It has been approximated that between the years 1500 and 1900, almost 12 million individuals were removed from Africa by European merchants. These individuals were often bought from west African traders and forcibly moved across the Atlantic to the Americas in what is known as the Slave Trade or the trans-Atlantic Trade in Enslaved Individuals. Only just over 10 million would actually survive the passage. These enslaved individuals would then be put to work in the Americas under intolerable working conditions in what might be considered one of the worst atrocities of the modern age. It was not until 25 March 1807 that the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed by the British government. Despite undergoing great hardships, the men and women of African descent who actively resisted their enslavement are largely forgotten. Instead the focus is often only upon white British men such as William Wilberforce, who often receive the sole credit for bringing slavery to an end. As such, while this blog post investigates the ‘kneeling slave’ imagery of the UK Abolitionist movements in commemoration of the Abolition Act, the hardships of the enslaved individual and their personal struggle must be kept in mind.
A common motif of the British movement against the Slave Trade, the ‘kneeling slave’ or ‘supplicant slave’ was designed by Josiah Wedgwood, the prestigious potter and prominent abolitionist. The motif was often accompanied with the phrase “Am I not a man and a brother?”. This depiction of an enslaved African individual, kneeling in supplication with hands clasped together skyward has been described as the first example of a logo designed for a political cause. Initially designed as a seal, it wasn’t long before Wedgewood’s Etruria ceramic factory located in Stoke-on-Trent was producing jasper cameos of the design, produced at his own expense. In 1788, examples of these cameos were sent across the Atlantic to Benjamin Franklin, then President of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.
While the motif of the ‘kneeling slave’ is evocative of the fight to abolish the trans-Atlantic Trade in Enslaved Individuals, questions have been raised in modern times as to whether it diminishes the role of enslaved Africans themselves in the fight to end slavery. In the context of the period, however, it may have been a shrewd design choice by Josiah Wedgewood to appeal to a sense of duty in the British Public to help the ‘helpless’ and be the saviours of those who were enslaved. Despite this, in a modern teaching environment, the imagery of an apparently docile, powerless African man, pleading on his knees to powerful British figures for his freedom could be argued to do more harm than good when used to illustrate the horrors of the Trade, ignoring the active resistance of many enslaved individuals. Nevertheless it has been suggested that Wedgwood’s inspiration for the cameo came from the classical hero Heracles/Hercules. Historian Cynthia Hamilton paralleled the twelve labours of Hercules, which he is sometimes said to have been compelled to do, to the forced labour of an enslaved individual on an American plantation. This comparison can be said to ascribe agency to the individual depicted, showing them as powerful despite their enslavement.
The ‘Kneeling Slave’ on the PAS Database
The ‘kneeling slave’ cameo became a popular feature on many abolitionist fashion accessories, such as snuff boxes, pendants and bracelets. Several small finds are recorded on the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme’s database that feature the motif. Alongside historical research, these examples may allow us to illustrate aspects of British abolition movements.
A well preserved example from the database is SUR-E15086, a copper alloy cufflink discovered near Guildford, Surrey. On the face of each cufflink is the motif of the ‘kneeling slave’, although not in the same level of detail as seen elsewhere. Surrounding the kneeling figure is the legend “AM.I.NOT.A.BROTHER”, a shortened form of the common abolitionist slogan. Perhaps these cufflinks were a small yet noticeable way of showing one’s support for the Abolitionist movement. Being found not far from London, a hub of the trade, perhaps they were owned by a socialite of polite society, with acquaintances involved both in the Trade and in its abolition.
Another common item from the period would have been clay smoking pipes. DEV-124273 from Devon is an example of such a pipe on the PAS database, also featuring the ‘kneeling slave’ motif. Unusually however, the subject is facing left. Unfortunately, only the left face of the bowl has survived, meaning it cannot be confirmed whether the opposite side depicted a mirrored image of the enslaved individual that would indeed be facing right. Whether the design is merely an imitation of Wedgwood’s design or was manufactured by the abolitionist is unclear. Again, the owner of this pipe may have smoked from it as a small but simple way of showing their support for the abolition of the Trade.
The slogan “Am I not a man and a brother” was a common feature on abolitionist objects, especially medals and token. Several medals on the database feature this legend. IOW-1FD174 is a well-preserved medal found on the Isle of Wight dating to around the year 1790. The legend, “A MAN AND A BROTHER” is still legible on the obverse (heads) side and surrounds a central motif of the kneeling slave, much like the cuff link previously described. On its reverse (tails) side is a representation of shaking hands with a legend which would have read “MAY SLAVERY AND OPPRESSION CEASE THROUGHOUT THE WORLD”. Better preserved examples of this medal can be found in the collection of British Museum (such as records M.4899 and M.4900). The British Museum records date these medals to 1787, the same year as the foundation of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (shortened to the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade). They also suggest that these medals were issued from places such as York, Middlesex and London, showing the popularity of the abolitionist movement across the country.
A very interesting if poorly preserved find is DENO-6C7E1B from Derbyshire, another medal. The reverse side features a ‘kneeling slave’ and the remains of the legend “AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER”. The obverse, however, features the bust of a well-dressed man, presumed to be of a leading abolitionist, possibly Thomas Clarkson. It was Clarkson, alongside Granville Sharp, who founded the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, of which Josiah Wedgwood was a member, in 1787.
We may like to see the owners of such accessories as showing solidarity with the enslaved Africans in the Americas. It has been suggested however that the importance for many individuals in well-to-do British society lay more in associating oneself with the morality and good character of the abolitionists than with the enslaved (perhaps this is not too dissimilar to our society today). The bust of Thomas Clarkson on this medal, providing a direct link between the owner and a leading figure of the movement, seems to add credence to this view.
Towns such as Manchester, however, show a slightly different story, with over 10,000 signatures supporting a petition to end the Trade. This figure represented about two-thirds of the adult male population and had been achieved independently of Clarkson’s society based in London. This would suggest that people did truly care for the cause, not just the prestige. A publicised list of abolitionist subscribers published in Manchester in 1787 shows 68 out of 302 entries to be of women. This was followed by London’s list from 1788 which shows 200 entries to be of women, around 10% of the subscribers. It has been suggested that this helped affirm women as legitimate voices in the public sphere.
The trans-Atlantic Trade in Enslaved Individuals was banned by the British Parliament in 1807 with it coming into force in 1808, prohibiting the trading of Enslaved Individuals anywhere in the British Empire. However, it wasn’t until 1833 that the individuals already enslaved were freed with the abolishment of slavery in the British Empire. The imagery of the movement may have given a sense of unity to the abolitionist groups within the United Kingdom. There are some finds, such as the clay pipe bowl above, where we cannot be sure as to whether the piece was made explicitly by the London-based abolitionist movement or by others. Nevertheless, the use of the same ‘kneeling slave’ motif by many different groups may have shown the national nature of the movement. However, imagery on its own cannot make change. We must not forget the men and women behind this image – not just the abolitionists campaigning for slavery’s end, but also the many people of African descent who actively resisted enslavement, and the millions who endured the hardships of slavery.
- 1807 Commemorated The Abolition of the slave trade, (2007) ‘Topic two: The image of the supplicant slave: advert or advocate?’, 1807 Commemorated The Abolition of the slave trade, viewed 6 October 2020, <https://archives.history.ac.uk/1807commemorated/discussion/supplicant_slave.html>
- Hamilton, (2013) ‘Hercules Subdued: The Visual Rhetoric of the Kneeling Slave’, Slavery & Abolition, 34 (4), 631-652.
- Beckles, (2002) ‘SLAVE VOYAGES The Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved Africans’, Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, viewed 12 October 2020, https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000128631
- Drescher, (2008) ‘Public Opinion and Parliament in the Abolition of the British Slave Trade’, Parliamentary History, 26, 42-65.
Thanks are given to Maria Kneafsey, Lauren Speed, Lucy Shipley, Claire Costin and Michael Lewis for their invaluable advice and proofreading of various drafts and earlier versions
Supported by the PAS Equality and Diversity Working Group