Was Wales Opposed to the Slave Trade? Wales Prides Itself on a Tradition of Equality and Political Activism. but When It Came to Ending the Slave Trade, These Qualities Were Often Notable by Their Absence

Article excerpt


NO-ONE loves a slaver. Our instinctive sympathies lie with the enslaved, not those who oppress them. This is doubly the case in Wales, where we like to think of ourselves as automatically on the side of the downtrodden.

That being so, it is easy enough to imagine that the Welsh were enthusiastic about the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807 and the ending of slavery in Britain's Caribbean empire in 1834.

But was that really the case? There are certainly shining examples of Welsh men and women who devoted themselves to the cause of anti-slavery.

In 1779, before any organised campaign against the slave trade existed, the Methodist preacher William Williams of Pantycelyn published a Welsh translation of A Narrative Of The Most Remarkable Particulars In The Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, An African Prince - one of the first written accounts of the Middle Passage by a survivor.

That we know; we know far less about how Gronniosaw's narrative was received by Welsh readers.

It is a common problem for historians. In looking at abolitionism our focus falls all too readily on individuals like the poet Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg) who was passionate in his denunciations of slavery.

But who defined the Welsh mainstream at the end of the 18th century? Iolo Morganwg, the poet, or his three now-forgotten brothers, all of whom migrated to Jamaica and who all became slave owners? WHERE DID THEY GO? - OVERLEAF CLICK ON Read the New History ofWales online So you think you know your history? Try our quiz and pit your wits against our politics expert David Williamson WalesOnline.co.uk /history

The best way to assess the strength of Welsh abolitionism is to take its measure against abolitionism in other parts of the British Isles.

Focusing on firebrands like Iolo Morganwg tells you more about him than it does about the Welsh population at large. How does Wales as a whole compare? Not that well. The campaign against the slave trade took off in England in the 1780s with startling speed.

It could do so because of the vibrancy of English urban life. England had one of the highest rates of urbanisation in Europe.

Lots of people therefore lived in an environment where people and news circulated rapidly.

Places like Manchester, which became an instant stronghold of abolitionism, had a cultural infrastructure on which anti-slavery campaigners could build: newspapers, social clubs and philanthropic societies.

There was an emergent tradition of civic activism to be harnessed, one that allowed urban-industrial populations to make a political space for themselves, independent of the landlord class that still held sway in rural counties.

The same could not be said of Wales .

A veteran abolitionist who toured North Wales in the early 1820s was struck by the political timorousness of the common people; they were "half a century behind those of South Wales, - and a century behind those of England".

Things were little better in West Wales. He found the inhabitants of Cardigan mired in "subordination and ignorance". Urban backwardness meant a dearth of local anti-slavery societies.

Welsh people did petition against the slave trade, but not in large numbers.

In 1792, when Parliament was deluged with abolitionist petitions, just 20 of the 519 that arrived in Westminster originated in Wales.

Moreover, Welsh petitions were often conservative in form, emerging from formal county meetings.

These were gatherings of the gentry elite and respectable freeholders, not of the "inhabitants at large" - even women! - who flocked to add their signatures to petitions in English towns.

The innovative campaigning style to be found there was less evident in Wales.

Only Swansea, which could boast up-to-the-minute urban facilities, could claim a continuous abolitionist presence. …