The black abolitionists who shocked Victorian Britain

In their battle to end the horrors of slavery, African-American abolitionists headed across the Atlantic to rally support. Hannah-Rose Murray tells the story of the firebrands who toured the British Isles, shocking audiences and shining a spotlight on Britain’s own crimes

Life in bondage Formerly enslaved African-Americans sit for a photograph in Virginia, c1850. At that time, 4 million people were still enslaved across the US, as debates around abolition raged on both sides of the Atlantic (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images)

Murmurs spread around London’s Finsbury Chapel, quickly followed by shouts and the thunderous stamping of feet. “It’s not true!” an audience member cried out, his voice ringing out loudly from the almost 3,000-strong crowd.

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It was May 1846. Standing on the platform addressing the audience was radical activist and formerly enslaved African-American Frederick Douglass, who had provoked the audience member’s wrath with his attacks on slavery. Douglass had listed countless facts to prove his assertions. With blistering rhetoric, he argued that each American enslaver should be “surrounded by a wall of antislavery fire, so that he may see the condemnation of himself and his system glaring down in letters of light”. He spoke passionately and forcefully because his cause was urgent: Douglass knew that as he spoke in London, black women, men and children – including his own family members – were at that very moment suffering and dying across the US.

Frederick Douglass was not the first nor the last black abolitionist to traverse the Atlantic during the 19th century in order to expose “the secrets of the prison-house of bondage”. Scores of these “advocates of freedom” travelled to England, Ireland, Scotland and even remote parts of rural Wales to educate the public on American slavery. At least 100 lectured in large cities and tiny fishing villages, interacting with Chartists, authors, politicians, scientists, ministers, reformers, and even royalty. They inspired poetry, songs, pamphlets, wax models at Madame Tussauds, and hundreds of editorials to the press. Millions of British and Irish people witnessed their lectures, read about their lives in narratives or newspapers, or purchased their photographs. And many gave generously to the antislavery cause in response.


Listen: Historian Hannah-Rose Murray describes how Frederick Douglass and other African American abolitionists toured Britain in the 19th century to campaign against slavery in the United States


Most activists began their journeys in the late 1830s. After formally abolishing the slave trade, the British government prohibited slavery in the empire after a short period of apprenticeship which legally ended in 1838. Although slavery continued to exist in parts of the empire, British abolitionists turned their attention to the Americas, where the system had been embedded since the 16th century.

While the northern states had largely abolished slavery by the early 19th century, it was entrenched in the South. There, the domestic slave trade flourished: by 1850, 4 million men, women and children lived in bondage. Those who managed to escape formed the heart of the transatlantic antislavery movement.

African-Americans travelled to Victorian Britain for a multitude of reasons. Many sought donations to legally purchase freedom for themselves (if they’d escaped the US with fugitive status) as well as family members, while some collected money for antislavery societies and community causes such as the construction of black schools and churches. Others encouraged boycotts of slave-produced goods. Some settled here permanently, or for a few years in order to escape slave-hunters, who patrolled the northern states waiting to drag fugitives back into the jaws of slavery. Most importantly though, activists wanted to educate the public about slavery, a difficult task as some activists felt that the true nature of its evils could never be described.

From Inverness to Penzance

It is impossible to know how many hundreds of thousands of lectures were given by black abolitionists during the 19th century. But building on brilliant research by historians like Jeff Green and Richard Blackett, I have mapped some of their speaking locations. Black women and men travelled from Inverness to Penzance and reached virtually every corner of Britain and Ireland. They spoke in Pembroke, Keswick, Bakewell and Peterhead; in tiny fishing villages like Cullercoats and Ventnor, and large cities such as London, Manchester, Dublin and Edinburgh. Speaking venues ranged from churches, town halls and school rooms to YMCA buildings and mechanics’ institutions, to the private parlour rooms of wealthy patrons, and failing that, parks and outdoor spaces. These digital maps reveal that many of us walk past sites with a rich history of black activism on a daily basis.

