Tag Archives: Sierra Leone

Black Poor and White Philanthropists: Sierra Leone

2800738What a title, eh?

It is a worthy and detailed look at the first attempt to set up a colony of free Blacks in Sierra Leone in 1786. It asks the simple question, did Black folks have agency in this process? The answer is of course they did, so there are a lot of deeper complexities that this book doesn’t address theoretically. But there is a basic history (which will make you rage), and some fun facts along the way, because a few of the principles involved were, to put it simply, batshit crazy.

There’s this nugget about Granville Sharp:

It may also seem incongruous to present-day readers that Sharp should take time off from his campaign against the evils of slavery and the slave trade to call in at Covent Garden theatre, in order to protest in person against the stage practice of dressing women in men’s clothes (15).

He must have been a very busy man with so much iniquity in the world. Described here as one of the driving forces behind the Sierra Leone settlement, he accomplished much through pithy interventions by pamphlet like this one:

Memorandum on a late Proposal for a New Settlement to be made on the Coast of AFRICA; recommending to the Author of that Proposal, several Alterations in his Plan, and more especially the Adoption of the ancient Mode of Government by Tithings (or Decenaries) and Hundreds, as being the most useful and effectual Mode of Government for all Nations and Countries.

Establish an Anglo-Saxon government in Sierra Leone? Why not. Even Swedenborg (founder of the Swedenborgian mystical… tendency? religion? cult?) got into the act with his pamphlet titled ‘An Essay on Colonization, particularly applied to the Western Coast of Africa’. I’m looking that shit up, but later.

Putting the craziness to one side for a moment (and just a moment) there are some great details on this early and mostly lost period of Black lives in London pulled from a review of parish registers from 1783-1787. Braidwood found 168 people noted as black, spread across 9 parishes, 144 of them in 6 East End parishes —  partiularly St-George’s-in-the-East (71), and St Dunstan’s, Stepney (Mile End Old Town and Ratcliffe). 83 names given place of origin, 6 born in Britain, 3 definitely born in Africa, 26 (31%) from West Indies (9 from Jamaica, 5 from Barbados). 13 from from Charleston, South Carolina. A global community. The 960 people who would ultimately receive relief, however, reflect a much larger community than that described through this source.

Braidwood also found clusters of names reflecting the histories of slavery and freedom. ‘Classical’ names like John Jupiter, James Neptune, William Cato, John Scipio. Others biblical: Aaron and Darius Brooks, Moses Handley, James Titus, Sampson Morgan and Hezekiah Nukins. Other names from where they had been born: Robert Carolina, James Stepney, Black London (!). Others on characteristics held or desired: Michael Handy, George Comfortable.

But mostly this book details the effort to establish a colony in Sierra Leone, and the principal mechanism for it through the formation of the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor in 1786. The motivations are tangled in charity and racism, a desire to export the poor and to some limited extent a desire to help them. Formed in Mr Faulder’s book shop in Bond St, but subsequent meetings took place in Batson’s Coffee House, opposite the Royal Exchange. Its best known chairman was Jonas Hanway (his batshit reminiscent of Granville Sharp’s):

Hanway is today chiefly remembered for two campaigns which received strikingly different measures of success: his introduction to London of the umbrella, and his opposition to the ‘pernicious custom’ of drinking tea (65).

There is some really interesting primary evidence of English views on the presence of Blacks (particularly around their role in the American war of independence). Letter to The Public Advertiser (I think 19 January, 1786):

the Lascars…demand our pity only; but…the African negroes have an actual claim on our justice:- They, or the greater part of them, have served Britain, have fought under her colours, and after having quitted the service of their American masters, depending on the promise of protection held out to them by British Governors and Commanders, are now left to perish by famine and cold, in the sight of that people for whom they have hazarded their lives, and even (many of them) spilt their blood. (68)

We learn more about the geographies of Black residence in London: Relief was originally handed out at ‘the shop of Mr Brown, a baker, in Wigmore Street’, with an increase in donations rooms in two public houses were hired, the White Raven in Mile End, and the Yorkshire Stingo (!) on Lisson Green in Marylebone. On the 24th of January they were giving broth, a piece of meat and a twopenny loaf to 140 people a day, by February it was 210.

My own experiences and researches lead me to agree with those who put racism at the top of the tangle of ‘philanthropic’ motivations. John Pugh, Hanway’s biographer, wrote in 1787 in The Remarkable Occurences in the Life of Jonas Hanway that success for the committee:

must tend to relieve the misery of these poor people, and prevent the unnatural connections between black persons and white; the disagreeable consequences of which make their appearance but too frequently in our streets.

In an attempt to enlist the help of the Committee of West India Planters and Merchants, Benjamin Johnson wrote:

Commiserating the calamitous Situation of these People the object of the Committee has thus far been confined to a temporary relief, but being assured, that nothing short of their removal will effectually assist them, they are using their best endeavors to fix on some means of affording them a permanent subsistence. They have it in view also to procure a Act of Parliament, to prevent any Foreign Blacks being brought to this Country to remain, as it must ever be attended with many Inconveniences; To obtain these ends, the Committee would be very happy to have the honor of your Advice and Assistance (74-75, quoting ICS West India Committee minute books, 3/1, 32).

Novia Scotia was the original idea for the site of the settlement, but a certain Henry Smeathem had his heart set on Sierra Leone, writing Plan of a Settlement to be made near Sierra Leona in 1786 (a reworking of an older plan). He claimed it was a beautiful and healthy place, when in fact the death toll among Europeans was extremely high. He won over the committee and then the government, now involved in the plan. Black folks themselves, however, were not quite so happy about the idea. Relief became conditional on their agreement to colonise Sierra Leone by June of 1786, about 30 refused to take it, others wished to go to the US or the West Indies. There were rumours flying around that this was deportation to a penal colony — either Botany Bay or in Africa, and why not?

There was some resistence to the plan, and newspapers make clear that some Blacks did appeal to Lord George Gordon (of riot fame), but unclear if he intervened in any way or penned any of the anonymous attacks on it that were printed. Apparently, however, many were won round to the idea of returning to Africa, and there are some interesting details on how those on relief were organised around key leaders who would be responsible for bringing their people to the ships.

By late 1786 the number of those who had accepted allowances was 700 (a later figure is 960), the number Granville Sharp assumed was sailing. Payments were stopped to those who did not agree to embark, a plan to arrest all Blacks for vagrancy who did not embark was mooted. Only about 350 people had boarded the ships waiting for them by February 1787 — of which there were originally three planned, and there were huge delays in trying to get more to embark. The total in the lists drawn up by Gustavas Vassa (also known as Olaudah Equiano, famed for his autobiography and leading role in advocacy for abolition as a former slave, so I’m fascinated by his role in this affair, though it was short lived and not well explained) were 459 – 117 women (70 of these white wives) and 25 children.

By March all three had left London and reached Plymouth. There had been outbreaks of fever. A public letter was printed detailing complaints of Olaudah Equiano, who left the expedition here after his dismissal for disrespect and accusations of fomenting mutiny. Meanwhile the whites were fighting over the land to be granted them.

The fleet finally set sail on 9 April, 1787 — five months later than planned, practically ensuring the failure of the settlement as it had been timed to arrive before the rainy season when mortality was already known to be at its highest, but instead arrived on the 10th of May.

In total the Treasury had paid out £14,747 13s 9d.

They called the settlement ‘Province of Freedom’. By mid-September, 122 had died. By March of the following year only 130 people were left alive. The settlement itself only lasted 2 and half years. The blame, states Braidwood, has usually been placed on the settlers, especially their failure to set up a stable government.

White people decided to start again. In 1788 an abolitionist named Falconbridge was sent to Sierra Leone to try and refound a settlement. He found 56 survivors who had moved to a nearby town, 36 men and 20 women. Thornton and Wilberforce worked to get the Sierra Leone Settlement Bill through parliament, to support the settlement of the area by the Sierra Leone Company. A whole new effort was to commence, supposedly on a for profit basis as any other chartered company of trade and colonization.

I read this book to try and find out more after finding a reference to this extraordinary and terrible history in a biography of Henry Thornton. It’s worth requoting that in length:

The one attempt in pure colonial philanthropy, which Granville Sharp had made five years before, had proved a dismal failure.

Sharp had himself explored the land along the mouth of the Sierra Leone River in 1787. The Royal African Company had lost its monopoly there in 1698, and the territory was full of slavers from France and from England. Sharp returned to London determined to see at least one colony of freemen on the western coast of Africa, He formed a Committee for Black Poor which raised money to send a group of 340 indigent Negroes to Sierra Leone. They sailed under the protection of nine white officials and in the company of 62 white prostitutes. Sharp had elaborate plans for his settlement, but by September 1788, four months after landing, just 66 Negroes remained alive. Disease felled half the tough white women. Those neither dead nor sick were burdened with the care of 30 black and mulatto babies. The five harassed officials still at work could only try in vain to interest them in re-establishing the Anglo-Saxon frank-pledge system Sharp had felt best suited to their needs (102-103).

Everything infuriates me, from the callousness with which Black lives are treated, to calling the white wives prostitutes. Everything about this venture breaks my heart, doomed to failure as it was, and ugly as the behavior of abolitionists and philanthropists and fortune-seekers proved to be.

And still so much to find out.


Henry Thornton of Clapham

18696405I came across Henry Thornton, and the rise of the Clapham religious and abolitionist community as perhaps the first suburb reading Robert Fisher’s Bourgeois Utopias. In looking for more information I found this rather quaint book in the LSE library, copyrighted in 1964 and the first (only?) biography of Thornton, but it feels almost of another era in its reflections and open opinions on Thornton’s life and beliefs. I was most interested in the growth of the Clapham group, how this contributed to modern ideas of home, city and suburb, and the involvement of religion upon these constructions, and those of gender roles. I found a very little of that, but so much more. I’m still reeling a little I think.

THORNTONI’ve borrowed the basic bio from his parliament biography (wonderful things these):

b. 10 Mar. 1760, 3rd s. of John Thornton, Russia merchant and dir. Bank of England, of Clapham by 2nd w. Lucy, da. and h. of Samuel Watson, Russia merchant, of Kingston-upon-Hull Yorks.; bro. of Robert Thornton* and Samuel Thornton*. educ. Dr Davis’s sch. Wandsworth Common 1765-73; Mr Roberts’s sch. Point Pleasant, Wandsworth 1773-8. m. 1 Mar. 1796, Mary Anne, da. of Joseph Sykes, Russia merchant, of West Ella, Yorks., 3s. 6da.

Offices Held

Asst. Russia Co. 1789-1811; chairman, Sierra Leone Co. 1791-1811.
Capt. Battersea and Streatham vols. 1798.

His father, John Thornton, was an early promoter of the Evangelical beliefs. They are of the kind that I find frustrating and bewildering, where God is the cause of all things, and we are but his instruments, with a heavy does of predestination thrown in. So you could imagine young and earnest Thornton finding it slightly hard to get on in society. Novelist Fanny Burney writes ‘Mr Thornton, the new member for the borough, a man of Presbyterian extraction, upon which he has grafted of late much ton and nonchalance…was pleased to follow me about with a sort of hard unmeaning curiosity, very disagreeable to me, and to himself very much like nothing’ (26).

In 1785 Thornton met his cousin William Wilberforce, the more charming and famous of the two. Meacham writes:

For Wilberforce was welcome anywhere. A rich man, from a class above the Thorntons, he relished conversation with the London ton–an evening’s gossip with Grenville and Pitt, the rather more exotic chatter of Mme. de Staël (39).

An interesting entry of class into the picture, as opposed to money. Still, the two became fast friends and worked together for the abolition of the slave trade. In 1792 they moved into Battersea Rise, a mansion next to Clapham Common.


Thornton writes in 1793:

On the whole I am in hope some good may come out of our Clapham system. Wilberforce is a candle that should not be hid under a bushel. The influence of his conversation is, I think, great and striking. I am surprised to find how much religion everybody seems to have when they get into our house. They seem all to submit, and to acknowledge the advantage of a religious life, and we are not at all queer or guilty of carrying things too far (28, quoting from Henry Morris, Life of Charles Grant London 1904, p 200).

Meacham describes Clapham at the time:

Clapham, five miles from the city, was a pleasant place to live. The great Common, until 1760 a tangled wilderness, now looked a vast and pleasant stretch of land. Paths had been laid and drains installed. But this was still the country. The parish paid a shilling bounty for every polecat killed, and fourpence for hedgehogs. Horse chesnuts and poplars grew to the edge of many of the ponds. On the north corner stood the parish church: large, solid, unadorned, built in 1775 with money raised by John Thornton. Big enough to hold 1400, by 1790 it was none too large. The 1760 village of 1000 now had a population nearly three times as great (32).

Apart from renovating and adding two wings to Battersea Rise, Thornton built a second house, sold to Charles Grant in 1794. First a merchant in the East India Company and then on the Board of Trade, he joined the Clapham Evangelical community where his family would become one of the closest to the Thorntons. They were joined by John Venn, who became tutor to Grant’s children and later became rector of Clapham. James Stephens, married to WIlberforce’s sister Sarah, who became an abolitionist after working in the West Indies and corresponding with Wilberforce on the conditions on the plantations. Meachem states he became an Evangelical through his hatred of slavery rather than the other way round. Zachary Macauley, formerly a bookkeeper and overseer of a Jamaica plantation from age 16 to 20, became part of the circle (and would later become governor of Sierra Leone). John Shore, Lord Teignmouth also from the East India Company, would join them. William Smith, Charles Elliot, and  John Hatchard, publisher, also joined them. In the wider circle were the Gisbournes, Babingtons and Hannah More, joined by a tangle of shared beliefs and marriages. The book contains a brilliant map showing the Clapham Community and its members, along with a description of what is left — a little disparaging of Clapham as a ‘dreary London suburb’.

Scan 5

Thonrton'sCommon2 Thonrton'sCommon3

These villas would form the basis of future ideals of the suburb, but at this time most of its residents still kept, or took on under the pressures of work, houses in town — King’s Arm Yard, Palace Yard, Kennington, Bloomsbury, Ormond St.

This is partly because Thornton, Wilberforce, Babington, Grant and Stephen all sat in Parliament — quite a political commitment from so religious a community. They saw their bedrock as moral integrity and incorruptibility, thus Meacham argues that while they are usually described as Tory, it was a little more complicated.  They were, of course, remembered for their work to abolish the slave trade. For Thornton it was more than abolition, he wrote:

To promote the instruction of the African in letters and useful knowledge…to induce them to substitute a beneficial commerce in place of the slave trade; to introduce amongst them the useful arts of Europe… (Thornton to Zachary Macauley, 28 May 1806 SB p 34, 97).

And abolish the trade they did.

But then there’s Sierra Leone, and this is where I must confess my ignorance and astonishment and no small degree of horror. Here’s a piece of the history I’m ashamed I didn’t know:

Thornton’s anxiety to better Africa and civilize the Africans equaled his concern for slaves and hatred of the slave trade. Sierra Leone showed itself the means by which that civilizing might begin, and Thornton, committed as he was to abolition, worked less for that than for the colony which he felt promised most for Africa once slave-trading had stopped.

The Act of Parliament creating Sierra Leone Company authorized a court of thirteen Directors, and the Directors elected Thornton their chairman. They chose him as much for his ability as a banker as for his convictions as a Christian. Sierra Leone would prove their point–that Africa could prosper as more than just a market for humanity–only if the Company should show a profit. Thornton, it was hoped, would make the venture pay. The one attempt in pure colonial philanthropy, which Granville Sharp had made five years before, had proved a dismal failure.

Sharp had himself explored the land along the mouth of the Sierra Leone River in 1787. The Royal African Company had lost its monopoly there in 1698, and the territory was full of slavers from France and from England. Sharp returned to London determined to see at least one colony of freemen on the western coast of Africa, He formed a Committee for Black Poor which raised money to send a group of 340 indigent Negroes to Sierra Leone. They sailed under the protection of nine white officials and in the company of 62 white prostitutes. Sharp had elaborate plans for his settlement, but by September 1788, four months after landing, just 66 Negroes remained alive. Disease felled half the tough white women. Those neither dead nor sick were burdened with the care of 30 black and mulatto babies. The five harassed officials still at work could only try in vain to interest them in re-establishing the Anglo-Saxon frank-pledge system Sharp had felt best suited to their needs (102-103).

Sweet Jesus. I don’t even know what to say to either of those two attempts to create a settlement. Now, given a description like that (Who were the women? Why did they come? Who were the Black men? What the hell is happening here?) this clearly isn’t a book that will explore this story with much of a critical eye. I’ll be investigating more, so just a few choice details pulled from a chapter that hardly engages with what is really happening.

The new Sierra Leone Company, when it assumed control of the Colony, made use of what it could at Granville Town and reimbursed [!] Sharp with £1,850. The directors expressed their readiness to spend additional money to turn what had been a philanthropy into a philanthropic business. Their charter spoke of factories and a second town… (104)

Complication came almost at once with the importation of 1196 Negroes who had served in the British army during the American Revolution and been left to fend for themselves in singularly unsuitable Novia Scotia (106).

Turns out those guys didn’t like white capitalists telling them what to do. I applaud them, disagreeing with sentences like these:

It was a noble end–to make a colony remake men: an end, however, that was to prove maddeningly difficult to achieve (107).

When Macauley retired as governor in 1799 he brought 30 children with him back to Clapham to be educated and returned to Sierra Leone as part of this end.

The children had come to Marianne [Thornton’s wife] to learn their Bible and their manners, and they exasperated her. “My African girls have been a plague to me,” she complained to Hannah More. “I mean to send the worst back by the next ship.” The Society would have been wise to ship them all back home. There was nothing to teach them at Clapham that they could not learn at Freetown; hence little reason to pluck them up into cold England. For several years they remained a Clapham “sight,” playing on the Common, displaying themselves in the libraries of their benefactors. But climate took its toll, and one by one they died. In 1805 only six remained alive. It was a well-meant experiment, unmeaningly cruel (111).

Climate my arse, this is the most chilling story I have read in a long time. My heart breaks at the thought of those poor children among people who looked down on them, even hated them, and still used them to raise money. I wonder where they are buried, how to make sure they are remembered and mourned. There is more to be found here.

More on the ‘Nova Scotians’, Thornton writes:

The untoward disposition which too many of the settlers have shown proves, but too plainly, the importance of bestowing on them an intelligent and protective government (108).

Macaulay writes:

Uniting great ignorance with a vain conceit of their own talents, and sufficiently disposed of themselves to regard the share, which Europeans had in the government of the Colony as an usurpation, they were easily persuaded that nothing would so effectually contribute to their happiness as the demolition of the existing establishment (28, 113).

The insurrections kept on coming (hurrah) — especially after transporting a bunch of Maroons from Jamaica — and the Company became convinced the Crown needed to take over. Reading all of this I am still a little in shock that I had never heard of any of it. I knew of Thornton and Wilberforce as abolitionists, but this profit-making venture in Sierra Leone is the stuff of horror, nor did they step in when slavers were capturing Blacks in Sierra Leone and then making of them ‘identured’ servants, because indentured servitude was not illegal.

Apart from Sierra Leone the Clapham group were involved in missions — founding the Society for Missions to Africa and the East in 1799. They also tried their hand at conversions in England. But:

The rich, however, would not be lectured. ‘Having tried them almost in vain” and tiring of cool looks and cold shoulders, the Evangelicals gave it up and taught the poor instead, who could at least be poked awake to hear a sermon.

The English lower classes needed civilizing. Thornton wrote correctly that

“while principles of equity, moderation, and benevolence prevail in a considerable degree among the higher orders of the people, it is much to be lamented that disorders of the most pernicious tendency pervade the lower ranks; and that reformation with repsect to them, has till late, been rather a matter of solicitude and desire, than of serious expectation” (130-131).

Ugh. You throw in the religious beliefs about God defining our station — surely also applicable to the slavery, so I’m curious about how that worked intellectually — and you get a whole lot of initiatives offensive to poor people.

Yet evidence and inclination suggested to Thornton one fact about the poor before all others: that though their lot might improve, they would stay poor…With it he accepted a corollary class system, static in rank, rigid in task. Education under such confining circumstance became instruction in the duties of one’s condition (140).

A little more on this note from Thornton himself:

God often punishes men by sending a real trouble. And the means which discontented people take, to better their condition, not seldom prove the occasion of the new calamity which overtakes them (143).

The last chapter is on the legacy:

the estimates of Evangelicalism commonly diverge. Historians agree it played a great part in shaping the Victorian mind. yet there agreement ceases. Some, following the lead offered by Samuel Butler or Edmund Gosse, discover little more than tepid piety, hypocrisy, self-satisfaction, and cruelty. Others, reading the lives of George Eliot or Beatrice Webb, find instead awareness of a moral code and conviction as to the duty of moral man within society. Both the bad and the good have their roots in the beliefs of Henry Thornton’s generation (153).

I find it so hard to find a moral code and conviction worth anything at all in this recounting. Only by rigidly separating whites from Blacks, and removing actions towards non-whites (and poor people) from the same morality required in interactions with equals, does this make any kind of sense. How this double morality took life through the following decades — century even — is such a key question I think. And one to take sides on.