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Bedfordshire and the Abolition of Slavery

The Abolition of Slavery and its Impact: the evidence at Bedfordshire Archives by James Collett-White

For the first part of this article see: Bedfordshire & The Transatlantic Slave Trade This article written by James Collett-White in 2008 and was revised by staff in 2023. 

Abolition of the Transatlantic slave trade was obviously a triumph but did not lead to the collapse of slavery directly. Slavery in the West Indies and America could have continued indefinitely with home produced enslaved people, helped by buying enslaved people from all the other countries that had not abolished slavery. When peace was finally made between France and Britain in 1815, France was allowed to have five years grace before abolition. This caused considerable political upset between those who thought the clause should never have been included.

While Wilberforce and the Abolitionists continued their campaign, it was the arrival of the Whig Grey administration from 22nd November 1830 that meant there was a real chance of slavery being abolished in Britain and its colonies. Their key priority was the passing of the Reform Bill in 1832. Once this was passed, there was parliamentary time for Thomas Fowell Buxton to bring forward a measure to abolish slavery. He agreed in March 1833 to postpone a bill on the subject until the Government brought forward its own legislation. This was delayed until May partly because of the change of Minister involved. Frederick Robinson, Viscount Goderich, (brother to Earl De Grey of Wrest Park) was replaced by Lord Stanley on 3rd April 1833 as Secretary of State for War and the Colonies. Stanley was nicknamed the ‘Prince Rupert of Debate’ and was more likely to win the debate than the uncharismatic financier ‘Prosperity Robinson’. The Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette and Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press [Ref. MIC 245/9] of 11 May 1833 recorded that in Bedfordshire: ‘The most intense interest has been excited throughout this county on the subject of Negro Emancipation, and great anxiety is manifested respecting the development of the ministerial plan of Tuesday next. Petitions from every town, and from many of the villages, praying for the total and immediate abolition of slavery have been forwarded to both Houses of Parliament; and requisitions sent to the members for the county and the borough, requesting them to support the Ministerial measure should it indeed “be safe and satisfactory;” and if not, any amendment that may be proposed with a view to accomplish this great object. The furious persecutions of Christian missionaries, the wanton and malicious destruction of their places of worship and the cruel treatment of Christian slaves, demonstrate the planters’ conviction that Christianity and slavery cannot co-exist, and hence Christians of every name have felt themselves bound to…raise their voice against this iniquitous system’. Despite a spat over the compensation allowed to planters, the Act became law in August 1833.

Slavery continued elsewhere in the world after 1833, especially in the southern states of America. In the archives of the Harris family of Leighton Buzzard is a letter from Mary Fletcher to her daughter describing a large Anti-Slavery meeting chaired by the Earl of Shaftesbury at Exeter Hall in London on 17th May 1853 and which was attended by Harriet Beecher Stowe, just after the publication of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ [Ref. Z525/150]. The Bedford Mercury reported that Washington Duff, an escaped enslaved person from Kentucky, gave a lecture about slavery at a meeting on 28th January 1865 at Wilden, helping to put the fighting between North and South in America in context for Bedfordshire people.

The Payne family continued to own their St Kitts Estates and their records give a detailed picture of the difficulties of absentee landowners after Abolition. The correspondence of their agents R & T Neave [Ref. D7/1-144] refers to the destruction of the church in St Kitts by an earthquake in 1857 and in 1862-1865 to the effect of the American War on West Indian sugar prices. In 1865 they concluded ‘the prospects of the sugar market are good for some time as the planting of sugar cane in Louisiana must take time to establish and the emancipated negro will hardly be induced to do as much work as in a state of slavery.’ On 10th August 1874 an ex-enslaved man, James Amos, aged 80, wrote to Payne claiming that he owned his small hut. This had always been accepted since 1834 but the new agent said that it belonged to the Estate. He asked that the ownership be confirmed. Touchingly, he also mentioned ‘your giving me one of your Old Cloaks to keep my Old Frame warm.’ [Ref. D203]. Sugar prices rose in 1863 but by 1869 the estate was losing money [Ref. D204]. In the archive are leases, inventories and a map of 1863 of St Kitts [Ref. D210].

In 1876 Samuel Whitbread III, MP for Bedford, became the fourth member of the family to vote against slavery, by establishing the principle that fugitive enslaved people escaping to a British Man of War were free [Ref.W3963].

Turning to 20th Century records, we have the papers of Herbert C. Janes, a Luton builder, member of the Anti-Slavery Society and later President of the Baptist Union. On 12th September 1938 Sir John Harris wrote to Janes about his extensive fact finding trip to South Africa. He was worried about the growing discrimination against natives, ‘openly avowed in the Union Territories and extending is the declaration that the African is by creation a being altogether from the white races. Further, that the Almighty has once and for all said-‘A servant of servants he shall be.’ It is probably most firmly held by people with the deepest religious conviction.’ He commented on the appallingly low wages for indigenous people (£4 pa after tax). He hoped that the scattering of people opposed to racism would do some good. A decade later, on 4th February 1948, Janes wrote to the President of the Anti-Slavery Society and Aborigines Protection Society ‘Are we concerned only with slavery when it affects coloured people? At the present time there are millions of slaves in shadow of doubt that we are living in the presence of the greatest slave organisation the world has ever known.’ [Ref. JN175] Slavery existed before the time covered by these articles and will sadly continue to do so either directly or in indirect ways.