Nearly all countries had fixed the seal of disapprobation on slavery; and when, at some future age, this stain on the page of history shall be pointed at, posterity will blush at the discrepancy between American profession and American practice. What was to be thought of a people boasting of their liberty, their humanity, their Christianity, their love of justice, and at the same time keeping in slavery nearly four millions of God’s children, and shutting out from them the light of the Gospel, by denying the Bible to the slave! (Hear, hear.) No education, no marriage, everything done to keep the mind of the slave in darkness. There was a wish on the part of the people of the Northern States to shield themselves from the charge of slaveholding; but, as they shared in the guilt, he was not satisfied with letting them off without their share in the odium.

And now a word about the Fugitive Slave Bill. That measure was in every respect an unconstitutional measure. It set aside the right formerly enjoyed by the a fugitive of trial by jury; it afforded to him no protection, no opportunity of proving his right to be free; and it placed every free coloured person at the mercy of any unprincipled individual who might wish to lay claim to him. (Hear.) That law is opposed to the principles of Christianity–foreign alike to the laws of God and man. It had converted the whole population of the Free States into a band of slave-catchers, and every rood of territory is but so much hunting-ground, over which they might chase the fugitive. But while they were speaking of slavery in the United States, they must not omit to mention that there was a strong feeling in that land, not only against the Fugitive Slave Law, but also against the existence of slavery in any form. There was a band of fearless men and women in the United States, whose labours for the slave had resulted in good beyond calculation. This noble and heroic class had created an agitation in the whole country, until their principles have taken root in almost every association in the land, and which, with God’s blessing, will, in due time, cause the Americans to put into practice what they have so long professed. (Hear, hear.) He wished it to be continually held up before the country, that the Northern States are as deeply implicated in the guilt of slavery as the South. The North had a population of 13,553,328 freemen; the South had a population of only 6,393,756 freemen; the North has 152 representatives in the House, the South only 81; and it would be seen by this that the balance of power was with the Free States. Looking, therefore, at the question in all its aspects, he was sure that there was no one in this country but who would find out that the slavery of the United States of America was a system the most abandoned and the most tyrannical. (Hear, hear.)”

At the close of this address, the Rev. Edward Matthews, from Bristol, but who had recently returned from the United States, where he had been maltreated on account of his fidelity to the cause of freedom, was introduced, and made a most interesting speech. The next speaker was George Thompson, Esq., M.P.; and we need only say that his eloquence, which has seldom if ever been equalled, and never surpassed, exceeded, on this occasion, the most sanguine expectations of his friends. All who sat under the thundering anathemas which he hurled against slavery seemed instructed, delighted, and animated. Scarcely any one could have remained unmoved by the pensive sympathies that pervaded the entire assembly. There were many in the meeting who had never seen a fugitive slave before, and when any of the speakers would refer to those on the platform the whole audience seemed moved to tears. No meeting of the kind held in London for years created a greater sensation than this gathering of refugees from the ” Land of the free, and the home of the brave.”  The following appeal, which I had written for the occasion, was unanimously adopted at the close of the meeting, and thus ended the great Anti-Slavery demonstration of 1851.

AN APPEAL TO THE PEOPLE OF GREAT BRITAIN AND THE WORLD.

We consider it just, both to the people of the United States and to ourselves, in making an appeal to the inhabitants of other countries, against the laws which have exiled us from our native land, to state the ground upon which we make our appeal, and the causes which impel us to do so. There are in the United States of America, at the present time, between three and four millions of persons, who are held in a state of slavery which has no parallel in any other part of the world; and whose numbers have, within the last fifty years, increased to a fearful extent. These people are not only deprived of the rights to which the laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them, but every avenue to knowledge is closed against them. The laws do not recognise the family relation of a slave, and extend to him protection in the enjoyment of domestic endearments. Brothers and sisters, parents and children, husbands and wives, are torn asunder, and permitted to see each other no more. The shrieks and agonies of the slave are heard in the markets at the seat of government, and within hearing of the American Congress, as well as on the cotton, sugar and rice plantations of the far South.

The history of the negroes in America is but a history of repeated injuries and acts of oppression committed upon them by the whites. It is not for ourselves that we make this appeal, but for those whom we have left behind.

In their Declaration of Independence, the Americans declare that “all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Yet one-sixth of the inhabitants of the great Republic are slaves. Thus they give the lie to their own professions. No one forfeits his or her character or standing in society by being engaged in holding, buying or selling a slave; the details of which, in all their horror, can scarcely be told.

Although the holding of slaves is confined to fifteen of the thirty-one States, yet we hold that the non-slave-holding States are equally guilty with the slave-holding. If any proof is needed on this point, it will be found in the passage of the inhuman Fugitive Slave Law, by Congress; a law which could never have been enacted without the votes of a portion of the representatives from the free States, and which is now being enforced, in many of the States, with the utmost alacrity. It was the passing of this law that exiled us from our native land, and it has driven thousands of our brothers and sisters from the free States, and compelled them to seek a refuge in the British possessions in North America. The Fugitive Slave Law has converted the entire country, North and South, into one vast hunting-ground. We would respectfully ask you to expostulate with the Americans, and let them know that you regard their treatment of the coloured people of that country as a violation of every principle of human brotherhood, of natural right, of justice, of humanity, of Christianity, of love to God and love to man. 

It is needless that we should remind you that the religious sects of America, with but few exceptions, are connected with the sin of slavery–the churches North as well as South. We would have you tell the professed Christians of that land, that if they would be respected by you, they must separate themselves from the unholy alliance with men who are daily committing deeds which, if done in England, would cause the perpetrator to be sent to a felon’s doom; that they must refuse the right hand of Christian fellowship, whether individually or collectively, to those implicated, in any way, in the guilt of Slavery.

We do not ask for a forcible interference on your part, but only that you will use all lawful and peaceful means to restore to this much injured race their God-given rights. The moral and religious sentiment of mankind must be arrayed against slave-holding, to make it infamous, ere we can hope to see it abolished. We would ask you to set them the example, by excluding from your pulpits, and from religious communion, the slave-holding and pro-slavery ministers who may happen to visit this country. We would even go further, and ask you to shut your doors against either ministers or laymen, who are at all guilty of upholding and sustaining this monster sin. By the cries of the slave, which come from the fields and swamps of the far South, we ask you to do this! By that spirit of liberty and equality of which you all admire, we would ask you to do this. And by that still nobler, higher, and holier spirit of our beloved Saviour, we would ask you to stamp upon the head of the slave-holder, with a brand deeper than that which marks the victim of his wrongs, the infamy of theft, adultery, man-stealing, piracy, and murder, and, by the force of public opinion, compel him to “unloose the heavy burden, and let the oppressed go free.”

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