Curious incarnations of charity and exploitation
“But by changing your conduct, and treating your slaves as men, every cause of fear would be banished. They would be faithful, honest, intelligent and vigorous; and peace, prosperity, and happiness, would attend you.” The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789)
This is the second of a four part series that unpacks the founding of Freetown — now the capital of Sierra Leone. Around 3,000 former slaves have just fled as refugees from the American Revolutionary War. While the vast majority sailed north to Nova Scotia, not everyone did. Many had found work serving on British warships, and simply returned to Britain with the fleet. With this, a new group of people entered London — to a hard and cold welcome. Poverty and destitution awaited; perfect fodder, perhaps, for the city’s high-minded elite?
Imagine late 18th Century Britain. The Thirteen Colonies lost, but not the Caribbean. Some were optimistic that the loss was actually a good thing. Much of the profit could still be gained through trade, but with less risk. Shipping and manufacturing, fuelled on the triangle of trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas, were booming economic engines that showed no signs of slowing. Transport slaves from Africa to the United States and the Caribbean. Raw products (sugar, cotton, coffee, etc.,) from the Americas to Europe. Manufactured goods (textiles from Manchester, guns from Birmingham, steelwork from Cardiff) back to Africa. Profit at every corner. Many countries in Europe were running this route, but, at this particular time, it was Britain that was driving the show.
The abolitionist movement was also gaining some voice in Britain. Now vocalised by main stream people such as Granville Sharp and many of the Quakers, it aimed to show the un-Christian horror upon which British society’s daily pleasures were built. The sugar in your tea, the fine clothes on your back, the growing houses in which you live. You can keep all this, it tried to say, but it doesn’t need slavery. Olaudah Equiano, a former slave who arrived in Britain before the Loyalist American exodus, had become a leading figure in the movement. His memoirs became the first British best seller by a black author. To add to this, in 1772 a landmark ruling (Somerset vs Stewart) found that chattel slavery was unsupported by common law in England and Wales (probably convenient to remain ambiguous about the rest of the British Empire…) Slavery had not been officially authorised in Britain prior to this, but it was practiced. The ruling stated, however, that “[t]he state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law”, leaving those holding slaves as property without any legal protection. And on top of this, intellectuals such as Adam Smith and David Hume were starting to make an economic case against slavery. It’s just not efficient, they said, the price of slaves is growing faster than the price of labour. Better we switch to free, cheap, labour. The profits will be higher, and we will all be better off.
But these were all fringe movements at the time; early glimmers of what we now know and by no means representative of the more common late 18th century life. For the freed slaves, arrival in Britain was hard. They were arriving as sailors, powder monkeys, army drummers, carters and cooks; entering British society with no power or capital, no family to welcome them, no knowledge of the place, few clothes, no land and no home. And to add to all this, a significant dose of racial bias against them.
In general, Loyalist refugees were offered compensation for their losses in the Americas to help them make a new start in Britain. Black Loyalists, however, received far lower compensation than whites. Overall, the highest pay-out to a black was £20. The smallest to a white was £25, but many got much more. Moreover, this small token was only available to those who were already free before the proclamations. Freedom was considered compensation enough for those who otherwise may have still been slaves. After all, what property could a slave possibly need compensating for?
The poor law then in operation required people to return to their parish of birth to get the relief. This was obviously not designed with freed plantation slaves in mind. Baptism was an option (you could then claim your parish of birth to be where you were baptised), but it isn’t clear if many reverends at the time were willing to baptise the newcomers.
The result was poverty and destitution, with many congregating around London’s East End and Rotherhithe. Peter Anderson, a former slave, freed prior to the Revolution, was becoming wealthy before the war. He joined the Loyalists and ended up in Britain. He wrote: “I endeavoured to get Work, but cannot get Any I am Thirty Nine Years of Age & am ready & willing to serve His Britinack Majesty While I Am Able But I am realy starving about the Streets Having Nobody to give me a morsel of bread & dare not go home to my Own Country again”. This welcome is somewhat different to that depicted in Benjamin West’s painting shown at the beginning of this post.
To be clear, these were not only refugees from the revolution. Slavery had been openly practiced in Britain until Somerset v Stewart in 1772, which had increased Britain’s (particularly London’s) black population. When slavery was deemed illegal (within Britain), many slaves were let go — some of whom later found themselves in the same position as Peter Anderson and many other black loyalist refugees.
