I am a West Indian, a lover of liberty, and would dishonour human nature if I did not shew myself a friend to the liberty of others.1
The story of Robert Wedderburn (1762-1835/6) is rightly becoming better known. As a Scottish-Jamaican “mulatto” radical preacher and leader of working class movements in 19th century London, his significance spans a number of areas. Marxist historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker identify him as a “linchpin” of the “Atlantic Working Class”—that group of amorphous, multi-ethnic, subaltern peoples linked by the ocean in suffering and resistance around the Atlantic continents of Africa, the Americas and Europe:
Like the linchpin, a small piece of metal that connected the wheels to the axle of the carriage and made possible the movement and firepower of the ship’s cannon, Wedderburn was an essential piece of something larger, mobile and powerful.2
An emblem of the Revolutionary Atlantic, Wedderburn is also a central figure in the growing field of Scottish-Caribbean studies. As recent research is revealing the extent of Scotland’s role in the Atlantic slave trade and in the plantation economies of the Caribbean,3 Wedderburn’s story has the potential to undermine national platitudes of inherent liberal and democratic tendencies that have become the orthodoxy even in academic circles, such as Scottish cultural studies.4 Wedderburn rose to prominence in the 1810s and 1820s in an era when the British economy and empire relied on both the primitive accumulation of African slave labour across the Atlantic and the increasingly dominant capitalist modes of wage labour in Britain. Indeed, Alan Rice identifies the importance of Wedderburn’s as a political thinker and his “remarkably prescient acknowledgement of the interplay between race and class in capitalism”.5 Thus, his story provides an antidote to the current assault on “multiculturalism” which has supposedly marginalised the “white working class”. By contrast, the working class in Britain has always been multicultural and capable of profound levels of solidarity that belie the notion that “giving the white working class a voice” can only mean articulating proletarian ethnocentrism.6 Finally, in the modern context of Islamism and Islamophobia many on the left see any religious expression as inherently backward and secularism as necessarily progressive. Yet Wedderburn’s invocation of biblical prophecy and Christian symbols to urge an armed rebellion against the establishment serves as a reminder of religion’s ambivalent role in political uprisings. In largely religious societies, religious means can serve emancipatory ends.
Nobody has done more than Iain McCalman to revive interest in the memory of Wedderburn, largely forgotten for around 160 years after his death. McCalman positions him in the London “Radical Underworld”7 and asserts that his most telling contribution was to link the suffering of African slaves in the colonies to the privations felt by the British working class during the establishment of capitalism in the early 19th century. Wedderburn was fathered by a Scotsman and a black Jamaican, Rosanna, around 1762, the year following the largest slave uprising in 18th century Jamaica known as Tacky’s Rebellion. His father, James Wedderburn, had fled Scotland with his brother John8 following the defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden in 1746.9 James Wedderburn never acknowledged his “mulatto” son Robert, who recounts that on his one visit to Scotland to request financial assistance from his father, at a time when his family was living in penury during the recession of the 1790s, he was sent away by the butler with “a draught of small beer and a
In his later speeches and writings Wedderburn would continually refer to his experience as a young boy witnessing the flogging of his pregnant mother by another Scottish owner, Boswell. He was later sent to live in Kingston with his grandmother, the well-known conjure woman and agent for smuggled goods, “Talkee Amy”. At the age of 11, in the same year as the Somerset case (1772) struck a first (ambivalent) blow against slavery in England,11 Wedderburn observed the flogging of his grandmother by a white boy she had raised herself. The cruelty he witnessed in these formative years would stay with him and he would use the memory to spur anti-slavery feeling in England through the power of personal testimony. Wedderburn left Jamaica serving as a “fighting seaman” in the Royal Navy, and later as a privateer. He would make a living as a flint tailor in London and would undergo a spiritual conversion on hearing a Methodist preacher outside Seven Dials in Covent Garden. He would later become a licensed Unitarian minister. In the 1810s he became a prominent member of the “Spencean Philanthropists” who promoted the agrarian egalitarianism of Thomas Spence. Between spells in jail he would become a prominent activist in the reaction against the Peterloo massacre of 1819 as well as a key figure in the revival of the anti-slavery campaign of the 1820s.
In 1986 McCalman detailed the story of Wedderburn as a counterweight to the modern theory of historians whose arguments tended to separate radical movements into white and black spheres. For example, Patricia Hollis argued that the popular radical movement had, by the 19th century, forgotten the sympathy for slaves it had displayed up to the
mid-1790s. Popular leaders like William Cobbett and Henry “Orator” Hunt denounced anti-slavery societies for their hypocrisy as they ignored suffering at home. Hollis argues that by Chartist times, “breaking up an anti-slavery meeting had become a statement of class consciousness by working-class radicals”.12 In response, James Walvin emphasised “the need to relocate the campaign against slavery more firmly in the wider world of contemporary radical and popular politics”.13 This “relocation” has received its fullest expression in Linebaugh and Rediker’s formulations of the “Atlantic working class”. Their framework in The Many–Headed Hydra situates slavery in the wider context of the imposition of capitalist methods in the imperial states of Europe, and the campaign against slavery as part of the malcontent that process engendered. The imperial reach of these states and the demands they made on a variety of labourers, slaves, sailors and commoners across the Atlantic created a fluid, multi-ethnic, multilingual working class, the existence of which had the potential to challenge authorities on both sides of the Atlantic. Wedderburn’s story unites the political ideals, aims and discourses of what have been termed the “black” and “red” Atlantics.
However, Bryan D Palmer has critiqued The Many-Headed Hydra from a more classical historical materialist perspective. He skilfully balances an appreciation of their “scintillatingly suggestive” perspective while acknowledging that the argument can become “rather stretched”. In particular, Palmer notes that Linebaugh and Rediker tend to homogenise the experience and goals of the powerless they study so that “all recalcitrance, all resistance, all rebellion—over centuries of disorientating socio-economic transformation involving continents whose social formations, political economies, and cultures were diametrically different—are lumped into this commoner’s just revolt “. As such, there is “a somewhat cavalier handling of the important matter of historical periodisation and context”. Nevertheless, despite these shortcomings, Palmer emphasises the potential of The Many–Headed Hydra to open new ground:
Going too far, interpretively, then, is a setback in this study, but not one that repudiates its promise, for such transgression pushes us to rethink the nature of evidence and event. It brings figures such as…Wedderburn into new focus. This could be done with less hyperbole and a more nuanced appreciation of contradiction.14
This article is written in this spirit. It is intended to maintain the political potential of Wedderburn as outlined by Linebaugh and Rediker, while it also explores some of the contradictions they ignore. This article also intends to rescue him from some recent de-politicised readings from a postmodern and postcolonial perspective.
