By Alison Bailey
The Amersham anti-slavery petitions of 1824 and 1830 are important evidence of the grassroots abolitionist movement that persuaded the government to end slavery in the British colonies in 1833.
Black voices also played an important part in the struggle particularly through the eyewitness accounts of former slaves like Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince. Their autobiographical accounts of the horrors of slavery were publishing sensations and widely read. Slave rebellions in Demerara, now British Guiana, led by Quamina Gladstone (1823) and Jamaica, led by Samuel Sharpe (1831), were also widely covered in the national and local press. Abolitionist Elizabeth Heyrick said that “the slave was determined on breaking his own chains and asserting his own freedom”.
After 1833 the abolitionist movement continued to campaign against slavery elsewhere in the world and particularly in North America. This time formerly enslaved African American men and women were at the fore of the crusade, travelling to every corner of the Britain to speak in town halls, meeting houses and chapels, to inform people of the true nature of slavery. Frederick Douglass is the most famous black abolitionist of this period, but around 7 years before he arrived in Britain in 1845, Moses Roper was already lecturing and touring in South Bucks.
Moses Roper was born enslaved in Caswell County, North Carolina around 1815. When he was 7, Roper and his mother were sold to different masters. He was subsequently resold several times. He frequently ran away, but he was always captured and violently punished. Finally, in 1834, he escaped on a ship headed for New York.
By late 1835, however, his fear of being recaptured grew so intense he decided to leave America for Great Britain. In Liverpool, Roper presented a letter of introduction to British abolitionists, who warmly welcomed him. They provided him with an education at schools in Hackney and Wallingford before he attended University College London. In 1837 he published his own account of his experiences as a slave and toured from Penzance to Inverness, to speak in town halls, meeting houses and chapels, giving lectures on the horrors of slavery. In 1839, he married an Englishwoman from Bristol, teacher, Ann Stephens Price. In 1844, they sailed for Canada and had 4 children together. Roper returned to Britain for further tours in the 1850s and 1860s and gave around 1000 lectures here. He died in 1891 in New England, estranged from his family with only his loyal dog, Pete at his side. Ann and the children lived with her father in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales from 1861. One of their daughters, Annie, emigrated to Australia and they have descendants there.
Between 1838 and 1844 Moses spoke in many of the towns of Buckinghamshire including Marlow, High Wycombe, Beaconsfield, and Chesham. He also toured smaller rural communities such as Chenies, Little Kingshill, Speen and Great Missenden. The Bucks Archive recently found a promotional poster advertising a talk at Haddenham Baptist Meeting House. He relied on local religious circuits, particularly Quakers and non-conformist ministers to arrange and advertise the lectures and provide him with transport, and hospitality.
His talks were well attended and widely reported in the local press. Described as “very tall and athletic looking” by one writer he did not hold back on brutal descriptions of his experiences. He exhibited whips, chains, and other gruesome instruments of torture such as the “paddle” which resembled a cricket bat with holes in it. He described how after one escape attempt, he was tied to a bale of cotton, and then beaten with the paddle until he was covered in raised welts. His owner then sawed these open with a fine saw! Such graphic descriptions were too much for some who discredited his testimony. Moses refused to moderate his language however and insisted he only told the truth of his experience.
Later black abolitionists confirmed his experiences. In August 1854, John Brown, another escaped slave spoke at the Temperance Hall in Chesham. Harriet Beecher Stowe had published Uncle Tom’s Cabin 2 years previously and inspired further interest in American slavery.
According to the local paper, Brown “delivered a very thrilling lecture, dressed in horns and bells, as worn by recaptured slaves”. He also sang African hymns to entertain his audience but didn’t hold back from graphic description: “he recited the sufferings he endured under the hands of Dr Hamilton who practised upon him by way of experiment and put him into a burning hot pit dug in the earth, almost depriving him of respiration to test his strength of constitution!”
Born enslaved in Virginia, John Brown also made several escape attempts before he was successful, eventually settling in London in 1850. The Fugitive Slave Act of that year meant that he was no longer safe anywhere in America. As a slave in Georgia he befriended an older slave named John Glasgow, who had been a free man in the British merchant navy and had lived in England, where he had a wife and children, before he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in America.
In London John Brown found work as a carpenter. He also contacted the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and started to lecture around the country. He was illiterate but dictated his memoirs to the society’s secretary who published them in 1855. He later married a local woman and earned a modest living as an herb doctor. He never returned to America and died a free man in 1876.
In April 1861 just after the start of the American Civil War, John Andrew Jackson, another fugitive, gave a talk at the Temperance Hall in Chesham. The War had reignited interest in American slavery and abolitionists wanted to convince the British public to support the Union (anti-slavery) cause. Unusually Jackson was accompanied by his wife Julia who also gave her testimony of life as a slave. She is believed to be one of the first African American women to talk publicly about her experience.
John Andrew Jackson also recorded his memories and spared no details in relating the murder of his sister, and his frequent whippings at the hands of a “Christian” master and mistress. After he was separated by sale from his first wife and children, he escaped on a pony he had exchanged for 3 hens before stowing away on a ship bound for Boston. He initially settled in Canada where he met Julia, a fugitive slave from North Carolina.
With the support of Harriet Beecher Stowe the Jacksons travelled to Britain in 1857 to raise money to purchase the freedom of John’s children. With the end of the Civil War they returned to live in Massachusetts.
Other black abolitionist that gave talks in the area included James Watkins, Benjamin Benson and the marvellously named Washington Duff who spoke in the Baptist Social Room in Great Missenden in 1863.
Advocates of Freedom, African American Transatlantic Abolitionism in the British Isles by Hannah Rose Murray
British Newspaper Archive
Georgia Encyclopaedia online
Moses Roper, b. 1815. Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper, from American Slavery. With an Appendix, Containing a List of Places Visited by the Author in Great Britain and Ireland and the British Isles; and Other Matter (unc.edu)