Home > Slaveries since Emancipation > Hannah-Rose Murray on Advocates of Freedom African American Transatlantic Abolitionism in the British Isles

Historians Against Slavery is happy to sponsor the Slaveries since Emancipation series with Cambridge University Press. In this post, HAS board member Ben Wright interviews Hannah-Rose Murray on her new book in the series, Advocates of Freedom African American Transatlantic Abolitionism in the British Isles. Readers may also be interested in Dr. Murray’s Black abolitionist walking tour of London

1. Can you give us a brief overview of your book’s argument and historiographical contribution?

Advocates of Freedom highlights the radical and politicized literary, oratorical and visual contributions of formerly enslaved African Americans in Britain and Ireland during the nineteenth century. Using my accompanying digital resource where I have mapped up to 4,700 of their speaking locations (www.frederickdouglassinbritain.com), I point to numerous individuals such as Moses Roper, Frederick Douglass, and Ellen Craft who travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles to inform the public about slavery. They lectured in large cities and tiny fishing villages, wrote and published narratives, stayed with influential reformers, and appealed to different classes, races, and genders, with no discrimination against profession, religion, or age. Whatever their reasons for visiting, Black abolitionists exhibited whips and chains, sometimes together with their scars; read runaway slave advertisements from southern newspapers; created visual panoramas and used fiery rhetoric to tell their stories.

Millions of British and Irish people witnessed formerly enslaved people lecture. They vociferously read about their lives through slave narratives or pamphlets, watched antislavery panoramas unfold, purchased daguerreotypes and raised money to free enslaved individuals and their families. Activists inspired poetry, songs, woodcuts, pamphlets, children’s literature, wax models, religious remonstrances, along with hundreds of editorials and letters to the press. It is therefore unsurprising that British newspaper editors littered their reportage with accounts of formerly enslaved individuals as well as their speeches, adverts for their narratives, and their letters to editors. From the John O’Groat Journal to the Royal Cornwall Gazette, Victorian Britons followed the movements of Black Americans from the 1830s until decades after the American Civil War, often cramming into tiny churches or town halls to curb an insatiable appetite for details about American slavery.

Building on the extensive and seminal scholarship of Richard Blackett, Audrey Fisch and Peter Ripley, I uncover new evidence surrounding Black activist performances and shed new light on their rhetoric and actions both on and outside an abolitionist stage. As a result, I argue that African American activists galvanised the antislavery movement and highlighted not only their death-defying escapes from bondage but also their desire to speak out against slavery and white supremacy on foreign soil. Using a theoretical framework I term adaptive resistance, I uncover the reasons why some activists were more successful than others, why they visited certain locations, how they adapted to the political and social climate, and what impact their activism had on British society. The framework rests on three nodes including performance, an exploitation of print culture and a cultivation of antislavery networks; if an individual ensured a balance between all three, it was likely their journey was successful.

2. This sounds like very important and exciting work! I’m particularly intrigued by your framework of adaptive resistance. Can you tell us more about how you came to this concept and how other scholars might use it to better understand the fight against injustice in other historical contexts?

Thank you! I’ve spent several years searching, transcribing and collating newspaper reports, advertisements and letters to see if I can use the Victorian press almost like a barometer of public opinion as well as simply, how often correspondents attended lectures or wrote about these freedom fighters. I started first with Frederick Douglass’ visit in 1845, and was fascinated with how much press coverage Douglass received but also the way in which he was lionized – as I explain in the book, this was deeply racialized but his stunning oratory and performance had a dramatic transformation on his audiences, and the newspaper correspondents in attendance. I started delving into the reasons why Douglass was so successful: he had strong antislavery networks because his ally, William Lloyd Garrison, had numerous abolitionist friends in Britain and Ireland. Douglass was well attuned to how newspaper correspondents and editors could make or break his success in a particular area and mentioned them in his lectures, sent information to them, and even challenged them to become abolitionists themselves. Furthermore, Garrison had numerous connections to newspaper editors throughout the country who could print favourable accounts of Douglass’ meetings. Thus, between 1845-1847, Douglass had a very successful British and Irish tour because he maintained strong antislavery networks, had connections to Victorian print culture, and was an excellent performer. Interestingly, in 1859 Douglass is hindered slightly by his break with Garrison (as several antislavery hubs in Britain and Ireland were no longer welcoming him with open arms) but he identified a growth in racist/pro-slavery thought in England which had not been present a decade or so before.

While I was researching Douglass, it became clear that I needed to look at other abolitionists too and became fascinated with the story of Moses Roper. A bold and radical freedom fighter, Roper wrote one of the best-selling slave narratives in transatlantic history and gave thousands of lectures across Britain and Ireland (I’ve mapped them here – www.frederickdouglassinbritain.com) Roper was unflinching in his descriptions of slavery’s violence and was unafraid to challenge white fragility. He was described as a good orator, but his refusal to sanitize U.S. slavery alienated many of his predominantly white audiences and incensed newspaper reporters. In some locations, correspondents tried to ruin his reputation, talked of his lectures with the most vitriolic hatred and grounded their descriptions of him in racist language. There were some white abolitionists, too, who jeopardized his lecturing tour which threatened Roper’s financial survival. Unlike Douglass, Roper did not have the antislavery networks to counteract such slander and at times he struggled to survive. The triad of adaptive resistance is unbalanced because of his performances, the lack of comparable antislavery networks to someone like Douglass, and his difficult relationship with newspaper editors.

Hopefully the framework can be applied elsewhere, as it encourages us to think about the many different factors at play that can help or hinder someone’s success at a particular time. And how do we even define success?

I think it can also be adapted: the current framework has its roots in a British context and while the different modes of performance, print culture and networks can be transferred, it’s worth thinking about how this could be brought about. In my conclusion to the book, I discuss very briefly the contemporary #BlackLivesMatter campaign and how activists today rely on ‘newer’ forms of print culture such as social media, and connections with activists around the globe, to have a dramatic and transformative impact to share their message. We have seen this since 2013, but even more so in 2020 after the global protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

3. Can you give us a narrative overview of the book? Where do you begin, where do you end, and what are the major turning points in your narrative?

The book begins with Moses Roper’s lecturing tour in 1836. Other African Americans did visit before this date, but my decision to focus on Roper was threefold: he was the first Black American to publish a slave narrative in Britain in 1837, he was the first to lecture extensively across Britain and Ireland, and his staggering activism has often been neglected by scholars. I have spent several years trying to recover Roper’s speeches, letters and writings in Britain and I’ve learned that he was unafraid to challenge white fragility and was uncompromising in his descriptions of slavery’s brutality. Traumatized by years of torture and abuse at the hands of enslavers, he refused to temper his speeches and sometimes alienated potential supporters (abolitionists or newspaper correspondents for example). I compare Roper’s journey to that of Frederick Douglass, as his successful employment of adaptive resistance during his visit in 1845-1847 highlighted how networks, connections to print culture and oratorical skill were really key to an activist leaving a strong impact on the local and national community. I focus on Douglass for two chapters, examining some of his speeches in great detail and dissecting some of the language used to describe him by the press. For example, many newspaper correspondents waxed lyrical about his performance and appearance (one called him a ‘Negro Hercules’) and I ground these discussions within a context of Victorian society.

Chapters 4-6 focus on the 1850s and the 1860s, covering key individuals such as Henry ‘Box Brown, James Watkins, Henry Highland Garnet, John Sella Martin, William Craft, Ellen Craft, and Julia Jackson. Due to Victorian gender and racial dynamics, it was far more difficult for women – let alone Black women – to speak on the lecturing platform. While Sarah Parker Remond led a very successful antislavery tour, I wanted to focus on the networks Ellen Craft forged from her home in London as well as highlighting the activism of Julia Jackson, who has been ignored in conversations around transatlantic abolitionism. This speaks to the problem of archival erasure or invisibilisation of Black women and although we know little about Jackson, her story deserves to be told separately from her husband, John Andrew Jackson. Building on Richard Blackett’s seminal work, I also discuss how activists challenged the Confederacy and scientific racism in Britain during the American Civil War.

My final two chapters go beyond the traditional endpoint of transatlantic abolitionism, which usually closes with the American Civil War in 1865. I wanted to highlight that African Americans still travelled to Britain and Ireland, continued to publish slave narratives and lectured about the legacies of slavery, racism, and white domestic terrorism. Josiah Henson’s visit in 1876-1877 was a phenomenal success: together with white reformer John Lobb, the revised edition of Henson’s narrative and a children’s edition sold a quarter of a million copies; Henson spoke to half a million people in six months; a wax model of himself was placed in Madame Tussaud’s and he was invited to meet Queen Victoria in March 1877. Last but not least, Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s anti-lynching tours in 1893 and 1894 highlighted how the British public remained ignorant of Black American experiences and the violence against them on U.S. soil.

Although the book stretches between 1837-1894, African Americans were united in their testimony against slavery and its legacies. In 1838, Moses Roper declared “you have heard the slaveholder’s side of the story, it is time for the slaves to speak”, a sentiment which was echoed by Wells-Barnett in 1894: “It’s my mission to give to the world the black people’s side of the story.”

4. Does your work prompt any new questions that you hope future historians might address?

Absolutely! I would love to see historians build on the figures I talk about and their relationship to Britain and Ireland. There are so many avenues to explore. I think specific case studies about certain cities like Manchester, Sheffield or Birmingham would be really interesting, as well as whole counties like Devon. I have unearthed accounts of speeches from both digitized and non-digitized newspapers but it would be really wonderful to see local studies of non-digitized newspapers, other print culture ephemera such as handbills and pamphlets, or to search through the diaries or letters of abolitionists who hosted Black activists on their travels. For example, understanding the non-conformist networks Moses Roper relied upon across the country but particularly in Wales and parts of Scotland. Examining Roper’s routes in the Scottish Highlands would be fascinating too – who did he stay with? How did he travel? How was he received in Elgin, Peterhead and Inverness for example?

Additionally, I think it’s really important to consider the networks Black activists cultivated and created with Black British reformers. Ida B. Wells-Barnett worked with Celestine Edwards and several Black students from the University of London, and newspaper coverage of Frederick Douglass’ lectures point to people of colour attending. During one speech in Liverpool in 1846, a man named Thomas Wilson actually speaks after Douglass and had always planned on doing so, for he brought a whip to illustrate the cruelties of slavery. As he spoke, he brandished it in front of the audience and confirmed all the facts Douglass outlined about the U.S. Lastly, Moses Roper publishes a poem in an edition of his slave narrative, written by a person of colour after attending his lecture.

Linked to this, I would also love to learn more about the impact of African Americans in key areas; this is where the localized approach would be really helpful. We know that activists like Sarah Parker Remond revived antislavery societies and it would be interesting to discern how many activists were able to do this, whether their visit to a particular town or country actually led to more fundraising or a boycott of slave-produced goods. Did the visit of one activist lead to a local minister, family or individual inviting others to stay with them and organize lectures? There were key folks like the Richardson family in Newcastle who supported several activists including Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown and Henry Highland Garnet; Wilson Armistead in Leeds who provided assistance to William and Ellen Craft and Richard D. Webb in Ireland who most famously supported Frederick Douglass, but it would be interesting to focus on areas such as Cornwall. How did James Watkins, Henry ‘Box’ Brown, Moses Roper, William M. Mitchell, Lewis Charlton, and Thomas Johnson travel around the county and who did they stay with? It would be fascinating to understand some of these local relationships.

5. You hinted at this in an earlier answer, but can you say more about any connections you find between your study and our present moment? Does your book have lessons for us today?

In 1859, Frederick Douglass declared to a Leeds audience that there “can be no peace where there is injustice.” The stark legacies of slavery we see today can be directly linked to the past, so it is of no surprise that Black activists in the nineteenth-century – as freedom fighters and warriors of social justice – waged war on racism, lynching, domestic terrorism and white supremacy and that their words and writings are very relevant as we watch the Black Lives Matter protests taking place around the world, and in a pandemic which disproportionately affects people of colour. The activists I discuss in the book spent their lives protesting and campaigning for equality, and in multiple ways declared that their Black Lives Mattered 150 years ago. In their speeches in Britain and Ireland, they emphasized an international philosophy of Black rights, which was solely based on their testimony.

For example, activists recognized that slavery had polluted the American landscape. In 1846, Frederick Douglass declared to a Liverpool audience that slavery was “a cancer that was eating America’s vitals.” He personified slavery as a large monster or a disease that had woven itself into the fabric of American institutions and its people, quite literally choking the life from Black citizens. Five years year in Belfast, the Reverend Henry Highland Garnet described the U.S. nation as “staggering under the putrid corpse of American slavery.” From their own personal and traumatizing memories, Douglass and Garnet well understood that instead of exorcising or curing the disease of slavery, the U.S. had failed to live up to its own self-professed declarations of freedom, which is still unfortunately true for today.

It’s well documented, too, that the BLM movement has strong historical roots but the parallels with Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s anti-lynching campaign are particularly pressing when we consider the modern lynchings of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and not to forget Black trans folks like Tony McDade and Iyanna Dior, to name a fraction of those murdered by U.S. police in the last eight years. I discuss Wells-Barnett’s campaign at the end of my book.

To be clear, Britain was no racial haven in the nineteenth century either, or now! The nation has its own legacies to reckon with that involve colonialism, racism, genocide and subjugation across the Empire, as well as police brutality against people of colour and the commemoration of slave traders through monuments. The nation’s collective memory deliberately chooses to remember white abolitionist heroes like William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson at the expense of Black activists like Olaudah Equiano and focuses on abolition itself rather than its role in creating and sustaining the slave trade. African Americans in the nineteenth century, though, were unafraid of pointing out British racism, its colonialist past, the nation’s role in the slave trade and establishing slavery in the Americas and the West Indies, and for the development of racist thought. As the Rev. Samuel Ward described it to a York audience in 1854, since the Tudor Times, British soil “was reddened with the blood of my race.” He also pointed to the lacklustre response of the British government who completely ignored the numerous cases of Black British sailors docking in American ports like Charleston and were kidnapped and sold into slavery. I really hope that the book highlights not only the trajectory between activists in the nineteenth century and our current moment, but also how far we still have to go in order to accomplish their anti-racist missions.


As a reminder, you can now order Advocates of Freedom African American Transatlantic Abolitionism in the British Isles. Readers may also be interested in the other titles in the Slaveries since Emancipation series with Cambridge University Press. Please also see Dr. Murray’s Black abolitionist walking tour of London


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