Supporting the cause of abolition: the role of a wife

Professor John Oldfield

Professor of Slavery and Emancipation

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

Dr Judith Spicksley

Lecturer in Economic History

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

Itinerant anti-slavery speakers were key to the mobilisation of public opinion in Britain in the early nineteenth century, but they could not have spent so much time on the road without the support of others. Here we introduce excerpts from two letters written by one of those speakers, George Thompson, to his wife during his travels. We thank the Special Collections Manager at John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, for permission to do this.

George Donisthorpe (‘Tim’) Thompson was born in Liverpool on 18 June 1804. Described by Morgan in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as anorator, slavery abolitionist, and political reformer’, he is recognised as being ‘the most effective British anti-slavery lecturer since Thomas Clarkson’ in the run up to the abolition of slavery in 1833. Thompson first came to prominence in 1831, when the then Lord Chancellor, Henry Brougham, recommended him as a traveling speaker to the London Anti-Slavery Society. It was also in that year that he married Anne Erskine Lorraine (‘Jenny’) Spry, daughter of Richard, a minister in the Methodist Connexion of the Countess of Huntingdon.  They had five surviving children, three girls and two boys, the first of whom, born in 1836, they named William Lloyd Garrison, after the charismatic American abolitionist.

In the first letter, Thompson was writing to his wife from the Lincolnshire market town of Brigg at midnight on Thursday 19 April 1832. He was clearly tired.  It was his fourth lecture that week and there was to be another one, plus five more the following week – two in Barton upon Humber and three in Hull.  But though ‘quite weary and exhausted’ he was keen to let his new wife know that this did not dampen his ardour. ‘Yet have many and many a time risen from the sofa when I could hardly hold my pen, or guide it, and have written a long letter to my Jenny’.  He was therefore disgruntled to find that she had not taken the time to write to him.

Does your Tim with all his faults forget his wife Or his friends? – Do multiplied engagements Cause him to forget his Jenny? – Do over-Whelming bodily exertions cause him to forget his Jenny?  . . . tell me I conjure you why you cannot find time to assure me at the appointed time the while I am caring for you – thinking of you – wishing for you, and labouring ever to prostration for you, you are also caring for and wishing for and thinking upon your Tim.

After complaining about the ‘want of attention on the part of my wife’ he continued with his self-pitying attack:

Why did I leave the Sofa and the security of the kindest friends to go ½ a mile to the post office? – because I expected a letter from my Jenny. Why did I refuse to let a servant go – though entreated gain & again because I expected a letter from my Jenny and it was too grateful a task to be to any one.

He graciously agrees to let her failure to write to him pass, and, after a small pang of conscience, instructs her to send a letter to the local Post Office in Barton. He also reminds her that she carries the full weight of responsibility for his happiness.

I forgive you – must forgive you. perhaps you Did write and the letter mis carried . . . Write me by return to the Post Office Barton – Lincolnshire. Study well your responsibility – Believe O Jenny believe what I have so often said & written, that your conduct – rules my destiny as far as a human being can govern the fate of another – Love me – devote yourself to me – live for me and all is well. (Raymond English Anti-Slavery Collection [REAS]/2/1/22 University of Manchester Library Special Collections, Letters of George Thompson to his wife, April 19, 1832)

The letter finishes with a declaration of love, and a claim that he had intended no censure. Thompson’s modus operandi was well-known in abolitionist circles. An analysis of his correspondence shows that while he was both ‘charming and charismatic, he could also be vain, brittle, and self-absorbed.’ Described as ‘tall, handsome and articulate, with a penchant for biting sarcasm’, he travelled to America with his family in 1834 to preach the abolitionist message, but so fierce was the opposition he aroused, particularly among anti-abolitionist mobs, that he had to be smuggled out of the country in October 1835, for fear of his life. Anne and the children, meanwhile, were left to make their own way home, which, in the circumstances, may well have been a diversionary tactic.

By 1838, the year of the second letter, the Thompson family had settled in Edinburgh, and though his declarations of love had disappeared the sharp tone remains. Writing to Anne from London in February, after seven years of marriage, Thompson’s demands were sartorial rather than epistolary.

I find I need not have a court dress to go to the Queen and therefore, Let me have two new Shirts – my silk stockings, a pair of dress Shoes (perhaps Mr Gregory will make me a pair). Put into a parcel and sent early to Mr Wilson[?], who will carefully pack them, with some Clothes, and send them to me. Oblige me by attending to these things.

He requested that she write to the Post Office in Hull to confirm his demands had been met: ‘Remember, every thing I ask for Is wanted by the 14th!’ (REAS/2/1/43, Letters, February 38, 1838.)

