A Brief History of Anti-Slavery in Leeds

The inspiration for this blog post came from attending a talk on Wilson Armistead by Joe Williams of Heritage Corner, Leeds. If you ever get the chance to hear Joe speak about black history in Leeds, you should take it. Any errors or omissions are entirely my own!

Leeds played an important, but largely unheralded, role in the campaign to abolish the American slave trade. Here is a brief history of the anti-slavery movement in Leeds.

1785 Inspired by his cousin’s tales of adventures on the high seas, 16-year William Butterworth of Leeds ran away to sea. At Liverpool, he obtained passage on a slave ship, the Hudibras, and endured a miserable three-year journey on board. The crew, of which Butterworth was one, were treated even worse than the slaves who at least had some intrinsic value as commodities to the slave-traders. He witnessed human sacrifice, an attempted mutiny and unimaginable cruelty.

Long after his return to Leeds, Butterworth was persuaded to write an account of his voyage, entitled “Three Years Adventures as a Minor in England, Africa, The West Indies, South Carolina and Georgia”. It is one of the only first-hand accounts of the brutal reality of life on board a slave ship.

William Butterworth

1834 Mixed-race American slave Moses Roper escaped from a series of cruel slave masters and made his way to England the following year. He came to Leeds in 1840 during a speaking tour to promote his autobiography and garner support for the anti-slavery movement. His first talk in Leeds proved so popular that admission to the second was by ticket only (costing three pence or six pence).

In 1839, former Antiguan slave, Betsy Sawyer, died in Yeadon. She had been emancipated by the Murray family & came to live & work for them in Yeadon. There is a memorial to her at Yeadon Methodist Church, which reads:

To the memory of Betsy Sawyer, born in slavery in the island of Antigua, who through missionary labour was brought to the knowledge and enjoyment of true religion obtained her freedom whilst residing in the family of the Rev T Murray in whose service she lived loved and respected for 16 years. She departed this life on 24 November 1839 aged 65 years in the faith and hope of the gospel. As a mark of affection for her this memorial stone was erected at the expense of her friends in the Methodist Society of this town.”

1848 Wilson Armistead of Leeds published “A Tribute for the Negro”, a 560-page series of biographies detailing the achievements of African people. Armistead, who had visited America, went on to lead the Leeds Anti-Slavery Society after its founding in 1853. The society was founded on the principles of William Lloyd Garrison, the American founder-editor of the abolitionist newspaper ‘The Liberator’, who also visited Leeds.

Former African-American slave-turned-activist William Wells Brown later said of Armistead, “few English gentlemen have done more to hasten the day of the slave’s liberation than Wilson Armistead.”

1851 The 1851 census records that fugitive slaves William and Ellen Craft were being sheltered at Armistead’s home in Leeds. Ellen, although of black heritage, was fair-skinned enough to successfully disguise herself as a white man while William posed as ‘his’ slave. In this way, they escaped from slavery and fled to England where they campaigned for abolition.

Ellen Craft (as a man) and William Craft

In the same year, another former slave Henry ‘Box’ Brown was in Leeds to give a demonstration of how he had escaped captivity by posting himself to a free state inside a box. He repeated the stunt by posting himself from Bradford to Leeds.

1853 At a series of lectures in Leeds, English scientist, philosopher and abolitionist William Allen told his audience that “I have not yet met with any of that feeling which exists in America.”

The same year, former African-American slave Samuel Ringgold Ward visited Leeds during a speaking tour of Britain. He later wrote his “Autobiography of a Fugitive Negro: his anti-slavery labours in the United States, Canada and England” to raise money for the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada.

Also that year, American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, was a guest of the Leeds Anti-Slavery Society. She was presented with a silver fruit-basket and a purse of 100 guineas. Stowe was impressed by the presence of women in the Society and that its slogan “Am I not a woman and a sister?” alongside the traditional “Am I not a man and a brother?”.

1859 Leeds was visited by Frederick Douglass and Sarah Parker Remond who each addressed the annual meeting of the Leeds Young Men’s Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass was a former slave who had become an influential anti-abolitionist and passionate orator. Remond was an African-American lecturer, abolitionist and, in later life, a doctor. She also campaigned for women’s suffrage.

Frederick Douglass

1860 Black nationalist, Martin Delany, visited Leeds in 1861. Four years later, he became the first black officer in the United States Army.

Martin Delaney

1865 The 13th amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified on 6th December. It provided that:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

To book tickets for my charity Christmas event on 18 December 2018, click here.

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