The International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, begun by UNESCO, is held on the 23rd of August every year. To commemorate this day, I investigated some links that the Midlands had with not only the slave trade, but also the abolition of the slave trade and slavery. Despite having no major trading ports, the Midlands still played its part.
The Slave Trade – East Midlands
One of the most notable slave owning families in the area were the Fitzherbert family, who owned (and still do own) Tissington Hall in Ashbourne, Derbyshire. The family has owned the hall since the early 17th century. In the second half of the 18th century, they married into the Perrin family, who owned four slave plantations in Jamacia, producing both coffee and sugar. From this point, the running of these plantations was managed from Tissington Hall.
A more common link across all of the Midlands is the manufacture of goods that aided the slave trade. Cotton mills in Derbyshire, such as the mills located in Belper and Milford, would often supply cloths for slave traders to exchange for slaves in Africa. A tour from Off the Derbyshire Beaten Track visiting places linked to the slave trade, including those listed above, is available here.
The Slave Trade – West Midlands
Being a massive hub for industrial growth in the late 18th century, it only makes sense that the West Midlands supplied goods and equipment for the slave trade. Birmingham was a key supplier of ironware to Africa, producing goods such as muzzles, padlocks and chains, all of which made a huge profit. They also manufactured an estimated 150,000 guns that were sold to West African leaders in exchange for slaves. Professor David Dabydeen from Warwick University said that “Birmingham armed the slave trade.”
The slave trade also financed James Watt and his Birmingham-born partner Matthew Boulton in their development of the steam engine. There were also over one hundred steam trains ordered from Watt and Boulton for the Caribbean between 1778 and 1807.
The Black Country was also a key supplier of chains to the slave trade, which has continually sparked controversy over their use in the Black Country flag in the last few years, with some saying the image of the chain could be offensive to some. In 2020, the West Midlands Fire Service withdrew a decision to not fly the flag on Black Country Day after backlash from some in the community.
Abolitionists – East Midlands
Elizabeth Heyrick, a Quaker from Leicester, was a key figure in the abolition movement. In 1824, she wrote and published the pamphlet “Immediate, not Gradual Abolition or An Inquiry Into the Shortest, Safest, and Most Effectual Means of Getting Rid of West Indian Slavery”, which called for slavery to be immediately abolished, as opposed to the gradual abolition that other abolitionists were campaigning for. It sold thousands of copies across the UK and USA, converting many others to support immediate abolition.
She and Susannah Watts also organised a large sugar boycott across the town of Leicester, encouraging people to stop buying sugar produced by slaves in the West Indies and purchase Indian sugar grown by paid workers instead. They began in 1828, and by June 1829, over a quarter of the town were boycotting West Indian sugar. Heyrick also wrote a pamphlet entitled ‘An Appeal to the Hearts and Conscience of British Women’ to encourage other British women across the country to boycott slave-grown sugar.
Another lesser-known abolitionist from the East Midlands was John Alleyne. He worked as a barrister in the case of James Somerset, supporting the escaped slave in his bid for freedom, and also worked closely with abolitionist Granville Sharp. He was related to the Fitzherbert family by marriage but turned his back on them in support of the fight for abolition.
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Abolitionists – West Midlands
Staffordshire potter Josiah Wedgwood was a big figure amongst abolitionists. Although most know the name for the world-renowned pottery and china manufacturers, Wedgwood himself was very active in the abolitionist movement. After visiting the port of Liverpool and witnessing the horrors that the slaves being transported from Africa faced, he joined the campaign. He began producing medallions with an image of a slave in chains and the inscription of the words “Am I not a man and a brother?”.
These products would often be brought by (mainly middle-class) women, who controlled the running of the home. They would purchase Wedgwood’s anti-slavery products and would also partake in Heyrick’s sugar boycott, discussing such issues at tea parties, which were popular at the time. To find out more about women’s acts of resistance during this time, I would recommend Feminism and Empire: Women Activists in Imperial Britain, 1790–1865 by Clare Midgley, available here.
Midlands Slavery, A Forgotten Area
When people think of the slave trade, their minds usually go to the UK’s largest ports. With a little digging, it can be found that the slave trade was found outside of the port cities of Liverpool, Bristol and London, and that the whole country benefited from it, including the Midlands. It is a dark part of the region’s history that needs to be remembered.