The strains of itinerant lecturing made an early impact on the Thompsons’ marriage. He was often away for considerable periods of time, and she had to deal with the fact that the money he brought in was often barely enough to support the family. William Lloyd Garrison Thompson, who died in September 1851 at the age of 15, was buried in a pauper’s grave in the Dissenters’ section of Brompton Cemetery in London.  Though Thompson appealed to female audiences and helped to establish many women’s abolitionist societies, garnering considerable support for the abolitionist cause, as these extracts reveal, he could be petty and demanding. A self-professed radical, Thompson’s youthful insistence that his wife should ‘devote’ herself to him jars with his professions of equality, which ranged from abolition to free trade, parliamentary reform, disestablishment and religious rights.

George Thompson by Charles Turner, published by and after George Evans, mezzotint, 12 November 1842, NPG D40424 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Two ceremonies of voluntary enslavement

Dr Judith Spicksley

Lecturer in Economic History

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

Historians of slavery are very aware that enslavement in the past took a number of forms. One of the more unexpected of these for us today is voluntary enslavement, which presents us with something of a conundrum. We imagine slavery as the most extreme form of legal coercion, and so find it difficult to imagine anyone would enter of their own choice. Yet agreeing to enslavement in return for the means to survive was a well-known practice across many societies in which slavery was accepted in law. Where agreements survive, we can see that there were some differences between voluntary enslavement and its more coercive chattel form, and the idea of contract itself is often cited as a way to distinguish between the two types. Choosing to enter slavery voluntarily might mean that the conditions in which you served were more favourable, and your treatment was better. You may also have signed up for the option to exit unilaterally, that is, without the need for permission from your master. This was often the case with defaulting debtors and usually required payment of the appropriate redemption cost: your outstanding debt; or the provision of a substitute slave. But there was no guarantee of freedom, and during the period of your slavery, however long that might be, you were a chattel slave, and so were any children born to you during your enslavement.

There are examples in which people appear to have used voluntary enslavement strategically (when survival was not directly threatened), while at some periods and in some places such enslavement was illegal.  What is clear is that societies recognised from an early point in time that voluntary slavery presented opportunities for exploitation, and tried to limit them: the decision of a Hebrew slave to remain in slavery in perpetuity in Exodus 21: 6 required him to make a declaration of love for his master before a judge and have his ear pierced as a sign of his condition. It was important to demonstrate as far as possible that those who chose to enter slavery voluntarily were doing so willingly and provide a means whereby the community and the enslaved had evidence of this change in status. As a result, voluntary enslavement had to be a public event, and could sometimes involve a symbolic act, undertaken to signal the changed status of the participant.

In this blog I introduce two medieval ceremonies of enslavement, one in England and the other in Scotland, that mirror the elements in this biblical example. As in biblical law, such events are described through a masculine lens, because women were rarely free to act independently. The process in England is relatively well-known. In the legal code known as the Leges Henrici Primi – the Laws of Henry I – the process of becoming enslaved by choice is clearly laid out. The Leges insisted that any voluntary enslavement had to be undertaken in a court, which in medieval England meant either the hallmoot, hundred or village court, depending on the ‘jurisdictional competence’ of the would-be master in relation to that court.  Equally important was the public nature of the act: the declaration had to be made before witnesses. In addition, a toll was to be paid as physical evidence of the event, to ensure that the subject did not attempt to deny the enslavement later. Finally, the change in status required a symbolic ceremony in which the individual concerned was to ‘take up a sickle or a goad or the arms of slavery of this kind, and shall place his hands and head in the hands of his lord’. (See L.J. Downer, ed., Leges Henrici Primi (Oxford, 1972), 78: 2 and 78: 2c.) In giving his head to his lord, historians believe the enslaved symbolised handing over his mind and his will to the control of his master. But that was not all.  Those men who entered slavery voluntarily committed all children born to their wives after their declaration to a life of perpetual enslavement too.

In medieval Scotland, as in England, the decision to enter enslavement voluntarily was inscribed in law, and in Scotland this action also had to be done in a public court. But the early fourteenth century Scottish law code known as the Quoniam Attachiamenta prescribed a slightly different ceremony: the symbolic tugging of the subject’s forelock as evidence of voluntary subjection. The Latin phrase in question – ‘per crines anterioires capitis sui’- literally translates as ‘through the hair at the front of his head’, but this is usually thought to have referred to a tugging of the forelock.  The law also allowed for the master to recover anyone who had enslaved themselves voluntarily ‘per nasum suum’, meaning ‘through his nose’; this presumably referred to the use of a nose ring. The law was clear about the reason for this.  ‘A free man is able to relinquish his liberty, if he chooses, in the king’s court and in some other courts. But once thus relinquished, it cannot be recovered in his lifetime’.