An Atlantic working class
Wedderburn’s experience on ships such as in the Royal Navy may have formed his Atlantic working class outlook as ships were vital sites for the “hydrarchy”.15 Paul Gilroy identifies this service at sea as foundational for the development of an internationalist black radicalism in the early modern era as ex-slaves mixed with abused sailors. Gilroy compares the experiences of Wedderburn and William Davidson, also a mulatto of Scottish descent, whose father was the attorney general of Jamaica. Davidson would later be executed for his part in the Cato Street Conspiracy of 1820:
Both Wedderburn and his sometime associate Davidson had been sailors, moving to and fro between nations, crossing borders in modern machines which were themselves microcosms of linguistic and political hybridity. Their relationship to the sea may turn out to be especially important for both the early politics and poetics of the black Atlantic world that I wish to counterpose against the narrow nationalism of so much English historiography.16
Ironically, Wedderburn and Davidson learnt an internationalist politics of resistance while in the service of His Majesty’s Imperial Fleet. Wedderburn, aged 17, docked in England for the first time in 1778 and drifted into the London community of the “St Giles blackbirds”, a group of poor black musicians, entertainers, beggars and thieves until he became a tailor. He claims to have been involved in the 1797 naval strike at Nore as well as the George Gordon Riots of 1780.17
In 1786 Wedderburn underwent his first spiritual experience when he heard a passionate Wesleyan preacher outside Seven Dials in Covent Garden. EP Thompson has argued for the significance of the varied dissenting religious groups to the traditions of working class formation and resistance in the 18th century:
The intellectual history of Dissent is made up of collisions, schisms, mutations; and one feels often that the dormant seeds of political Radicalism lie within it, ready to germinate whenever planted in a beneficial and hopeful social context.18
In an insight which remains crucial to debates today, Thompson argues that Wesleyan Methodism, which brought the gospel to the working classes who had been largely abandoned by the Church of England, had a simultaneous emancipatory and conservative political potential: “On the one hand, genuine compassion for ‘harlots, and publicans, and thieves’: on the other hand, morbid preoccupation with sin and with the sinner’s confessional”.19
Indeed, Helen Thomas positions Wedderburn in the 18th century “radical dissenting Protestant” current, although it is important to note that he became a licensed Unitarian, rather than Methodist, preacher.20 She situates Wedderburn in the tradition of spiritual autobiography, detailing how the narratives of such as John Wesley employed a “discourse of the spirit” to provide moral authority in their earthly struggles with the “discourse of the law” which was used to legitimise and fortify the abolition movement throughout the period. “The dynamics of antislavery discourse thus emerged from a framework of spiritual salvation”.21
Indeed, Wedderburn’s first publication in 1790 (the year following Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative)22 is an autobiographical conversion narrative. His Truth Self-Supported; Or A Refutation of Certain Doctrinal Errors, Generally Adopted in the Christian Church is, according to McCalman, “a crude but sincere attempt to steer an independent course between the various doctrinal snags and shoals” of Arminianism, Calvinism and Unitarianism.23 Meanwhile, Thomas traces the discourse of radical dissenting Protestantism to the outermost possibilities of its logic in Truth Self-Supported: “Wedderburn’s narrative, in line with that of Equiano, extends the Methodist paradigm of individualism to its furthermost cultural and anarchic extreme”.24 For Thomas, the key passage is his declaration of freedom from earthly censure. He was confident that:
God had sealed him unto the day of redemption, not only sealed, but removed him by HIS power from a legal state of mind, into a state of Gospel Liberty, that is to say, a deliverance from the power or authority of the law, considering himself not to be under the power of the law, but under Grace.25
Thomas argues that Wedderburn’s stated position in Truth
Self–Supported of “Gospel Liberty” situated him beyond the authority of Church and the law. Wedderburn would develop the antinomianism suggested by this passage throughout his career by identifying himself as a Christ figure: he too was persecuted for being a “Radical Reformer”.26 While Thomas perceives an “anarchism” in this early text, it is worth noting the conventional nature of this conversion narrative. In addition, his biography here mentions only his Scottish father, thereby suppressing the mistreatment of his slave mother that would become such a prominent
feature of his later writing and which energised his political grievances. Here Wedderburn confines his tract to doctrinal disputes asserting his opposition to church hierarchy and the Trinity, consistent with Unitarian principles. While Thomas sensitively draws out the implications of spiritual conversion narratives for ex-slaves in Britain, the modern reader is hard-pressed to detect much political radicalism in this early text which ignores the French Revolution and the defeat of the Abolition Bill in parliament. Though this period attests to the gestation of an independent and strident voice, Wedderburn’s true impact would only come later.
