Black History Month: Robert Wedderburn, Revolutionary and Abolitionist

By Annie Dickinson, Visitor Engagement Assistant

The 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre last August saw commemorative events held across Manchester, including an exhibition here at the Rylands. As well as remembering the eighteen people that lost their lives in the massacre, these events celebrated those that fought for democracy and freedom from poverty during the early nineteenth century. These kinds of histories often tend to focus on the struggles of the white working class, but that is not to say that black involvement in working-class movements did not exist.

The case of Robert Wedderburn, a black activist, abolitionist, and Unitarian preacher, who for thirty years was at the heart of London’s working-class radical community, demonstrates that nineteenth-century working-class movements were in fact multicultural. Though not present at Peterloo himself, having been in prison at the time, in the weeks that followed Wedderburn condemned the actions of the magistrates and yeomanry as murder. His story shows that there was common ground between those fighting for the rights of impoverished workers in Britain and those fighting for the liberty of enslaved peoples in the West Indies. For Wedderburn, these causes were two sides of the same coin.

Portrait of Robert Wedderburn from the frontispiece to his autobiography, The Horrors of Slavery (1824), courtesy of the British Library, shelfmark 8156.c.71(4).

Born in Jamaica to an enslaved West African mother and a Scottish slave owner father, Wedderburn – who had been freed by his father aged two – left Jamaica at sixteen, serving in the Royal Navy before eventually settling in England during the 1770s. He found work as a tailor and, despite the desperate poverty in which he lived, was able to educate himself, rising to become one of the country’s leading radicals. In 1819 Wedderburn opened his own Unitarian chapel in a converted hayloft in Soho, from which he organised debates and meetings, advertised as “lectures every Sabbath day on Theology, Morality, Natural Philosophy and Politics by a self-taught West Indian”.

The most prolific black writer in Britain during the early nineteenth century, Wedderburn published numerous books, pamphlets and polemics. He used the cruelty he had witnessed as a child – seeing both his mother and grandmother flogged by white men, for example – to create powerful personal testimonies in the fight against slavery. Yet he also spoke and wrote on diverse topics including the need for religious tolerance, the Church’s complicity in slavery, and communistic principles such as common ownership of land.

Satirical Print (1817), British Museum, 174827001. This satirical caricature depicts Wedderburn on the righthand side of the socialist Robert Owen. He is shown to be criticising Owen’s ideas for social reform as nothing but ‘an improved system of slavery’.

Wedderburn’s radicalism went further than that of both reformers like Henry Hunt and Robert Owen, and abolitionists like William Wilberforce. He proposed that simultaneous revolution in Britain and the West Indies was the only way to put an end to the twin horrors of poverty and slavery. At a meeting at his chapel on 9 August 1819, only a week before Peterloo, Wedderburn raised the question, “Has a slave an inherent right to slay his Master, who refuses him his liberty?” The gathered crowd voted overwhelmingly in favour. Yet this question could apply to the working class in Britain as much as to West Indian slaves; for Wedderburn, the slave owner and the mill owner were equally tyrannical oppressors.

Inevitably, Wedderburn attracted the attention of the authorities, and in February 1820 he was tried and convicted for blasphemy and sedition. Amongst other things, this so-called blasphemy included pointing out inconsistencies within the Bible and describing Jesus Christ as “a genuine radical reformer”, who stood up for the poor and oppressed. Wedderburn had the record of his trial published, and a copy survives in the Rylands Special Collections.

The Trial of the Rev. Robert Wedderburn for Blasphemy (1820). Title page. The John Rylands Library, R106162.3

Unable to afford a lawyer, Wedderburn gave his own defence, which is recorded verbatim in the published Trial. Rather than denying that which he is accused of, he instead presents an eloquent and persuasive argument for religious tolerance and freedom of opinion. He even refers to “a conspiracy against the poor, to keep them in ignorance and superstition”, citing the hypocrisy of a situation in which the rich and well educated are able to read contemporary philosophy that points out Biblical inconsistencies and voices doubt, yet for him to do the same thing for poor and uneducated people is considered a crime. Wedderburn ends his defence with the powerful statement that if found guilty he will be “happier in the dungeon to which you may consign me, than my persecutors, on their beds of down”.

“I shall be far happier in the dungeon to which you may consign me, than my persecutors, on their beds of down.”

Robert Wedderburn, ‘Trial for Blasphemy’

The published Trial document situates Wedderburn within the network of radicals and revolutionary thinkers associated with the Peterloo Massacre. The volume was edited by George Cannon (under the pseudonym “Erasmus Perkins”), and sold by a “Mrs Carlile”. George Cannon also edited a radical periodical associated with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose “Masque of Anarchy” was written in the wake of Peterloo. “Mrs Carlile” is Jane Carlile, the wife of Richard Carlile, who had been due to speak at the Peterloo meeting, and was imprisoned for publishing an eyewitness account of the massacre, condemned by the authorities as anti-government material. The Rylands copy of Wedderburn’s Trial is bound in the same volume as “The Political House that Jack Built”, a popular satire by William Hone and the caricaturist George Cruikshank, which condemns the corruption and authoritarianism of the British political elite.

The New Union Club (1819), British Museum, 111088001. This racist caricature by George Cruikshank is believed to depict Wedderburn as the central standing figure. It demonstrates the depth of the racism that he faced, and the threat that the establishment saw him as posing.

Despite the judge’s acknowledgement that Wedderburn’s defence was “exceedingly well drawn up”, Wedderburn was, predictably, found guilty, and sentenced to two years in prison, leaving his wife and six children unprovided for. This is typical of a life in which Wedderburn often found himself at the mercy of the political establishment due to his progressive and unorthodox views, as well as his race.

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