Unlike the English ceremony, this action of symbolic tugging has gained wider international currency, although current definitions of ‘tugging the forelock’ give no hint of its previous connection with enslavement. Described as ‘a traditional gesture of respect to the higher classes’, it is nevertheless associated with ‘obsequious or overly deferential behaviour’. This appears to have been the intention of the mid-nineteenth century American political caricaturist Henry R. Robinson, whose image of forelock tugging, still valuable as a measure of sycophancy today, satirised the ambitions of Major General Zachary Taylor as he sought election to the American Presidency in 1848. Taylor stood for the Whig Party, and though Robinson was a Whig supporter, he was clearly sceptical about Taylor’s Whig credentials. But what is perhaps more interesting in this context, is that Taylor was a slaveholder and plantation owner himself. As an echo of voluntary enslavement, the continuing relevance of forelock tugging today reveals surprising links between subordinating social practices in our present society and ancient forms of slavery.

Zachary Taylor tugs his forelock in the cartoon from 1848 as he is interviewed for the American Presidency. Image: Library of Congress

What would you do to survive? Voluntary enslavement and the fear of death

Dr Judith Spicksley

Lecturer in Economic History

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

The arrival of COVID-19 has not only delivered us a sharp reminder that human existence is fragile and impermanent, but raised it to a new level of priority, as politicians in many parts of the world privilege the survival of their citizens in ways that only a few months ago would have been unimaginable. From the opposite perspective, we as citizens expect it. The role of government is in the first instance to protect those it serves from external threat.   The classic statement of this is perhaps Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, which describes a world of unrelenting insecurity in the absence of a government able to protect its citizens from each other as well as from foreign attack. As we now know only too well, that attack can take biological as well as military form.

I’ve been trying for a long time to understand why societies in the past not only allowed the enslavement of some of their citizens but legislated for it. Roman civil law is interesting in this context. It ruled that slaves, or servi, were given this title because generals in war did not kill their prisoners but allowed them instead to survive (from the Latin servare). This linguistic derivation may have been spurious, but it seems that those who were saved from death were understood to owe their lives to those who spared them, and as a result became slaves for the rest of their lives.

This brings me back to today. Though there is no sense that we owe our government a debt for saving our lives, those who leave hospital having beaten COVID-19 are keen to reveal how much they owe to the medical staff who brought them through. There is no understanding that such a debt requires repayment, however, nor would the medical staff expect it: the utterance is an expression of gratitude rather than a recognition of obligation. Those who feel particularly strongly have been known to act, usually by engaging in money-raising ventures for organisations that saved their lives or the lives of their children, but we all know that a life debt can never be adequately repaid.

Or do we? What if we were able to offer up our lives in exchange for the opportunity to survive? What would that look like? In reality, as the Roman example above reveals, we already know – enslavement.  The idea of slavery in exchange for survival is a consistent theme throughout the period in which slavery existed as a legal institution. Those taken in war tended to have slavery thrust upon them, but there were also cases in which such actions were undertaken voluntarily. Some of this, as we might expect, took place in a religious context. In the demotic papyri of Ancient Egypt we find a woman offering herself, her children, and her children’s children to a deity to secure her good health, for example. But illness could also encourage individuals to enslave themselves to healers as a way to access the medical care they needed.  Chanana, who examined slavery in Ancient India, found stories in the ancient texts of a mother who offered herself as a slave in return for the cure of her eye disease, and a sex-worker who did the same to save her life. Widespread episodes of infectious disease could also instil such high levels of fear that individuals were prepared to give up their freedom for the chance to stay alive. ‘People caught in an epidemic offer themselves to Jivaka, the famous physician, if only he were to treat and cure them.’ (See D.R. Chanana, Slavery in Ancient India, New Delhi; People’s Publishing House, 1960, 67.).

Such practices offer a whole new slant on the fear of death and the power of medical knowledge, as well as a reflection on the distance we as a species have travelled.  Not all the stories have concrete evidential bases in the form of contracts or agreements, but they point to the existence of an idea in which control over the life of an individual could be exchanged for the opportunity to live. And it’s not just that; such stories indicate that in life-threatening circumstances, a transfer of this sort could have been expected, even demanded. For much of human history, it seems that a loss of authority went hand in hand with survival, and those who faced death with no power to evade it often had little alternative but to accept enslavement, if they wanted to remain alive.

Image: Anthony Wildgoos, In Divine Meditations on Death (1640) (accessed July 25, 2020).