In her postmodernist approach Thomas places her emphasis on the potential for “cultural re-formulations” in the Protestant spiritual autobiographies of the “slave diaspora”, and less on working class radicalism. Indeed, Thomas seems to ignore the duality of Methodism that Thompson perceives, that within the subversive potential of challenging, oppositional readings of the Bible, there was also a great deal of “political quietism”. By contrast, Srinivas Aravamudam underlines the political ambivalence of Methodism by juxtaposing the strategies of Equiano and Wedderburn:
The muted challenge of Equiano’s political vocabulary in an era of potential restitution soon turned into an angry and violent protest in the vision of a plebeian prophet such as Robert Wedderburn. Methodism always contained the possibility of an orthodox establishment attitude (as represented by Equiano’s willingness to petition and work within the system) and also an anarchic chiliasm (as suggested by the heterodox reaction of Wedderburn a few decades later).27
Indeed, adopting revolutionary rather than reformist principles, Wedderburn famously advised, “Do not petition, for it is degrading to human nature to petition your oppressors”.28 The spiritual always informed the political for Wedderburn, whose preaching celebrated Tom Paine: “Although they may burn by the hand of the common hangman…Age of Reason, Common Sense, and Rights of Man, they cannot burn it out of my head”.29
By 1813 Wedderburn had become an ardent follower of Thomas Spence, who advocated an earthly millennium based on the redistribution of land as a form of jubilee. McCalman describes how Spence’s group of radicals
was one of the only groups which managed to survive the government repression of the mid-1790s, meeting informally in “free and easy” ale-houses. Contemporaneous with such figures as Robert Owen, the tactics and rhetoric of the Spenceans are an indication of “the undeveloped state of the class struggle”,30 in which underground activity was necessary.31 Newcastle-born Spence developed a potent mixture of millenarian prophecy, communitarian agrarian reform, ideas on the freedom of the individual and opposition to slavery which were publicised by meetings, preaching, publications and a campaign of chalking on walls. He also composed songs to spread the message:
Hark how the Trumpets Sound,
Proclaims the Land around,
Tells all the Poor oppressed
No more shall they be cess’d
Nor landlords more molest,
The biblical jubilee,32 in which inequality would be quashed to be replaced by a period of egalitarian communitarianism, would be hastened by “Spence’s Plan” which he described in reference to African and Native American communities. He advocated a system of common land ownership by parish, wherein the rent paid to the parish would be the only form of tax and would be used for civic purposes. Each parish would elect a member to meet in a national assembly and each adult male would be a member of the parish militia.33 Wedderburn would have been attracted by Spence’s staunch opposition to slavery and was also impressed that he “drew explicit parallels between the slave system abroad and the way that English landed monopoly created inequality, hardship and oppression”.34 These parallels were later developed by Wedderburn while leader of the “Spencean Philanthropists”.
In 1817, three years after Spence’s death, Wedderburn published six editions of the magazine The Axe Laid to the Root. The title drawn from the Bible was also redolent of Paine, Spence and Shelley.35 Published and circulated in London, though addressed “To the Planters and Negroes of Jamaica”, it presented Wedderburn’s advice for the emancipation of slaves through the implementation of “Spence’s Plan” on that island. However, it can also be double-read as a coded message to oppressed classes in Britain, thereby combining the issues of the “black” and “red” Atlantic that dictated Wedderburn’s life. In contrast to Truth Self–Supported, the opening condemns his Scottish father for the abuse of his slave mother:
Be it known to the world, that, I Robert Wedderburn, son of James Wedderburn, esq. of Inveresk, near Musselborough, by Rosanna his slave whom he sold to James Charles Shalto Douglas…while pregnant with the said Wedderburn, who was not held as a slave (a provision made in the agreement, that the child when born should be free).36
This free mulatto undercuts the anticipated criticism from enemies by revelling in the insults they will level at him. Safe in his position of “Gospel Liberty” he declares himself proud to be named “a madman” or “a traitor”, or “possessed with the spirit of Beelzebub”: “What can the landlords, priests or lawyers say or do more than they did against Christ; yet his doctrine is on record, which says ‘woe unto them that add house to house, or field to field’.”37
The persecution Wedderburn would receive renders him akin to the “Radical reformer”, Jesus, and this prophet of the jubilee would similarly level elites on both sides of the Atlantic. Notice his use of “all” as he “doth charge all potentates, governors, and governments of every description with felony”; he demands “in the name of God, in the name of natural justice, and in the name of humanity, that all slaves be set free”.38
The six editions of Axe provide a coherent if unstable vision of jubilee: the question of how the Spencean redistribution of land would be realised, whether benignly handed down from heaven or necessitating violent struggle, is ambiguous. The first edition is composed of two letters. Both letters are signed Wedderburn though they are addressed to the editor, who is also Wedderburn. McCalman speculates that he was attempting to give the impression of an active community of readers, writers and correspondents.39
In the first letter he advocates jubilee through peaceful non-violence, warning of the fate of Haiti:
Oh, ye oppressed, use no violence to your oppressors, convince the world you are rational beings, follow not the example of St Domingo, let not your jubilee, which will take place, be stained with the blood of your oppressors, leave revengeful practices for European kings and ministers.
In addition, he recommends the tactic of symbolic work-stoppages, striking for one hour a day, one day a year “til you obtain your liberty”. Perhaps mindful of the crackdown on dissent following the Spa Fields Riots of 1816, certain passages imply that the mere fact of dissemination of Spencean literature among slaves will automatically engender liberation.40
However, in the second letter of the first edition the voice takes pleasure in the biblical scale of bloodletting to follow. Becoming one of the first commentators to invoke the Haitian Revolution and the Maroon communities favourably, he declares, “Prepare for flight, ye planters, for the fate of St Domingo awaits you. Get ready your bloodhounds, the allies which you employed against the Maroons.” This is a reference to the Second Maroon War (1795-6) in which the British imported bloodhounds from Cuba to Jamaica to track the Maroons:
Recollect the fermentation will be universal. Their weapons are their bill-hooks; their store of provision is every were [sic] in abundance; you know they can live upon sugar canes… They will be victorious in their fight, slaying all before them… Their method of fighting is to be found in the scriptures, which they are now learning to read. They will slay man, woman, and child, and not spare the virgin, whose interest is connected with slavery, whether black, white or tawny.
