The Black Abolitionist Papers - Vol. 1

By C. Peter Ripley | Go to book overview

Introduction

Between 1830 and 1865, black abolitionists left universities, newspaper offices, cabinet shops, pulpits, and plantations for the British Isles. Some boarded the best Cunard Line ships after elaborate farewell gatherings; others sneaked out of American and Canadian harbors just ahead of slave catchers. Many went with the practical and philosophical objectives of the international antislavery movement--spreading the antislavery gospel, building the transatlantic antislavery network, and raising the funds that kept it all going. Others crossed with specific missions, such as raising money to build a church or to purchase a family out of bondage. Fugitive slaves often went to find peace and security--"to live and get a living," as one person described it--leaving, perhaps forever, the threat of southern slave catchers or the persistence of northern racial prejudice. Several of the fugitives who fled to England seeking sanctuary sailed back to the United States and Canada as antislavery veterans, eager to continue the struggle in North America, to take the fight back to the enemy.

Most stayed just long enough to do their work; others remained for a number of years as if reluctant to leave; and a few never returned home. Several made more than one trip. Some left England for other foreign shores, carrying their missions to Europe, Africa, and the West Indies. Along the way, they kept company with the working class and with British royalty. They married and had families, lectured (some, hundreds of times in countless towns, cities, and hamlets throughout the British Isles), attended school, taught school, and wrote books, pamphlets, and slave narratives. They raised money for American and Canadian churches, newspapers, refugee settlements, and schools, and they helped to purchase friends, family, strangers, and occasionally themselves out of slavery. They struggled with proslavery critics, with antislavery friends and antagonists, and with each other. They seized any opportunity in the host country to make an antislavery point.

Participation by blacks--both freeborn and former slave--in British antislavery activities was not consistent throughout the antebellum era, but rather, it changed periodically in response to conditions and events in America. A modest number of blacks went to Britain during the 1830s. A greater number followed in the next decade (many were attracted by international reform conferences). After passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, British antislavery was rich with black American assistance and optimism, but as the decade wore on, both the number and the spirit declined. The late 1850s were conspicuous for a decreased black presence in Britain. During the Civil War, large numbers of blacks

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