By early 1786, in response to this growing issue, a patchwork of private charitable endeavours had emerged. They offered some basic food, a small allowance and health care in certain places. The Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor was established among some of London’s wealthy elite to raise funds. It was led by Jonas Hanway, the man who, incidentally, made carrying your own umbrella a staple of London fashion. But as spring came on, the queues got longer, and work did not materialise. By May, 400 people were regularly lining up for food and their small allowance.
The idea started to circulate — perhaps these people would be better off elsewhere? Somewhere they would be more likely to get work? Somewhere they wouldn’t be so cold? A cynical reader might think, somewhere out of our back yard?
Please welcome to the stage Mr Termite (as he was known to his friends). Henry Smeathman was an ant expert. In 1771 he visited the Banana Islands, just off the coast of West Africa, to collect specimens for Kew Gardens (still a major London attraction). He appears to have been a profiteer at heart, and was convinced that the climate and soil made the area a perfect place to invest in those cash crops in such demand across Europe and America — rice, dyewood, cotton and sugar. What if these could be produced with free labour? he thought. With the price of slaves rising faster than the price of labour, perhaps he could undercut the Caribbean and American plantations to make a tidy profit! He had been proposing this idea on the lecture circuit since returning home, but to deaf ears.
Then, in 1786, with this new committee of the esteemed and wealthy getting themselves into a pickle over what to do with all the destitute blacks around London, he got lucky.
He proposed his “Plan for Settlement” in “one of the most pleasant and feasible countries in the known world” — the mainland next to the Banana Islands: Sierra Leone. And, he promised, it would cost just £14 per head.
This was actually a very strange idea. In 1785, just the year before, he had reported to a parliamentary committee (looking for new locations for penal colonies) that The Gambia, a little up the coast, had a deadly climate and “not one in a hundred [sent there] would be alive in six months” (IBID). Moreover, Smeathman’s suggested spot was literally right next to Bunce Island, the extremely busy, extremely profitable, British-run slave trading post. Was this really the best place to relocate former slaves!?
There was, after all, a second option mooted; preferred by some (especially among the blacks). This was to patriate people with those who had travelled north to Nova Scotia. Many were concerned that Smeathman’s plan placed them in too great a risk of recapture and re-enslavement. Hanway (the umbrella man) attempted to calm these fears, giving public addresses in which he asked how they could possibly doubt the “pure and benevolent Intentions of Government” along with the “Charity and Benevolence of the good people of Britain”.
The warmer option prevailed. Not only that, the government got on board! The treasury agreed to foot the £14 per person needed to offer free transport to Africa as well as some provisions, clothes and tools for four months.
Granville Sharp donated 25 guineas for a present to be exchanged with the local King for some land. For those of you who know modern day Sierra Leone, the Temne were already strong in this area, and this was a Temne King. He spent a further £800 helping those who wanted to go, such as by redeeming pawned goods and paying off debts. By late October (still 1786, this was happening fast!) over 600 people had officially agreed to “happily settle on the… Grain Coast of Africa.” (IBID) Either that, or the looming deadline after which their allowances would be stopped made the prospect of another London winter in poverty even more unbearable.
There are many perspectives on this movement of people. The Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor asked the public to stop giving to black beggars, presumably attempting to make travel to Africa more attractive. What were their real incentives? To move a problem off the streets and out of their back yard? The hope of profit from West African sugar? A better life for those going?
Equiano (that first black author of a British best seller), in particular, was suspicious. He was initially involved in the mission, even joining the ship as it left London. However, he claimed to witness so much corruption on the part of the white administration overseeing the project, and, upon highlighting this, was dismissed. He turned publicly against the project, describing it as a callous plot to rid England of the blacks.
The Nautilus finally departed Britain for Sierra Leone on April 9th 1787, carrying close to 400 people — around 300 blacks, 60 working class white women, some Christian missionaries, others with core skills (such as a doctor) and the crew. With extensive delays, however, their plans to arrive before the infamous West African rains had gone very, very wrong…
In part three we will finally arrive in Sierra Leone. Unfortunately this is not where fortunes turn. Rain and death await, and a second, larger group settlers will be needed… Perhaps those freed slaves who had travelled north to Nova Scotia?
 (Schama, 2009), Page 215
 (Schama, 2009), page 220
 (Schama, 2009), page 225