Ignoring the ambivalent legacy of the Maroons as hunters of runaway slaves, Wedderburn foregrounds a remarkable inversion of symbols of colonial power. Machetes, or “bill-hooks”, were tools manufactured in Britain for use by slaves to harvest the “imperial cane”. Yet he recalls that the slaves on St Domingo used their bill-hooks to combat their masters and the Maroons could survive periods of hardship by sucking on the meagre rations of sugar cane during their wars against the British. Invoking the success of these free black communities across the Atlantic, he hints that their example should be emulated to fight against British oppressors. He admires their guerrilla tactics in comparison to the failed United Irishmen at Vinegar Hill in 1797: “They want no turnpike roads: they will not stand to engage organised troops, like the silly Irish rebels”.41
As a theorist of the Atlantic jubilee, Wedderburn continually emphasises the primary importance of land in the approaching era of freedom. He draws on Spence’s criticism of private property, based on the concept that god, not man, created the Earth, therefore “whoever first sold it, sold that which was not his own”:42
[Spence] knew the earth was given to the children of men, making no difference for colour or character, just or unjust and that any person calling a piece of land his own private property, was a criminal; and though they may sell it, or will it to their children, it is only transferring of that which was first obtained by force or fraud.43
Employing a somewhat inconsistent theory of “possession” then, he nevertheless advises the slaves to draw lessons from the miseries which have befallen the European peasantry:
Above all, mind and keep possession of the land you now possess as slaves; for without that, freedom is not worth possessing; for if you once give up the possession of your lands, your oppressors will have the power to starve you to death…as the landholders in Europe are serving those that are dispossessed of lands… Take warnings by the sufferings of the European poor, and never give up your lands.44
He continues, “It is inconsistent with justice, that a few should have the power to till or not to till the earth, thereby holding the existence of the whole population in their hands”.45
Race and class
Towards the end of the first edition he begins to turn his attention to what kind of society will be forged during and after the revolution, here clearly distinguishing himself from Owenite utopias.46 The overthrow of oppressors will be achieved through the unity of the slaves, “the equality of your present situation in slavery, is your strength. You all feel the injury.” He urges this equality must continue in the new state: “offend not your God…in choosing a king; aggrandise no man by forms of law.” In a crucial insight into the dynamics of race and class which have faced all anti-colonial liberation movements, he warns of replicating hierarchies which produce tyrants: “A black king is capable of wickedness, as well as a white one”.47
The second edition addresses more fully the difficult question of forging a just society. As Paul Foot once insisted that Shelley should not properly be considered a socialist but a leveller,48 so Wedderburn similarly envisages a “democratic republic of agrarian smallholders”.49 Again Wedderburn’s advice to Jamaican slaves can be read as also directed towards the British poor. In a radical departure from previous slave narratives such as Equiano’s, which presented slavery as an aberration from the tradition of British liberty, Wedderburn, rather, dismisses that tradition as a myth. Though “Britons boast of the perfection of their free government”, yet they are “ignorant of what political liberty is”. The bribery of voters in rotten boroughs is invoked as well as the perverse situation that “they punish in this country for stealing of children…and, at the same time, they make it right that hundreds of thousands of Africans may be stolen, and sold, like cattle, in the market”. In contrast, the slaves, and by implication the British poor, are advised that universal suffrage is fundamental to governance, that “everything should be settled by votes throughout your nation”. Though importantly this was qualified in the previous edition: “To have a parliament and every man to vote, is just and right…but without an equal share in the soil, no government can be pure”.50
The fourth to final editions of The Axe Laid to the Root comprised a correspondence with Wedderburn’s half-sister “Miss Campbell”, a “mulatta” in Jamaica who, upon Wedderburn’s request, agrees to free her slaves in line with Spencean principles. Linebaugh and Rediker invest a great deal of faith in these letters, finding in them “a unique source of knowledge about the Atlantic proletariat”, and “a transatlantic intellectual dialogue that synthesised African, American, and European voices”.51 However, although an Elizabeth Campbell may well have existed (and Linebaugh and Rediker suggest one in Trelawney in Jamaica), it seems unlikely that she penned these letters. In a previous article Linebaugh based his interpretation on the fact that “Iain McCalman, an authority on Wedderburn’s writing, is inclined to accept the letters as authentic”.52 However, McCalman is, in fact, more circumspect. For my part, the similarity in the breathless tone, the breakneck speed of the style and the recurrence of familiar bête noire figures suggest it was Wedderburn himself who wrote these letters; rather in the way he attempted to give the impression of a community of correspondents to his newspaper by addressing the first letters “to the Editor”. This represents an example of what Bryan Palmer calls Linebaugh and Rediker’s “stretched argument”, and lends weight to those critics such as David Brion Davis and David Armitage who accuse them of relying on questionable readings in order to draw connections between the Atlantic working class rather more clearly than the evidence allows.53
Nevertheless, I argue that these letters should not be dismissed as merely inauthentic; they can still profitably be read as an extension of Wedderburn’s theory and propaganda for jubilee, in which he adopts the voice of his half-sister. The letters report the consequences of Miss Campbell manumitting all her slaves, as Wedderburn requested. Wedderburn’s wickedly ironic humour is evident in his representation of the Jamaican governor’s voice: “Keep your slaves upon your own estate, for fear they should corrupt others and turn their brains to think that liberty and possession of the soil is better than slavery and the whip”.54 Returning to another favourite target of Wedderburn’s, Miss Campbell reports that it was suggested at the assembly that this uprising of slaves could be doused easily: “Send immediately to England for a million gags, one million yards of chain, one million iron collars, and send to Scotland for one hundred thousand starving Scotchmen to manage the slaves”.55
Miss Campbell distinguishes between the English officers who hate to see their mulatto offspring sold into slavery, unlike “the Scotch negro drivers (who) never care about their children being slaves; you know what your father did”.56 This echoes issue one of The Axe Laid to the Root in which Wedderburn considers a generalised revenge for the treatment of his mother: “O Boswell, ought not your colour and countrymen to be visited with wrath, for flogging my pregnant mother before my face, at the time when she was far advanced in pregnancy?”57 This is another Scottish owner and not the prominent Scotsman and biographer of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, though he was, of course, the author of the notorious poem No Abolition of Slavery.
Much of what we know of Wedderburn’s speeches comes from government spies who infiltrated the underground movement. In response to this government pressure which stifled activity, the Spencean leader Thomas Evans attempted to improve the respectability of the group through banning smoking and drinking at meetings and encouraging women to attend for free. Clearly finding such measures distasteful, Wedderburn broke away to found his own “Hopkins St Chapel” on 23 April 1819. The chapel was registered as a Unitarian meeting house though it was really a converted hayloft. There he reintroduced the ale-house atmosphere of rough masculinity complete with fiery rhetoric and burlesque performance. Although reports from politically hostile government spies must be handled with caution, they do provide an insight into the kind of “debates” taking place, and at times a sense of the vigour and dynamism of Wedderburn’s vernacular rhetoric seep through. On 9 August 1819, at a meeting entitled “Can it be murder to kill a tyrant?”, the congregation voted overwhelmingly in favour in answer to the question, “Has a Slave an inherent right to slay his Master, who refuses him his liberty?” The two spies present both interpreted the meeting, probably accurately, as having a subtext of the legitimate rising of the British poor against their oppressors in Britain. Wedderburn pointed out that slaves had been rebelling for 20 years and “appealed to Britons who boasted such superior feelings and principles, whether they were ready to fight now but for a short time for their Liberties”.58 He assured the assembly that “he had written home to the Slaves to avoid slaying their Masters until he knew the sense of that meeting”. Following the near unanimous decision in favour, he exclaimed, “Well Gentlemen I can now write home and tell the Slaves to murder their Masters as soon as they please”.59
Repression, the Peterloo Massacre, and jail
On 16 August 1819 government repression of the popular movement culminated in a cavalry charge into an unarmed demonstration of 60,000 to 80,000 people who were demanding parliamentary reform. The site of the action, St Peter’s Field near Manchester, lent its name to an ironic inversion of the military victory over Napoleon at Waterloo. The “Peterloo Massacre” which killed 15 and injured between 400 and 700 provoked shock and anger. There were urgent meetings called, letters written, newspapers founded and protests planned. Meanwhile, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who heard of the atrocity while in Italy, wrote “The Masque of Anarchy”, which Richard Holmes describes as “the greatest political poem ever written”.60 In addition, Shelley wrote another poem attacking Lords Sidmouth and Castlereagh, “Similes for Two Political Characters of 1819”, which like “The Masque of Anarchy” was produced in 1819 though not published until 1832. These reactionary ministers who orchestrated Peterloo are portrayed as two “ravens”, “vultures”, “scorpions”, “wolves”, “crows” and “vipers”. Interestingly, Shelley also employs the image of the shark following the slave ship:
As a shark and dogfish wait
Under an Atlantic isle
For the Negro-ship, whose freight
Is the theme of their debate,
Wrinkling their red gills the while.61
The depiction of the tyrants of Peterloo by the ferocious abolitionist symbol of the Atlantic shark implies that their tyranny is akin to that of a Caribbean slave-master, pointing the way for Wedderburn’s theories.
Wedderburn had been in jail during Peterloo but was released on bail the following day. He immediately joined a mass meeting in London to discuss the implications and response, where government spies singled him out as a ringleader. The intensifying atmosphere produced divisions in the popular movement. Arthur Thistlewood, the radical son of the planter Thomas Thistlewood,62 called for an armed rebellion while Henry “Orator” Hunt distanced himself, suggesting Thistlewood was an agent provocateur. Meanwhile, practising the military preparation he preached to Jamaican slaves, Wedderburn led a band of followers in dawn drills on Primrose Hill. At the Hopkins St Chapel, on 11 October 1819, Wedderburn harangued the crowd that the murders at Peterloo signified that “the Revolution had already started in blood there and that it must now also end in blood here”. He declared that he would gladly die for the “satisfaction of plunging a dagger in the heart of a Tyrant”, and urged all followers to come armed to the next demonstration at Smithfields.63 At Hopkins Street he abandons the Christ pose he adopts in courts for something more Old Testament:
They tell us to be quiet like that bloody spooney Jesus Christ who like a Bloody Fool tells us when we get a slap on one side of the face turn gently round and ask them to smack the other—But I like jolly old Peter give me a rusty sword for they have declared War against the People.64
He declared the prince “an ignorant insignificant smock faced stupid fool”.65 Two abortive uprisings in Huddersfield and Burnley alarmed the government during the autumn of 1819, before the discovery and foiling of the Cato Street Conspiracy to blow up the cabinet that winter.
Arthur Thistlewood’s assassination plot against members of the cabinet, including Lords Sidmouth and Castlereagh, while they dined at a restaurant in Grosvenor Square, was foiled by the government spy Edwards.66 Wedderburn certainly supported the conspiracy though it was his fellow Jamaican William “Black” Davidson who was arrested at the scene. Davidson was born in 1781, the son of a slave and the Scottish Jamaican attorney general, though unlike Wedderburn he had been “acknowledged”. A cabinet maker, the recession following the Napoleonic wars put him in the poorhouse and probably edged him towards desperation. On 23 February 1820 the conspirators’ loft at Cato Street was raided by the police. While some members including Thistlewood escaped out of a window, Davidson is said to have fought back fiercely before being carried out “damning every person who would not die in Liberty’s cause” and singing the Robert Burns song “Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled”.67
Wedderburn most probably would have been with the conspirators but he was in jail at the time for blasphemy charges. He had fallen foul of the “Six Acts”, which the Tory government under Lord Liverpool had brought in following Peterloo in order to suppress radical meetings and publications. The court records survive and allow us to draw out the marked difference between Davidson and Wedderburn’s defence in court. Davidson, despite being on trial for violent sedition, adopted the tone of a “respectable” who was the victim of mistaken identity. He only ever wanted to “earn my bread by honest industry”, he had been “a teacher of a Sunday School” and he never associated with “men of colour”, for “I was very well brought up. I found them all very ignorant.” He insisted that he had “ventured his life 15 times for my king and my country” and he would never join “wicked men, who would attempt to overthrow so well-founded a constitution as the British constitution”. Rather the weapons he was found with belonged to others and though he was apprehended in the Cato Street loft, he “knew nothing of a plot for plunder or massacre”.68
Wedderburn’s trial for blasphemy took place in May 1820, merely days after the execution of his friends, so that a toned-down approach might be expected. However, Wedderburn had prepared a written defence which had probably received the input of Erasmus Perkins, otherwise known as George Cannon, a middle class, educated, eloquent radical and pornographer. The defence, which was intended to be read out by Perkins, forcefully rejected the authority of the court to “interfere with matters of conscience”. Wedderburn portrays himself as a “humble individual” and “an advocate for religious liberty”; he does not deny the charge but rather claims his right to free speech. Whereas Davidson invoked pious lines from Alexander Pope’s “The Universal Prayer”,69 Wedderburn invoked the deist Voltaire and radical Tom Paine to insist that it was fundamental for liberty to be able to speak out against the orthodoxies of the state religion. He returned to the stance which had been successful in a previous blasphemy charge, portraying himself as a Christ figure: both of them are religious visionaries from the lower orders who argue for reform and, by implication, the prosecution of Wedderburn echoes the persecution of Jesus. The jury considered he had “erred out of ignorance” for “want of personal care” in youth; he was sentenced to two years at Dorchester prison.70
During his spell in jail Wedderburn was visited by a stranger who lent him two books. It transpired the visitor was none other than William Wilberforce, who had a penchant for enlightening wayward prisoners who he believed had misdirected their talents.71 It seems he encouraged Wedderburn to abandon the subversive republican rhetoric to focus on anti-slavery. The result was the publication in 1824 of The Horrors of Slavery. It contains his fullest exposition of his upbringing as he focuses on his personal experiences in Jamaica, and displays his most controlled arguing style. The title page announces his intentions to focus on his Scottish-African slave heritage in order to illustrate the “treatment of blacks in Jamaica”, for speaking out against which he was remanded in prison, all dedicated to “W Wilberforce, MP”. Striking a moral rather than political tone, the focus here is not on the general oppression of slave and working classes, but rather on the “disgusting licentiousness of the planters”. In addition, it contains the letters between Wedderburn and his more favoured brother Andrew Colvile who sought to refute his claims. Colvile had, by that time, inherited his father’s sugar estates on Jamaica, while Wedderburn complains that he had “received no benefit in the world”. Helen Thomas draws out the irony that the benefits he sought to gain from his father had been accrued through the slave economy that he railed against. Furthermore, Thomas notes that “the author could not claim to have suffered directly the ‘horrors’ implied by the title of his pamphlet”.72
Family relations—a haven in a heartless world?
Rather than the slave narratives of his predecessors Cuguano and Equiano, this example of what might be termed “mulatto discourse” gives a detailed account of his biography, invoking his Scottish grandfather Sir John Wedderburn and asserting, “My grandfather was a staunch Jacobite, and exerted himself strenuously in the cause of the Pretender.” He continues, apparently enjoying the gore:
He was hung by the neck till he was dead; his head was then cut off, and his body was divided into four quarters. When I first came to England in the year 1779, I remember seeing the remains of a rebel’s skull which had been affixed over Temple Bar; but I never yet could fully ascertain if it was my dear grandfather’s skull, or not. Perhaps my dear brother, A Colvile, can lend me some assistance in this affair.73
This passage serves a number of functions. There is a sense that he is drawing on some of the legend of the rehabilitated Jacobites: Walter Scott’s Waverley had appeared in 1814 and Redgauntlet was also published in 1824. Although the Jacobites had formed an armed rising to restore the divine right of kings, many radicals, including Burns, enjoyed the oppositional energy that had traumatised the state. Wedderburn is perhaps hinting at a rebellious, romantic nature inherent in his family blood. Alternatively, his impertinent reference to his brother identifying the skull suggests he is undermining Colvile’s standing as a respectable gentleman by reminding us of his treasonous, untrustworthy Scottish Jacobite ancestry.
Following the description of the traitor’s death, he gives details of his father’s arrival in Jamaica as a Jacobite refugee. Basing it on the paradigm that poverty encourages chastity while riches breed licentiousness, he observes:
While my dear and honoured father was poor, he was chaste as any Scotchman, whose poverty made him virtuous; but the moment he became rich, he gave loose to his carnal appetites, and indulged himself without moderation, but as parsimonious as ever.74
The stingy Scot is exemplified in the practice of selling female slaves while pregnant as a way to increase profits, as the buyer receives “two for the price of one”. Thus he declares his father “a perfect parish bull”, and more colourfully: “My father’s house was full of female slaves, all objects of his lusts; amongst whom he strutted like Solomon in his grand seraglio, or like a bantam cock upon his own dunghill”.75
In a fascinating aside he recalls that his grandmother “Talkee Amy” took him to see if his father would assist financially in his upbringing. It is intriguing to picture this meeting of the feisty and vibrant black slave grandmother and his licentious, uncaring white planter father. Receiving only some “abusive language”, Amy remained defiant: “My grandmother called him a mean Scotch rascal, thus to desert his own flesh and blood; and declared, that as she had raised me hitherto, so she would yet, without his paltry assistance”.76
The revenge of the slaves
Although The Horrors of Slavery employs a generally more controlled tone than previously, commentators have drawn attention to the intensely varied typography of the text with italics, bold, upper-case letters, and triple exclamation marks as he “attempts to bend the King’s English to his oral mode and distinctive vernacular dialect”.77 From a postcolonial perspective, Alan Rice invokes Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha to argue this is an example of a hybridised, subaltern text:
bq. The Horrors of Slavery cannot be related in the plain prose of normal typography; the enormity of the horror must be challenged with a vernacular discourse that lies outside the traditional literary language. Such hybridisation reverses the effects of the colonialist disavowal, so that other denied knowledges enter upon the dominant discourse and estrange the basis of its authority.78
Although a useful insight, it is always worth remembering, against Bhabha, that colonial regimes often seem less troubled by linguistic hybridisation than organised uprisings. Nevertheless, Wedderburn’s eye-catching presentation of his ideas can certainly be understood as the mediation of his subversive, unorthodox politics in text. In addition, there are still hints of bloody revenge which surface, as he echoes Shylock: “Hath not a slave feelings? If you starve them will they not die? If you wrong them, will they not revenge?”79 In the final paragraph of the final letter he teasingly raises the spectre of Haiti, that ultimate symbol of violent slave revenge: “In a future part of my history I shall give some particulars of the treatment of the blacks in the West Indies, and the prospect of a general rebellion and massacre there, from my own experience.” Although this promised text never appeared, the undercurrents of violent revenge are always present in Wedderburn’s discussion and would have gained added currency with the contemporary slave uprising in Demerara.
Unlike Equiano, Wedderburn almost certainly died in a pauper’s grave, but his legacy is in no way diminished for it. The last registered sighting of Wedderburn was at a radical meeting in March 1834 so it is gratifying to think that he lived to see the Parliamentary Reform Act in 1832, as well as the Abolition of Slavery Act of 1833. McCalman reasons that the publication of The Horrors of Slavery may well have revived the anti-slavery campaign in the mid-1820s.80 Indeed, Moira Ferguson points to his impact on other abolitionist campaigners. She argues that he prefigures and “inspires” Elizabeth Heyrick’s immediatist rather than gradualist pamphleteering of 1824.81 As for Wedderburn’s posthumous significance, it is not hard to draw a line to the future campaigners who rediscovered mass radicalism as we might see him as prefiguring the notable William Cuffay, the West Indian leader of the Chartist movement. The current rise of the far right across Europe is influencing the mainstream so that the malcontent of the working class can be deflected onto outsider scapegoats, such as immigrants or refugees, with slogans like “British jobs for British workers”. Yet Wedderburn’s story attests to the long and vital history of multi-ethnic solidarity to be found in resistance struggles that has always existed. This is a feature which is well worthy of further study as part of the present struggles against fascism. One fresh approach has been pursued by Emma Christopher, who explores instances of multiracial resistance between sailors and slaves on slaving ships on the coast of Africa:
Any suggestion of multiracial tolerance is hard to find within the commonly told history of the slave trade, where the dread middle passage saw black captive and white seamen fight many bloody battles against each other… Yet the history of the slave trade seamen suggests a variant picture when the Africans they were dealing with were not part of their cargo.82
As for Wedderburn’s significance for the red and black Atlantic, the final word goes to Linebaugh and Rediker:
He linked through time the communist Christian in the ancient Near East with the Leveller in England and with the Native Baptist in Jamaica. He linked through space the slave and the maroon with the sailor and the dockworker, with the commoner and the artisan and the factory worker; he linked the evangelical with the Painite; he linked the slave with the working class and middle class opponent of slavery in the metropolis… He linked the trumpet of jubilee in the enclosed commons of England with the “shell blow” jubilee of Jamaica.83
1: The Axe Laid to the Root or A fatal Blow to Oppressors, Being an Address to the Planters and Negroes of the Island of Jamaica, number 1, 1817, in McCalman, 1991, p83.
2: Linebaugh and Rediker, 2000, pp325-326.
3: See Devine, 2004; Graham 2009; Hamilton, 2005.
4: While in England one of the major barriers researchers of slavery face is a faith in Britain as the “liberal empire”, in Scotland the pernicious nature of the British Empire is largely accepted. However, Scotland is then conceived as the real home of liberal values which have been stunted by union with England.
5: Rice, 2003, p8.
6: See the BBC’s “White Season” and responses to it in Socialist Worker from Yuri Prasad, Simon Basketter and Alex Callinicos.
7: McCalman, 1988. Wedderburn appears fleetingly in EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class.
8: See James Robertson’s excellent historical novel Joseph Knight for the story of the brother John’s return to Scotland with his slave Joseph Knight who eventually won his freedom in court.
9: This battle saw the final crushing defeat of recurring attempts to restore the Stuart monarchs to the British throne since their deposal following the 1688 “Glorious Revolution”. Sympathy for the Jacobite cause (after the Latin for the Stuart King James-Jacob) extended across England and Europe amongst those alarmed by the usurping of their divine right to rule. However, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s 1745 rising was composed largely of Highland clans and their vanquishing heralded a new stage in the British Union where the Highland Gaelic culture was suppressed (tartans and bagpipes were banned) before Highlanders were eventually incorporated into the British imperial project as frontline troops. See Davidson, 2000; or Monod and others, 2009.
10: “The Horrors of Slavery”, in McCalman, 1991, p60.
11: Lord Mansfield’s decision in the Somerset trial made clear it outlawed the involuntary repatriation of persons outwith England, but stopped short of outlawing slavery. Abolitionists publicised it as such, nonetheless.
12: Hollis, 1980, pp297-311.
13: Walvin, 1982, p19.
14: Palmer, 2003, p383 and p390. This review hinges upon a useful discussion of the difficulties of producing “materialist histories” as well as the inadequacy of both “history from the bottom up” and “looking from below” approaches.
15: “Hydrarchy” is Linebaugh and Rediker’s term for “two related developments of the late 17th century: the organisation of the maritime state from above, and the self-organisation of the sailors from below… The ship thus became both an engine of capitalism in the wake of the bourgeois revolution in England and a setting of resistance”-Linebaugh and Rediker, 2000, p144.
16: Gilroy, 1993, p12.
17: These were instigated by the march of the “Protestant Association” led by General George Gordon to protest at the repeal of the anti-Catholic Popery Act of 1698. Catholic residences and churches were attacked, though the looting and attacks on banks suggest the crowd held economic and political grievances too.
18: Thompson, 1968, p39.
19: Thompson, 1968, p44.
20: A distinction Thomas fails to make.
21: Thomas, 2000, p23.
22: Equiano’s autobiographical account of his childhood experience in Africa destroyed by the Atlantic slave trade drew mass support for the abolitionist cause. However, a debate over his origins has stretched from the 18th century to today over whether he was born in Igboland, as he claims, or Carolina in America. The debate therefore also concerns whether his depiction of Africa is based on personal experience or is fabricated. For a summary of the positions,
23: McCalman, 1988, p58.
24: Thomas, 2000, p259.
25: Quoted in McCalman, 1991, p67.
26: PRO TS 11/45/167, Rex v Wedderburn, Trial for Blasphemy, 1819, in McCalman 1991, p124.
27: Aravamudam, 1999, p269.
28: The Axe Laid to the Root, number 1, 1817, in McCalman, 1991, p82.
29: PRO TS 11/45/167, Rex v Wedderburn, Examination of William Plush, 13 October 1819, in McCalman, 1991, p121.
30: Marx and Engels, 2002, p254.
31: Wedderburn opposed the plans of the likes of Robert Owen.
32: See Leviticus chapter 25: “It shall be a Jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family… The land shall not be sold forever; for the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me.” Spence concludes, “Thus you see God Almighty himself is a very notorious leveller”-Spence, 1793.
33: Spence, 1793.
34: McCalman, 1988, p69.
35: Luke chapter 3, verse 9: “And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.” Paine’s The Age of Reason (1794) was intended to “lay the axe to the root of religion”, a phrase which Spence repeated in The Giant Killer (1814). Shelley’s “Queen Mab” (1813) declared, “From Kings, and Princes, and statesmen, war arose/…Let the axe/ Strike at the root,/ The poison tree will fall.” To modern readers it will also recall Bob Marley’s “If you are the big tree/ We are the small axe/ ready to cut you down’”-”Small Axe” (1973).
36: The Axe Laid to the Root, number 1, 1817, in McCalman, 1991, p81.
37: McCalman, 1991, p83.
38: McCalman, 1991, p81 (emphasis added).
39: McCalman, 1991, p87.
40: All quotes from first letter of Axe number 1, in McCalman, 1991, pp81-83.
41: All quotes from second letter of number one, in McCalman, 1991, pp83-87.
42: McCalman, 1991, p84.
43: McCalman, 1991, p82.
44: McCalman, 1991, p82.
45: McCalman, 1991, p84.
46: Indeed, a contemporary engraving depicts Wedderburn as a “stock negro” clambering to the stage fist aloft to denounce Robert Owen’s proposals. “A Peep into the City of London Tavern by an Irish Amateur on 21 August 1817-or A Sample of the Cooperation to be expected in one of Mr Owen’s Projected Paradises”, engraved by G Cruikshank, published by JJ Stockdale, October 1817 (British Museum).
47: All quotes from McCalman, 1991, p87.
48: Foot, 1984, p96.
49: McCalman, 1991, p18.
50: All quotes from second edition of Axe, in McCalman, 1991, pp89-90. Reference to previous on p84.
51: Linebaugh and Rediker, 2000, p301 and p306.
52: Linebaugh, 1993, p175.
53: In a bad-tempered exchange Davis accuses the authors of “a highly romanticized Marxism” while they accuse him of “red-baiting”-Davis, 2001. See also Armitage, 2001. No review has picked up on the aspect of these letters.
54: McCalman, 1991, p106.
55: McCalman, 1991, p109.
56: McCalman, 1991, p108.
57: McCalman, 1991, p86.
58: PRO HO 42/191, Rev. Chetwode Eustace, 10 August 1819, in McCalman, 1991, p116.
59: PRO HO 42/195, Sd. J. Bryant, 9 August 1819, in McCalman, 1991, p114.
60: Holmes, 2003.
61: Shelley, “Similes for Two Political Characters of 1819”, 1983, p573. Sharks used to follow the slave ships across the Atlantic in anticipation of an easy meal as offal and persons were thrown overboard. This became a recurring image of abolitionist writings and can be traced through, for example, James Thomson’s 1745 version of “The Seasons”-Summer, ll.1013-25, and JMW Turner’s Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying-Typhoon Coming On, first exhibited in 1845.
62: See Thomas Thistlewood’s diaries. James Wedderburn and he were neighbours.
63: PRO TS 11/45/167, Rex v Wedderburn, Deposition of Richard Dalton, 13 October 1819, in McCalman, 1991, pp118-119.
64: PRO TS 11/45/167, Rex v Wedderburn, Examination of William Plush, in McCalman, 1991, p122.
65: PRO TS 11/45/167, Rex v Wedderburn, in McCalman, 1991, p122.
66: In his speech in court before receiving his death sentence, Thistlewood suggests Edwards was in fact an agent provocateur who had suggested the assassination plot in the first place.
67: Edwards and Dabydeen, 1991, p129. Although sometimes treated as a national hymn today, in this song, written in the aftermath of the French Revolution, Burns puts into the mouth of Robert the Bruce before the Battle of Bannockburn (1314) a celebration of William Wallace for his struggle against “tyrants” and “slavery”, and for “freedom” and “liberty”. However, as he explains in a letter, this song relates to political battles “not quite so ancient” and it was employed by radicals across Scotland and England alike.
68: All quotes from Edwards and Dabydeen, 1991, p132.
69: Edwards and Dabydeen, 1991, p135. “If I am right thy grace impart,/ Still in the right to stay;/ If I am wrong, oh! Teach my heart/ To find that better way!/… Teach me to feel another’s woe,/ To hide the faults I see;/ That mercy I to others shew,/ That mercy shew to me.”
70: Nine miles east of Dorchester, the village of Tolpuddle in Dorset would see their martyrs arrested for “combining” in 1834. Their sentenced transportation to Australia was repealed due to the public outcry.
71: Many commentators have enjoyed speculating that one of the “calf-bound” books he lent him was Equiano’s Interesting Narrative though there is no evidence for this. See, for example, Hoyles, 2004.
72: Thomas, 2000, p269.
73: The Horrors of Slavery, in McCalman, 1991, p45.
74: McCalman, 1991, p46.
75: McCalman, 1991, p47.
76: McCalman, 1991, p49.
77: Linebaugh and Rediker, 2000, p403.
78: Rice, 2003, p13, quoting Homi Bhabha, “Signs Taken for Wonders”, 1986, p156. Influential postcolonial critic Homi Bhabha is best known for his discussion of “Mimicry”. According to Bhabha the colonial regime must create a layer of native functionaries in their own image in order to continue governing the colonies. However, the very creation of these “mimic men”-native-born though versed in British education, laws and values-immediately ruptures the colonial discourse of racialised inferiority upon which that regime stands. Colonialism thus implodes through the contradictions of its own discourse. Materialism is not a strong point for Bhabha.
79: McCalman, 1991, pp47-48.
80: McCalman, 1991, p86.
81: Ferguson, 1992, p250.
82: Christopher, 2004, p146.
83: Linebaugh and Rediker, 2000, p326.
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