‘Superior devotedness, activity and perseverance’: British women and the abolition of slavery

Chantal Rhiannon Mouzon

Praising their ‘superior devotedness, activity and perseverance,’ prominent American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison boldly attributed a great portion of the anti-slavery movement’s success to ‘the WOMEN of England, Scotland and Ireland’ in his 1838 address at the Broadway Tabernacle1. He commended their methods specifically, claiming they had accelerated the movement’s progress using their philanthropic experience and religious motivation. Garrison’s claim highlights the prominent role of British women in the campaign against continued slavery.

Philanthropy had become a major avenue for women to engage in public activism throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries. Many women effectively utilised the skills they had obtained such as public speaking, writing, and networking. These aided their abolitionist campaign strategies including the establishment of ladies’ emancipation societies and the subsequent creation of petitions. Female emancipation societies had particular success as they took a more active approach to petitioning than the pre-existing male societies had. While men traditionally left petitions in the town hall leaving most unaware of its existence, the female societies enthusiastically canvassed the signature of individuals both in and out of the public sphere; successfully educating some of the unaware in the process. This surging support, demonstrated by their successful 1833 petitions boasting more than 400,000 combined signatures, underlines Garrison’s claim of female activists’ philanthropic experience as aiding the movement2.

Boycotting the purchase of slave-produced sugar saw female activists successfully use their stereotyped role as household shoppers to cause financial damage to businesses selling goods produced by slaves. The strategy was discreet enough to avoid denunciation for overstepping the accepted boundaries of philanthropist support to political activism. Notably, the 1820s sugar boycott was inspired by the pamphlet Immediate, not gradual abolition by Elizabeth Heyrick, a Leicestershire-born Quaker, in which she stated Britons ‘only need substitute East India, for West India sugar’ to purify Britain of ‘the poisonous infection of slavery’3. Her contribution was so significant that Garrison named her as the one who ‘annihilated the slave system in the West Indies’4.

The female activists’ utilisation of religious zeal to garner support for the movement was successful as many individuals were influenced to support the movement through the moral guidance of those they respected. Religious groups soon began associating the movement with aspects of their faith and, as demonstrated by the creation of anti-slavery hymn books, abolitionism became significantly intertwined with religion for many5. Quakerism swiftly adopted anti-slavery ideology after it became popularised by the Quaker teacher Anthony Benezet who called upon them to support abolitionism and distance themselves from the trade in the early 1770s6. However, Quaker involvement in the abolitionist movement stemmed from their integral beliefs of equality and that ‘there’s something transcendent and precious in every person’ which closely aligned with the emancipation of slaves7.

Unfortunately, the moral sense of duty which was created by the religious masses involved in the movement led some activists to feel morally superior to the enslaved persons they were freeing or had freed8. In some ways, this limited their contribution to the movement as it tied a condition of Christian duty to ex-slaves’ freedom. For some, the freedom given to the enslaved was seen as a gift – rather than a right – to be repaid by a life abiding by Christian morals. This particularly imposed on the restrictive position of freed black women as wives and mothers.

Nonetheless, the overall contribution of British women to the abolition movement through their meritorious uses of both philanthropy and religion was fundamental to its success and justifies Garrison’s praise.

Notes

  1. L. Garrison, An Address Delivered at the Broadway Tabernacle, N. Y., August 1, 1838: By Request of the people of Color of That City, in Commemoration of the Complete Emancipation of 600,000 slaves on That Day, in the British West Indies, (Classic Reprint, (London: Forgotten Books, 2018). p. 38
  2. Midgley, Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns, 1780-1870, (Oxfordshire: Taylor & Francis, 2004). Pp. 68-69.
  3. C. Heyrick, Immediate, not gradual abolition, (Philadelphia: the Philadelphia A. S. Society, 1837 (originally published 1824)). p. 31
  4. L. Garrison, An Address Delivered at the Broadway Tabernacle, N. Y., August 1, 1838: By Request of the people of Color of That City, in Commemoration of the Complete Emancipation of 600,000 slaves on That Day, in the British West Indies,p. 39
  5. Hymns of anti-slavery prayer meetings., 1838, prayer book, Jstor, [Accessed 4th May 2021], https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/60227744
  6. R. Oldfield, Transatlantic Abolitionism in the Age of Revolution: An International History of Anti-Slavery, c. 1787-1820, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013). Pp. 68-69
  7. Quakers in Britain, ‘Our Faith’: https://www.quaker.org.uk/about-quakers/our-faith (accessed 17th June 2021).
  8. R. Oldfield, Transatlantic Abolitionism in the Age of Revolution, p. 36