Young boys can be notoriously untidy – dirty, even. So perhaps it should have come as no surprise to Shropshire diarist Katherine Plymley when, in 1792, she noticed that her seven year-old nephew Panton’s shoes were “looking very brown”. What raised her eyebrows was the reason, discovered by questioning the servants, why he’d refused to have his shoes shined. He had heard that the polish contained sugar produced on plantations worked by enslaved people. Panton’s scruffiness wasn’t due to indolence or carelessness, but – as he saw it – a moral stand against slavery. And he was far from alone among his peers.


Long before Greta Thunberg first raised her head above the climate change parapet, children and younger teenagers were being heralded as moral champions in mass movements for a better future. Notably, during the campaigns for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade, children were applauded by many not just as participants but as leaders.

But was this just window-dressing by canny abolitionists, keen to shame adults into taking more meaningful action? Were children only acting in accordance with the wishes of their parents? Or were young people truly influential anti-slavery activists in their own right?

The roots of the anti-slavery movement go back at least to the efforts of 17th-century Quakers, but it was only after the establishment of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787 that British activists began to explicitly seek wider public support. Thanks in part to first-hand accounts by formerly enslaved people such as Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince, and to the tireless efforts of travelling lecturers such as Thomas Clarkson and William Dickson, the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade – and, later, of slavery itself – became a hugely popular political and moral cause.

In 1792, many consumers in Britain (more than 300,000, by Clarkson’s estimate) boycotted goods produced by enslaved people, bringing politics into the home. That number was even higher during a second wave of boycotts in the mid-1820s, when women took the lead. Though the direct economic impact of these ‘anti-saccharite’ movements on the system of slavery was probably not great, they represented an important barometer of public opinion and a significant weapon in the abolitionist campaigning arsenal.

Generations of anti-slavery campaigns

In 1807, an act was passed in parliament abolishing the transatlantic trade in humans. Further victories did not come easily. In 1833, following decades of uprisings in the Caribbean and political reforms in Britain, another act was passed to abolish slavery itself – while also compensating ‘slave-owners’ to the tune of £20 million (around 40 per cent of entire government expenditure in 1833) for the loss of their ‘human property’.

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Throughout these hard-fought campaigns, many abolitionists came to realise that their vision of a world without slavery would take the efforts of more than one generation to make reality. So, as part of the campaigns in Britain, dozens of children’s books and poems about the evils of slavery were produced. The Black Man’s Lament by Amelia Opie, brightly illustrated and published in 1826, opens with a plea to its young readers: “Ye tender hearts, and children dear!… Oh! try to end the griefs you hear.”

An illustration from Amelia Opie’s The Black Man’s Lament (1826), a brightly illustrated book about the iniquities of slavery designed to appeal to young people (Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)
An illustration from Amelia Opie’s The Black Man’s Lament (1826), an illustrated book about the iniquities of slavery designed to appeal to young people. (Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Anti-slavery ideas were also introduced into puzzles and games, including John Wallis’s 1796 board game Complete Voyage Round the World. Anyone unlucky enough to land on space 22, representing the Senegal river, would have to “stay one turn here, to lament the great traffic which is carried on by European vessels in the negro trade”. There were even collectible trading cards. In 1828, 11-year-old Anne Capper noted in her diary that: “My cousin Mary Bevan was so kind as to give me, a dozen cards, on the cruelty of the slave trade, each of them having a pretty copper plate.”

Future abolitionists and social reformers

There is little doubt that childhood exposure to anti-slavery ideas made a lasting impression on future pioneers. Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst claimed that her earliest memories were of attending anti-slavery bazaars in Manchester with her parents, and of her mother reading to her Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In her autobiography, Pankhurst credited these early experiences with awakening the “admiration for that spirit of fighting and heroic sacrifice” that guided her political outlook throughout her life.

Even more influential were the abolitionist sugar boycotts of the 1790s and 1820s that swayed young Panton and led him to reject shoe polish. Many 19th-century notables recalled taking part as junior ‘anti-saccharists’. Looking back on her Bristol childhood of the 1820s, pioneering doctor Elizabeth Blackwell observed that “children voluntarily gave up the use of sugar” because it was a “slave product”.

Scientist Mary Somerville remembered taking “the anti-slavery cause so warmly to heart” as a girl that she “would not take sugar in my tea, or indeed taste anything with sugar in it”. Thomas Fowell Buxton – who, in the 1820s, took over from William Wilberforce as the leader of the parliamentary abolitionist campaign – claimed that he was first made to think about slavery as a young boy because his sister Anna participated in the boycotts.

Many later emphasised how much they suffered for their convictions. Recalling the boycott of the early 1790s, writer Lucy Aikin complained of the “bitter persecutions we poor children underwent in the children’s parties we frequented, for the offence of denying ourselves on principle the dainties which children most delight in”. Mary-Anne Schimmelpennick, who went on to become a noted anti-slavery writer, complained that even her family and governess had mocked her for her sugar abstention as a child.

Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst claimed that her earliest memories were of attending anti-slavery bazaars in Manchester with her parents

In her 1839 history of the abolition movement, Esther Copley went so far as to say that children had “introduced into whole families the system of abstinence”. Yet, though it is clear that many children who abstained from slave-grown sugar grew up to be leading lights in abolitionism and other reform movements, the extent to which they took the initiative on their own is less clear-cut. Certainly, some pro-slavery advocates suggested that children were being coerced by unscrupulous adults.

Persuading the youth to take part

On 30 March 1792, The Times published a letter written – so the paper claimed – by a boy “under six years old” who had been pressured by an abolitionist “Lady L” to stop eating West Indian sugar. Now he had been convinced by some other adults that this was folly, and that the abolitionist “saints” were hypocrites. “I am sure,” the regretful boy had apparently written to Lady L, “you did not mean to impose on me, but have been imposed on yourself by the naughty people, who told you so for some wicked purposes of their own.”

This remained a minor but consistent theme of the pro-slavery (or, rather, anti abolitionist) argument. In Cruikshank’s chaotic 1826 caricature John Bull Taking a Clear View of the Negro Slavery Question (seen as the lead image above) an abolitionist can be seen directing some credulous young boys to sign a petition while their toys lie on the ground nearby. We should, of course, treat any pro-slavery argument with scepticism, but the extent to which grown-ups used their authority over children to persuade them to participate in anti-slavery activities is worth considering.

Pages from the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano. The freedman and activist’s accounts of the evils of slavery was a call to action for abolitionists young and old (Photo by Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Pages from the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano. The freedman and activist’s accounts of the evils of slavery was a call to action for abolitionists young and old (Photo by Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Schools are a case in point. Many adult abolitionists were interested in a broad spectrum of social reform, including providing religious education to poor children. The famous anti-slavery writer Hannah More established a number of schools around Bristol and Bath with the encouragement of Wilberforce. In 1833, Liverpool abolitionist James Cropper built a school in Warrington, the opening of which was timed to coincide with the declaration of emancipation in the West Indies on 1 August 1834.

Many more establishments were set up by dissenting Christian groups with links to the anti-slavery movement, including Methodists and Quakers. It is hardly surprising, considering who ran them, that some of these schools appear to have been incubators for juvenile abolitionism. The scattered surviving references to day to-day teaching suggest that children were indeed sometimes placed under considerable emotional pressures to declare their support for the cause.

An 1816 report from the Nether Chapel Sunday School near Sheffield recounts how one girl was quizzed by her teacher after reading an anti-slavery tract: “Being further examined concerning what she thought the best means of destroying slavery, she replied: ‘If everyone knew Jesus Christ there would be no slavery.’” This does not mean, however, that young people were simply doing as they were told.

The youngest freedom fighters

How enslaved children fought back against their oppressors

The most active juvenile abolitionists were, unsurprisingly, enslaved children. Though British abolitionists often depicted these children as passive victims, in fact they commonly resisted their enslavement.

Abolitionist and black British radical Ottobah Cugoano recalled participating in a failed plot to blow up the ship on which he was transported to the Americas when he was around 13 years old. “It was the women and boys which were to burn the ship,” he recalled, “with the approbation and groans of the rest.”

In the British West Indies, children frequently got into trouble with the colonial authorities for insubordination, stealing supplies and alcohol from plantation stores, and using “violent and indecent language” toward enslavers in the streets. It’s worth remembering that colonial legislatures often gave no fixed definition of a ‘child’ for enslaved people, so there was no guarantee of protection for young offenders from the worst brutalities of corporal or even capital punishment.

Research into these everyday forms of resistance by children remains sparse, but it is clear that even fairly common youthful acts of rebellion and testing boundaries – being a normal child, in other words – required tremendous personal bravery for enslaved children.

As historian Colleen Vasconcellos has noted, the terror of the plantation system did not prevent some children from undertaking more serious forms of insurrection. Plantation owner and novelist Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis recorded how one 15-year-old girl named Minetta was put to death in Jamaica for attempting to poison her ‘owner’. And advertisements describing so-called ‘runaway slaves’, including children, abounded in West Indian newspapers.

Intriguingly, enslaved young people brought to Britain by their masters also frequently escaped, as demonstrated by many adverts in British newspapers collected in a new database by researchers at the University of Glasgow. There was, for example, young Robert “from Jamaica, about 12 Years of Age”, wearing “a blue Coat turn’d up with red, and red Holes”, who ran away from a house in Brentford-Butts in December 1739.

Alone and unprotected in a strange country, these young people risked everything to make a new life. Their bravery ultimately contributed to the economic and moral rationale of the fight against slavery.

Enslaved people cutting sugar cane in the West Indies. Young people on the plantations frequently fought the colonial authorities (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG/Bridgeman Images)
Enslaved people cutting sugar cane in the West Indies. Young people on the plantations frequently fought the colonial authorities (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG/Bridgeman Images)

Even within abolitionist families, children took action in ways that surprised their parents and carers – Katherine Plymley’s nephew Panton, with his unpolished shoes, providing one example. Young Panton and his sisters Jane and Josepha were clearly encouraged to think for themselves about slavery. Plymley recorded how they spent time chatting and putting together a jigsaw puzzle of Africa with her friend, notable abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. After discussing the issue, young Jane declared that she would eat sugar grown only in the new abolitionist territory in Sierra Leone – where Clarkson’s brother, John, was governor.

Young Panton and his sisters Jane and Josepha were clearly encouraged to think for themselves about slavery

Clarkson was a regular visitor to the house, and always spent time with the children. But he was not the only famous abolitionist to talk about the slave trade with Panton, Jane and Josepha. During one of his nationwide book tours in 1793, the famous black writer and activist Olaudah Equiano also visited the family, gifting a copy of his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative, to the children, and playfully asking if they would like to visit Africa with him one day. Plymley recorded in her diary that “The little people were much pleased with him.”

Potent symbols of moral purity

Clearly, children have long negotiated their own positions on contemporary political issues. This does not mean that they acted completely independently of the adults in their lives, as some retrospective personal accounts were keen to suggest. But neither does it mean that these ‘juvenile abolitionists’ were thoughtlessly doing as their parents and teachers instructed. They certainly took an interest in what adults had to say about the issue, but evidence suggests that their own views were also heard.

What, then, was the impact of children’s participation in the British anti-slavery movement? Economically, of course, they could not do much. The account books for women’s anti-slavery societies show occasional contributions – for instance, “a little boy” donating his shilling pocket money to the Birmingham Female Society for the Relief of British Negro Slaves in 1830.

But, as we have seen, children’s actions – especially when they involved a degree of personal sacrifice – could be potent symbols of the moral purity of the abolitionist campaign, and quickly became part of the national and personal mythologies that surrounded British anti-slavery.


This article was first published in the July 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine