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Blue glass sugar bowl inscribed in gilt
Sugar bowl used in England in the anti-slavery movement boycott in the 1800s.
While studying the enslavement of blacks in the Caribbean, where the primary plantation product was sugar, I ran across a photo of a sugar bowl, like the one pictured above, which led me to the British anti-slavery and abolition movement and the women who were militantly involved in fighting to end the scourge.

That bowl was my first introduction to the boycott Caribbean sugar movement. When I thought of boycotts in relation to people's movements, the first thing that popped into my head was the Montgomery bus boycott in the 1950s and Rosa Parks—that history is still being revisited to reflect the role of women in those battles. Though we learned a smidgin about slavery and the Civil War when I was in grade school, no one ever taught me about a boycott of "slave-grown" sugar, nor did I learn much about women who were abolitionists, other than a mention perhaps of Harriet Tubman leading enslaved people to freedom, and Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin."  

I wonder today if the way that history was taught—dismissing, diminishing or completely ignoring the large abolition movement in England and the one here in the states—was because to portray white people side by side with free blacks vigorously challenging the institution of slavery would have reflected poorly on all those so-called "fathers of our country" and the 12 U.S. presidents who were slaveowners and slave sellers.

Even today there are those who resist castigating those founding plantocrats, excusing their owning, breeding and selling humans as par for the course "in the context of the time." Let us not forget, in those same times, that there were voices crying out against slavery as an abomination.

Since history tends to be taught through a male lens, it is only recently that we have begun to uncover more about the role of women in the fight to abolish slavery.

Continue reading below the fold to meet some of the women involved.


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The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840, by Benjamin Robert Haydon (died 1846), given to the National Portrait Gallery, London in 1880 by the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Oil on canvas,
The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840, in England, painted by Benjamin Robert Haydon
As I grew older and spent time researching enslavement, abolition and antislavery movements, much of what I learned was in a U.S. context, and when I began to pursue Women's Studies my picture of the times expanded to include Sojourner Truth (though I still believed she had proclaimed "Ain't I a Woman") Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton (though she later split with abolitionists over the 14th and 15th amendments), Lucy Stone and Angelina Grimké. A lot of what I read looking for abolition and women's involvement was classed together with women's suffrage.

I knew that Lucretia Mott had traveled to England to attend the Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840, but the famous painting of that event by Benjamin Robert Haydon only showed a few female faces, relegated to the sidelines.

I learned the "backstory" later in Clare Midgley's book, Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns, 1780-1870.

On 20 September 1840 anti-slavery campaigner Anne Knight wrote to her friend Lucy Townsend, who fifteen years before had founded the first women's anti-slavery society in Britain. Anne called on Lucy to put herself forward for inclusion in the commemorative group portrait of the World Anti-Slavery Convention which had been held in London that June:

My dear long silent friend my slave benefactress Not now would I trouble thy retirement but I am very anxious that the historical picture now in hand of Haydon should not be performed without the chief lady of the history being there…in justice to history and posterity the person who established woman agency…has as much right to be there as Thomas Clarkson himself, nay perhaps more, his achievement was in the slave trade; thine was slavery itself the pervading movement the heart-stirring the still small voice….

In the event Lucy Townsend was not included in the oil painting which Benjamin Robert Haydon produced, and I have been unable to locate any surviving image of the woman who initiated women's anti-slavery organisations in Britain. Nevertheless Haydon's group portrait did include a number of women campaigners. The bonneted figure of Mary Clarkson, accorded a place on the platform by virtue of her relationship to Convention president Thomas Clarkson, is visible in the left foreground of the picture.

Detail from the larger painting
Other women, confined to the visitor's gallery, are mostly represented by Haydon as tiny unidentifiable figures in the background. However, because of his desire to make individual portraits of some of the women present, Haydon brought forward a group along the right-hand side of the picture, separated from the men by an almost invisible red barrier. In the key to the painting they are identified as follows: Mrs Tredgold and Mrs John Beaumont, the wives of two leading male activists; leading local women campaigners Mary Anne Rawson of Sheffield, Elizabeth Pease of Darlington and Anne Knight of Chelmsford; anti-slavery writer Amelia Opie of Norwich and aristocratic supporter Lady Noel Byron. A group of American women who had unsuccessfully attempted to gain admission to the Convention as delegates were not individually portrayed, with the exception of Lucretia Mott, whom Haydon accorded a tiny individual portrait in the background.
(Use this link to be able to mouse over the painting to identify those in attendance.)

Women's Anti-Slavery Associations:

When the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was set up in 1783 it had an exclusively male organization. Some of the leaders of the anti-slavery movement such as William Wilberforce were totally opposed to women being involved in the campaign. One of Wilberforce's concerns was that women wanted to go further than the abolition of the slave trade. Early women activists such as Anne Knight and Elizabeth Heyrick were in favour of the immediate abolition of slavery, whereas Wilberforce believed that the movement should concentrate on bringing an end to the slave trade.
Britain abolished the trade in black humans in 1807, and then it abolished slavery in its colonies in 1833. Though the U.S. ostensibly abolished trade in 1807, while England was moving toward abolition, the domestic trade in slaves inside the U.S. was growing—no longer dependent on buying Africans, they could breed their own.  
The export trade from Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia was very well established by the 1780s. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Charles C. Pinckney explained that Virginia "will gain by stopping importation [from Africa]. Her slaves will rise in value and she has more than she wants."  South Carolina and Georgia whites called out for slaves - and newspaper advertisements of 1787 show that Virginia was ready to supply them. The trader Austin Moses advertised in Richmond, Virginia, for: "One hundred Negroes from 20 to 30 years old for which a good price will be given. They are to be sent out of state, therefore we shall not be particular respecting character of any of them - hearty and well made is all that is necessary."...By the 1790s, Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia had become the main exporting areas, the bulk of their "shipments" going to Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, the Carolinas, and the sugar-planting regions of Louisiana. But by the 1820s the Carolinas and Kentucky were exporting more people than they were importing.
Though most texts highlighted William Wilberforce and his mentor Thomas Clarkson, Midgley's book led me to women of all class backgrounds who were engaged in the battle to end one of recent history's worst travesties.

Mobilizing the public:

In 1791, thousands of pamphlets were printed which encouraged people to boycott sugar produced by slaves. Estimates suggest some 300,000 people abandoned sugar, with sales dropping by a third to a half. Some shops advertised goods which had been produced by 'freemen' and sales of sugar from India, where slavery was not used, increased tenfold over two years.

Hundreds of thousands of people also signed petitions calling for the abolition of the slave trade. Many supported the campaign against their own interests. For example, in Manchester (which sold some £200,000 worth of goods each year to slave ships) roughly 20% of the city's population signed petitions in support of abolition. The size and strength of feeling demonstrated by these popular protests made even pro-slavery politicians consider the consequences of ignoring public opinion. One pro-slavery lobbyist of the time noted that the 'Press teems with pamphlets upon the subject ... The stream of popularity runs against us.'

Key in the boycott movement was the voice of Elizabeth Coleman Heyrick, born in 1769 in Leicester, England, to a wealthy cloth-merchant and his wife. In 1807 she became a Quaker, began to work on prison reform and became an opponent of war. But her eyes and heart turned towards slavery, and she became a leading voice in the call for abolition.

Elizabeth Heyrick (1789-1831): The Radical Campaigner:

Heyrick began campaigning for a new sugar boycott in Leicester, with the help of Lucy Townsend, Mary Lloyd, Sarah Wedgwood and Sophia Sturge. She visited all of the city's grocers to urge them not to stock slave-grown goods. Her message was clear cut. She described the West India planters as being like thieves and those who bought their produce, like receivers of stolen goods. She asked, why petition Parliament when we can take swifter action ourselves? She wanted all slavery ended forever. She criticized the mainstream anti-slavery figures for being slow, cautious and accommodating.

In 1824, she published her pamphlet 'Immediate not Gradual Abolition'. This differed from the official policy of gradual abolition and William Wilberforce gave out instructions for leaders of the movement not to speak at women's anti-slavery societies, most of which supported Heyrick. However, her pamphlet was distributed and discussed at meetings all over the country. In 1830, the Female Society for Birmingham submitted a motion to the National Conference of the Anti-Slavery Society calling for it to campaign for an immediate end to slavery in the British colonies. Below are some extracts from her 1824 pamphlet:
"..The perpetuation of slavery in our West India colonies is not an abstract question, to be settled between the government and the planters; it is one in which we are all implicated, we are all guilty of supporting and perpetuating slavery. The West Indian planter and the people of this country stand in the same moral relation to each other as the thief and receiver of stolen goods"
"The West Indian planters have occupied much too prominent a place in the discussion of this great question....The abolitionists have shown a great deal too much politeness and accommodation towards these gentlemen...."Why petition Parliament at all, to do that for us, which. . .we can do more speedily and effectually for ourselves?"

One of the most compelling stories of abolitionists is that of Ellen and William Craft:
Ellen and William Craft, fugitive slaves, abolitionist
Ellen and William Craft, fugitive slaves, and abolitionists
Ellen, who looked white, was born in Macon, Georgia, the property of her white slaveholding father, Major James Smith, who owned her mother Maria. When she was 11 years old she was given away by Smith's wife as a wedding present to her daughter.
At the age of 20, Ellen married a fellow slave, William Craft, in whom her master Collins held a half interest. Craft saved money from being hired out in town as a carpenter. Not wanting to rear a family in slavery, during the Christmas season of 1848, the couple planned an escape.
Ellen Craft - image from:
Ellen Craft, disguised as a male
to escape slavery with her husband William
Their narrative, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery can be read online.
Ellen planned to take advantage of her appearance to pass as white while they traveled by train and boat to the North, with William to act as her slave and personal servant. To carry out this plan, Ellen also had to pass as male, since a single white woman would not have been traveling alone with a male slave in those years. She cut her hair and bought appropriate clothes, traveling in jacket and trousers. She wore her right arm in a sling to hide the fact that she did not know how to write. They traveled to nearby Macon for a train to Savannah. Although the Crafts had several close calls along the way and neither could read nor write, they were successful in evading detection. On December 21, they boarded a steamship for Philadelphia, where they arrived early on the morning of Christmas Day.

Their innovation was in escaping as a pair. Historians have noted other slave women who posed as men to escape, such as Clarissa Davis of Virginia, who dressed as a man and took a New England-bound ship to freedom; Mary Millburn, who also sailed as a male passenger; and Maria Weems from the District of Columbia. She dressed as a man and escaped as a girl of fifteen.

Soon after the Crafts' arrival in the North, abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and William Wells Brown encouraged them to recount their escape in public lectures to abolitionist circles of New England. They moved to the well-established free black community of Beacon Hill in Boston and were married in a Christian ceremony. Ellen Craft posed in her escape clothes for a photograph (the basis for the engraving included with this article), which was widely distributed by abolitionists as part of their campaign against slavery. Like her actions, her image as a man challenged viewers' assumptions about the "fixity of gender, race, normalcy and class." During the next two years, the Crafts made numerous public appearances and recounted their escape. Because society generally disapproved at the time of women speaking to public audiences of mixed gender, Ellen generally stood on the stage while William told their story. An article of April 27, 1849 in the abolitionist paper The Liberator, however, reported her speaking to an audience of 800–900 people in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Audiences were intensely curious about the young woman who had been so bold in escape.


They could not continue on as activists in the North because they were still fugitives, and when The Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, they escaped once again, this time to England.
They traveled from Portland, Maine overland to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they boarded the Cambria, bound for Liverpool. As William later recounted in their memoir, "It was not until we stepped ashore at Liverpool that we were free from every slavish fear". They were aided in England by a group of prominent abolitionists, including Harriet Martineau, who arranged for their intensive schooling at the Ockham School in Surrey. Having learned to read and write, in 1852 Ellen Craft published the following, which was widely circulated in the antislavery press in both Great Britain and the US:

    So I write these few lines merely to say that the statement is entirely unfounded, for I have never had the slightest inclination whatever of returning to bondage; and God forbid that I should ever be so false to liberty as to prefer slavery in its stead. In fact, since my escape from slavery, I have gotten much better in every respect than I could have possibly anticipated. Though, had it been to the contrary, my feelings in regard to this would have been just the same, for I had much rather starve in England, a free woman, than be a slave for the best man that ever breathed upon the American continent.

        — Anti-Slavery Advocate, December 1852

The Crafts spent 19 years in England, where they had five children together. Ellen participated in reform organizations such as the London Emancipation Committee, the Women's Suffrage Organization, and the British and Foreign Freedmen's Society. They earned speaking fees by public lectures about slavery in the US and their escape

Harriet Martineau, by Richard Evans, National Portrait Gallery, London
Harriet Martineau: sociologist, journalist and abolitionist. (portrait by Richard Evans)
Harriet Martineu, who aided the Crafts, was an amazing woman.

Writings on Slavery and the American Civil War, by Harriet Martineau, edited by Deborah Anna Logan.

A leading social reformer and pioneering abolitionist, British journalist Harriet Martineau fueled the debate over the abolition of slavery that raged on both sides of the Atlantic before the American Civil War. Her impassioned writings about abolition—with more than fifty essays and articles collected in this premier annotated edition—provide piercing insights into American society, politics, and the issue of slavery.

Determined to give a fair, objective hearing to both sides of the American slavery debate, Martineau crossed the ocean in 1834 and discovered a nation in turmoil. As a prominent writer, she was vigorously courted by both opponents and supporters of slavery who sought her endorsement for their political cause. From northern mansions to southern plantations, from Congress and President Jackson's White House to hospitals, factories, and slave quarters, people opened their doors to Martineau, providing her an unusually comprehensive view of American life.

Shocked by the intensity of the controversy over slavery, and inspired by the bravery and defiance of abolitionists who campaigned in the face of social pressure and physical danger, Martineau publicly declared her support of abolition in 1835. Joining the ranks of the abolitionists made Martineau a prime target for persecution, and the remainder of her stay in America was fraught with death threats. She returned to England and promoted her cause by writing for the British periodical press, a career that would span the next thirty-five years. Martineau's friend and fellow abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison praised her as a "social heretic" whose compulsion to uphold the moral ground of human dignity and freedom outweighed any concern with popular opinions about her character or reputation. Twenty years after her dramatic American tour, Martineau wrote with pride that her name was "still reviled" in the South. One of the first women to earn a living by her pen, Martineau never faltered in the lifelong crusade that placed her in the forefront of political and social reform efforts. Writings on Slavery and the American Civil War conveys one woman's persistent call for absolute, immediate, and universal emancipation

In Small Victories, Lasting Change: Harriet Martineau, Slavery, and Women's Rights by Daniella Boucher (Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge), we get some insight into the strength of this woman.
Harriet Martineau was a unique woman. She faced a variety of obstacles: multiple deaths of close relations, including her nephew, brother, father and fiance; her gender; and her deafness. Being a woman in Victorian England was not an easy situation. To be a woman writer, slowly challenging gender stereotypes, was even harder. Despite these hardships, Martineau was able to become a prolific writer, an educator, and an important voice on significant causes...It is important to underline that, because Martineau interacted with such a broad spectrum of people, because she engages both Native Americans and African Americans, and because she dealt with different socio-economic groups, she gradually acquired an extensive knowledge about the people of the United States.
Boucher quotes some of Martineu's observations on plantation owners' sexual habits with regards to women they owned and abused.
On the plantation, masters would often have sexual relations with his slaves. The children of these unions had the status of their mother, that is to say the children become slaves also. So the plantation owner gets to benefit financially from his lewd acts. In addition, because of the anger of the plantation wives, many of the biracial slave children were sold. This resulted in a tearing of the fabric of family life. This must have exacerbated feelings of hopelessness and despair.

As Martineau points out, plantation wives suffered under this system. Indeed there appears to be no winners in this sick situation. Women suffer because their husbands are engaging in adultery on a regular basis and yet the practice is culturally sanctioned, if implicitly. They suffer because they will have power over the slaves and are apt to take their anger over his indiscretions out on the slaves. Children suffered also:

What is to be expected of little girls who boast of having got a Negro flogged for being impertinent to them, and who are surprised at the 'ungentlemanly' conduct of a master who maims his slave? ... One of the absolutely inevitable results of slavery is a disregard of human rights; an inability even to comprehend them. (Martineau 1837: 342)

The image of American abolitionist and physician en:Sarah Parker Remond (1826–1894)
Abolitionist and physician Sarah Parker Remond.
One of the most important black female voices was that of Sarah Parker Remond:
She was born in Salem, Massachusetts, on June 6, 1826 to Nancy and John Remond as one of eight children.  Massachusetts had abolished slavery in conjunction with the American Revolution, and Sarah’s mother thus was born free.  Her father came from the West Indies about 1798, and the family became very prominent in the fight against slavery.  They provided a haven for escaping slaves, as slavery remained legal even in some northern states.  

Sarah grew up in Salem, a town that was exceptionally early to admit black children to elementary school. Her family lived comfortably due to their hair salon and catering business.  Raised with a strong emphasis on education, Sarah was proud when in 1835, she and her sister passed an entrance exam for a new girls’ academy in Salem, but despite meeting the school’s qualifications, they were rejected because of race.  Refusing to give up on secondary education, the Remond family moved to Newport, Rhode Island, where Sarah and her siblings attended an all-black private school.

In a speech she delivered (without notes) in Liverpool in 1859, [Remond] stated:

“I appeal on behalf of four millions of men, women, and children who are chattels in the Southern States of America, Not because they are identical with my race and color, though I am proud of that identity, but because they are men and women. The sum of sixteen hundred millions of dollars is invested in their bones, sinews, and flesh — is this not sufficient reason why all the friends of humanity should not endeavor with all their might and power, to overturn the vile systems of slavery.”

Lift Every Voice, African American Oratory, 1787-1901, edited by Philip S. Foner and Robert Branham, cites Remond's speech on Sept. 17, 1859 at the Athenaeum, as reported by the Manchester Times.

After being introduced by the mayor she delivered a powerful address giving the background of slavery in the U.S. and also welcoming the young people she saw in the audience. She went on to talk of current conditions:

The free colored people of the northern states are, for no crime but merely the fact of complexion, deprived of all political and social rights. Whatever wealth or eminence in intellect and refinement they may attain to, they are treated as outcasts; and white men and women who identify themselves with them are sure to he insulted in the grossest manner.

I do not ask your political interference in any way. This is a moral question. Even in America the Abolitionists generally disclaim every other ground but the moral and religious one on which this matter is based. You send missionaries to the heathen; I tell you of professing Christians practicing what is worse than any heathenism on record. How is it that we have come to this state of things, you ask. I reply, the whole power of the country is in the hands of the slaveholders. For more than thirty years we have had a slave-holding President, and the Slave Power has been dominant. The consequence has been a series of encroachments, until now at last the slave trade is reopened and all but legitimized in America. It was a sad backward step when England last year fell into the trap laid by America and surrendered the right of search. Now slavers ply on the seas which were previously guarded by your ships. We have, besides, an internal slave trade. We have states where, I am ashamed to say, men and women are reared, like cattle, for the market. When I walk through the streets of Manchester and meet load after load of cotton, I think of those eighty thousand cotton plantations on which was grown the one hundred and twenty-five millions of dollars' worth of cotton which supply your market, and I remember that not one cent of that money ever reached the hands of the laborers.

This speech is also available read by Ruby Dee and introduced by Ozzie Davis on a Folkways album of black women's speeches.

Her later life:

The Civil War began early in 1861, virtually forcing Remond to remain abroad, but she rendered a genuine service to the Union by continuing to speak there.  Because Southern cotton was vital to British textile mills, businessmen there wanted to enter the war on the side of the Confederacy.  Many Southerners believed that these powerful interests would persuade British gunboats to crash the Union’s blockades of ports such as New Orleans, and thus force the North to allow the Southern states to secede.  Sarah Remond spent the war reminding Britons that ending human bondage was more important than a temporary economic setback.

She also enrolled in the Bedford College for Ladies, the female unit of the University of London, where she studied languages such as French and Latin, as well as music.  Remond returned to the U.S. in 1867 and participated in an attempt to remove references to white males in New York’s state constitution, which would have expanded rights to blacks and women.  When that failed, she moved permanently to Europe.

Living out the rest of her life in Italy, she probably studied medicine in Florence.  Some sources say that she built a successful medical practice in Rome, and two of her sisters joined her there in 1885.  She married for the first time at age 50, and famed Frederick Douglass visited her in Rome in 1887.  Sarah Parker Remond died in 1894 and was buried in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery.

Archivist Dorothy B. Porter, in Sarah Parker Remond, Abolitionist and Physician, researched her life in Italy and cites:
Mrs. Elizabeth Buffum Chace, a Quaker and friend of abolition, visited Florence, Italy, in 1873, and tells in her memoirs of her travels there. She mentions a visit and a tea with a Mrs. Putnam at which Sarah Remond was present. Mrs. Chace described Miss Remond as a 'remarkable woman' and said that by her 'indomitable energy and perseverance she had won a fine position in Florence as a physician and also socially.' She quoted Miss Remond as saying that Americans had attempted to use their influence to prevent her success, 'by bringing their hateful prejudices' to Italy."
There are many other women, of all social classes and colors, on both sides of the Atlantic, who fought to end enslavement. It is impossible to tell all their stories here today, and some names we may never learn.

When I use my sugar bowl to prepare my morning coffee, I think of them, and say thank you.

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Mar 16, 2014 at 06:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Black Kos community, Barriers and Bridges, and Support the Dream Defenders.

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