The anti-slavery movement in West Sussex

Independence and Sergison. An excellent new Song. Tune – The Dying Slave, 1807 (Add Mss 29679)

“Father came, in a great bustle for some slavery papers which he has to distribute,” wrote Rhoda Hack, from Chichester, in April 1824. This domestic update in her surroundings came as she penned the latest letter in her regular correspondence with her sister-in-law, Priscila Tuke (nee Hack). “What are you doing with this subject at York?” she asked, referring to Priscila’s adopted home, where she moved after she married the tea-dealer Samuel Tuke.

I look forward to discussing how Chichester women – and men – contributed to campaigns against slavery and the slave trade, placing the local records in the context of a national campaign against colonial sin (from 1787-1838). 50 years of popular pressure on Parliament forged new norms for political campaigning, but only belatedly transformed Britain from the leading slave empire in the Atlantic world. Before abolition triumphed, British ships transported 3 million enslaved people to the Americas and many families in Chichester profited from slavery and slave-grown goods.

The ongoing correspondence between Rhoda Hack and Priscila Tuke – now held in West Sussex Record Office – was typical of the ways letters shared family news and reflections on wider events across the whole of Great Britain. Since the role of Quakers, such as the Hacks and Tukes, in the campaigns to end British slave trading and British slave ownership, is well-known, we might think there is something unremarkable about their interest in this question.

Letter to Priscilla Tuke from Rhoda Hack, 6 May 1824

But their exchanges illuminate three of the themes I will highlight in a talk at the Record Office. Firstly, they demonstrate the ways in which anti-slavery campaigners built a national network to coordinate highly local activism to pressure an unwilling Parliament. News passed through the press, but also family missives – such as Rhoda’s reports that a public meeting at Southampton had been hijacked by pro-slavery crowds, who voted down a proposal to send a petition to Parliament.

Secondly, they show the importance of these local gatherings and assemblies in building the grassroots pressure that added up to a coordinated national movement. Petitions, left available to sign in municipal buildings such as Chichester Town Hall, allowed citizens to demonstrate their anti-slavery virtue and discharge their sense of responsibility for ending a national evil. The local meetings and provision of sign-places rested on changing ideas of the relationship between popular opinion and government.

Thirdly, Priscila and Rhoda’s correspondence provides a rare understanding of the ideas and emotions in those reading anti-slavery literature and discussing the campaign with their families. Rhoda and Priscila discuss their reading of a recent pamphlet, for example, encouraging Britons, especially women, to boycott the use of sugar in their tea. Yet, they found the female author of that work “too strong” in her language and apparent sanction for slave resistance in the 1823 Demerara rising.

I will be pleased if readers of this blog can join me for the talk on 26 March, to discuss what we can learn from the records in West Sussex Record Office.

Book tickets for Dr Richard Huzzey’s talk ‘The anti-slavery movement in West Sussex’ at the Record Office on Tuesday 26th March at 7pm. Tickets are £8 including refreshments, and must be booked in advance by calling our reception on 01243 753602.

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