The truth of the Anti-Slavery Society
A new book shows that the society was far from a principled crusade against a great evil.
In The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, 1838-1956: A History, James Heartfield presents a detailed analysis of this hugely influential organisation. Known simply as the Anti-Slavery Society, it was formally established in 1839, after the abolition of slavery in the British dominions, to tackle slavery worldwide. Heartfield shows how the Anti-Slavery Society rose to prominence and framed international policymaking through its close ties with key political figures including the late Victorian British prime minister, William Gladstone. Perhaps the friends in high places should not have been a surprise. After all, it was led by men of wealth and prestige, such as its founder Joseph Sturge, a prominent businessman, and Lord Brougham, a one-time Lord Chancellor.
Heartfield shows how the Anti-Slavery Society provided the British government with a remarkable degree of moral authority to challenge other imperial powers and intervene directly in the affairs of other nation states. In the chapters exploring European influence in Egypt, Sudan and Zanzibar, Heartfield provides fascinating examples of direct military action against local leaders, who were often coerced into abolishing slavery as a way of consolidating European imperial power. As Heartfield puts it, anti-slavery rhetoric became an ‘integral part of the ideological package which justified the subjugation of colonial peoples’, and while there were ‘many groups pushing towards Africa… it was the Anti-Slavery Society that drew them altogether, and gave them a singular mission that made sense of Britain’s role’.
Yet when it came to the key battle in the struggle against slavery, which was fought in the American Civil War (1861-65) between the anti-slavery Union and the pro-slavery Confederacy, the Anti-Slavery Society went missing. As Heartfield notes, it was ‘silent on the greatest struggle against slavery in a generation’. In fact, as Heartfield explains, it was the decidedly more working-class Union and Emancipation Society which took up the Union’s anti-slavery cause in Britain. In 1863, it staged 350 meetings throughout England, Wales and Scotland, which featured notable Chartists and the black Americans J Sella Martin, William Craft and William Andrew Jackson.
Heartfield carefully explains how the cotton workers in the UK supported Abraham Lincoln and the Union’s cotton embargo, which was meant to damage the Confederacy. And Manchester’s cotton workers did so despite the embargo leaving their looms and spindles idle, and costing many of them their jobs. ‘Confederate supporters had hoped’, writes Heartfield, ‘that the working classes of Manchester would give them the leverage they needed to bring [then British prime minister] Lord Palmerston into the war on their side… instead they stirred up a great mass of people against the war’. And this groundswell of public opinion in England ‘prevented Palmerston from declaring war upon the United States, as he was on the point of doing, through the monster meeting in St James’ Hall [in London]’.
The Anti-Slavery Society, meanwhile, seemed reluctant to side against the South in the Civil War, despite its pro-slavery position. The Anti-Slavery Society-supporting MP, Charles Buxton, captured well its position in the American Civil War by qualifying its belated support for the North: ‘I still, as much as ever, lament and disapprove of the conduct of the North in its endeavour to subjugate the South by the force of arms.’ The vacillation of the Anti-Slavery Society was clearly not lost on US President Abraham Lincoln, who replied to a letter from the society finally offering its support to say that he’d already thanked those who had supported the embargo ‘in replies which have been made to the working men of Manchester, to the citizens of London… and to the citizens of Bradford’ – that is, those involved with the Union and Emancipation Society. As Heartfield summarises, ‘the Anti-Slavery Society’s support was too late and too lukewarm to be seen as anything more that an afterthought to the workers’ protests’. Furthermore, the Anti Slavery Society seemed to be revelling ‘in the Godly punishment of civil war and the division of the [America]’.
The great strength of The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society is its depth of coverage. It points out, for example, the less than moral underbelly of much of the Anti-Slavery Society’s work. For instance, the abolition of slavery in the West Indies actually served to help the one-time slave holders: ‘the planters were already in dire straits and greatly over-mortgaged before they were bailed out by the British Government’s £20,000,000 compensation for the abolition’. There are interesting sections on Cuba and Brazil, too, and illuminating sections on the society’s attitude towards ‘coolies’ (Chinese and Indian workers). In this last instance, rather than mounting a principled defence of the right of immigrants to work and travel across the empire, ‘the society made common cause with those in the colonies who found the immigrants’ presence distasteful or threatening, because it was hostile to the immigration system’.
Heartfield concludes that ‘slavery has today largely been abolished’. This well-researched and thoroughly engaging book gives the reader sufficient material and enough examples to make up their own mind about the role of the British and Foreign Anti Slavery Society in achieving that end.
Mark Aldulaimi is a writer based in London.
The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society: A History, by James Heartfield, is published by C Hurst & Co. (Order this book from Amazon(UK)).