Usually, if an activist had a contact in such places, the way would be paved for them. Frederick Douglass stayed with the Estlin family in Bristol, where he lectured at least six times, and lodged with the Richardsons in Newcastle, where he gave 11 speeches. Both families were from the middling classes and had extensive connections to the proprietors of town halls or religious ministers who allowed Douglass a hearing. They also exploited connections with friends in neighbouring cities to secure further meetings.

Middle-class abolitionist sympathisers did not just organise meetings for members of their own class, though. Whether antislavery lectures were free or charged an admission, most were open to anyone, and the Victorian press frequently made reference to working-class women and men who attended, often with their children. Activists even coordinated meetings specifically for working-class audiences or even children’s groups, adjusting the price or time to better coincide with their intended audience.

Apprising the people of Briton of the horrors of slavery was not easy. As William Wells Brown mournfully told his audience in the early 1850s, if he were to accurately tell of the “true character” of slavery, he would need to “pluck a feather from the wing of some fallen angel, dip it in the wailings of despair, and write upon the blackened walls of perdition in characters which would frighten the hyena out of his ferocity”.

During lectures, black activists employed numerous tactics to rally support. They used fiery rhetoric and highlighted the hypocrisy of an American nation that professed freedom but yet enslaved millions, often describing the torture enacted upon themselves or their family. In doing so, they sometimes illustrated slavery’s barbarity by showing their scarred backs or exhibiting instruments of torture such as whips, chains, manacles and whipping posts.

Lifting the lid Henry ‘Box’ Brown emerging from the crate he used to mail himself to freedom. Brown re-enacted his escape for audiences in Britain. (Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)
Lifting the lid Henry ‘Box’ Brown emerging from the crate he used to mail himself to freedom. Brown re-enacted his escape for audiences in Britain. (Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)

William Wells Brown and Washington Duff revealed paintings and huge 2,000-square-foot canvas panoramas depicting their enslaved life and the punishments they had endured. Henry ‘Box’ Brown, who had escaped slavery by posting himself from Richmond to Philadelphia in a crate, exhibited said box and even re-enacted his escape by packaging himself up on a train from Leeds to Bradford. In 1857, Brown took the performative leap further by starring in a play based on his life.

Husband and wife William and Ellen Craft also retold the story of their equally miraculous escape, in which Ellen crossed the boundaries of race, class, gender and physical ability by dressing as a disabled southern gentleman while her husband posed as her enslaved servant. Showcasing Ellen’s extraordinary bravery, upon which the entire scheme rested, their story captivated the British public. The Crafts remained in the country for nearly two decades, raising five children in freedom.

It was clear formerly enslaved individuals stirred the public’s hearts with their stories. During Henry Highland Garnet’s speech in Carlisle in 1850, a sailor declared that while he had witnessed scenes of slavery, “he had never looked upon them in the light in which he then saw them; and though he had used tobacco for nearly 30 years, he had chewed his last quid that night”. But the brutal and sometimes controversial subject matter meant antislavery meetings could be rowdy, turbulent and even dangerous. Moses Roper, who began lecturing as early as 1837, radically refused to compromise on graphic descriptions of the torture he was exposed to. As a result, some audiences – most of whom could not comprehend the reality of his experience – turned against him. Roper was spurned by several British and Irish abolitionists, too: believing in antislavery doctrines did not necessarily mean they were willing to help every fugitive or were antiracist. However, Roper’s slave narrative – a short biography and one of the most important protest tools of the transatlantic antislavery movement – was a success. Designed to expose the truth and cruelty of enslavers, Roper’s slave narrative sold 25,000 copies, including 5,000 in Welsh, after just seven years of publication. In a bold move, he sent his story to every enslaver he could remember in the county where he had lived in North Carolina.

Soil reddened with blood

Many activists were unafraid to confront audiences in Britain with the uncomfortable fact of their nation’s own culpability. They pointed to the hypocritical concept of British liberty, highlighting how racism was also pervasive on British soil – evidenced by the success of minstrel shows and the growth of racial science. In 1854, Samuel Ringgold Ward declared to a York audience that English soil was “reddened with the blood of my race” and blasted the government for ignoring black British sailors kidnapped and sold into slavery in US ports like Savannah.

Other controversial subjects brought charges of heresy. During Frederick Douglass’s 1845–47 tour of Britain, he attacked the Free Church of Scotland for accepting donations from US enslavers and religious ministers. Southern churches were, he said, “literally built up in human skulls, and their walls cemented with human blood” as husbands were torn from wives, children forcibly separated from parents and the money used to buy Bibles, employ ministers or build places of worship. Douglass exposed the hypocrisy of a “Free” church which had taken such “blood” money, and electrified audiences across Scotland with his mantra: “back the money!” Thousands rallied to support him, often cramming into town or church halls, craning their necks to listen through open windows. They daubed Douglass’s slogan on Free Church buildings with red paint, and two Quaker women even accompanied him to the top of Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat to carve it into the hillside.

Activists pointed to the hypocritical concept of British liberty, highlighting how racism was also pervasive on British soil

The two decades that followed Douglass’s sensational tours in the 1840s represented the peak of African-American visits to Britain. Many exploited the success of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Toms Cabin, first published in 1852. Others specifically travelled to the British Isles to lecture on the American Civil War (1861–65). Slavery was at the heart of this bloody conflict, and African-American activists like James C Thompson and William Henry Jackson travelled thousands of miles to stir up support for the Union and to denounce the Confederacy. While there was strong support for the North in Britain, the issue was divisive and these meetings could turn tense, often resulting in frequent interruptions, racial slurs, and cheers for the Confederate president Jefferson Davis. When Britain came perilously close to formally recognising the Confederacy, activists once again tried to rally the British people to their call. Frederick Douglass sent a blazing appeal via the transatlantic press: “Welcome not those brazen human fleshmongers – those brokers in the bodies and souls of men… Have no fellowship, I pray you, with these merciless menstealers.” In the end, Britain narrowly decided not to support the Confederacy, although it’s impossible to tell whether Douglass’s searing address had any influence on the governing elite’s decision.

Civil rights activist Ida B Wells, who toured Britain in the 1890s to educate British audiences about slavery’s pervasive legacy. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images)
Freedom fighter: Civil rights activist Ida B Wells, who toured Britain in the 1890s to educate British audiences about slavery’s pervasive legacy. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images)

An ongoing battle

After the end of the Civil War and the onset of legal abolition in 1865, black activists continued to be in the vanguard of those defying slavery’s bitter legacies. Activists like Ida B Wells educated transatlantic audiences on racism and the convict lease system, in which primarily African-American prisoners were forced into labouring for private companies, with no pay and poor conditions. Wells conducted two successful anti-lynching tours in 1893–94, and like her antebellum forebears, she used every tool at her disposal, displaying photos of lynchings to convey how pervasive racism and white supremacy continued to threaten black lives.

Formerly enslaved individuals had a very real impact on the abolitionist movement. Those who knew the true value of freedom were its best advocates

By journeying to Britain, African-Americans took radical steps to expose slavery to international audiences. In reliving their trauma in urgent, emotional appeals, formerly enslaved individuals had a very real and positive impact on the abolitionist movement abroad. For many, it was the only way they could help the cause. As Moses Roper put it: “I would lay down my life to save them [the enslaved], but I dare not put my foot on American ground: I should be dragged in chains to an ignominious and cruel death.”

Those who knew the true value of freedom were its best advocates, and figures like Douglass, Roper and countless others were unafraid to speak out, and put their lives on the line for the cause. Their testimony still matters today because we continue, as they did, to fight for a just and equal world.

Hannah-Rose Murray is the author of Advocates of Freedom (CUP). She runs the website frederickdouglassinbritain.com and leads walking tours in London and Edinburgh: blackabolitionistwalkingtours.wordpress.com

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This article was first published in the August 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine