Academic journal article ARIEL

"The Power That Giveth Liberty and Freedom": The Barbadian Origins of Quaker Antislavery Rhetoric, 1657-76

Academic journal article ARIEL

"The Power That Giveth Liberty and Freedom": The Barbadian Origins of Quaker Antislavery Rhetoric, 1657-76

Article excerpt

The role played by members of the Society of Friends in the history of the formal abolition movements on both sides of the Atlantic is relatively well known; Quakers were prominent members of both British and American abolition and antislavery societies from their foundation in the 1780s onwards. Rather less well known is the century-long debate that took place within Quakerism as to whether Friends could legitimately own or trade in slaves. The first Quakers of the 1640s and 50s were not automatically opposed either to slavery or the slave trade, and some Friends remained active slaveholders and slave traders into the late eighteenth century. A small number of studies have examined the processes by which Quakers turned away from slavery, but these have tended to focus attention on debates among Friends in the colony of Pennsylvania. There are certainly good reasons for this bias. After its foundation in 1682, Pennsylvania, and its major town Philadelphia, were home to a substantial proportion of the world's Quakers, a sect which in principle renounced all forms of violent coercion. At the same time, the colony, like most others in the Americas, had a large and growing population of slaves. Added to this was the fact that Quakers had, by the standards of the time, a relatively high regard for open debate and freedom of speech and controlled most of the main political and spiritual arenas in the colony. This confluence of social, economic, and discursive factors is a likely explanation for why antislavery sentiment emerged as an important tenet of Pennsylvanian Quakerism in the mid eighteenth century, and why Quakers from the colony were able to take their views to others, Friends and friends, in both America and Europe from the 1760s onwards.

Only a handful of studies of this process exist and taken together they position Philadelphia as the cradle of Quaker antislavery. (1) But in fact, Quaker thinking on slavery began not in the new world, but in the old, with a letter from England addressed to "Friends beyond sea." The author of that letter, written in 1657, was George Fox, a major figure in the early Society of Friends--indeed, often thought of as its founder--and the ideas tentatively expressed therein were to be challenged, revised, and finally reasserted by Fox himself in the light of his own personal experience of visiting Barbados in the 1670s. Unlike some visitors to slaveholding colonies, Fox's firsthand experience reinforced the purely theoretical dislike of slavery he expressed in his early letter. Although he clearly struggled to reach a position on slavery that would be compatible with his notion of righteousness, he just as clearly did not give way to the expediency of accepting the colonial status quo. Perhaps because this personal struggle is so evident therein, no less than because they are the words of a founder, Fox's writings on slavery would later assume an importance to Quakers that perhaps outweighed what their actual length or content merited. Nevertheless, they were a source of inspiration to many, not least in Pennsylvania, and they have not yet received the critical attention they deserve as important documents of the very earliest stirrings of British abolitionism, as well as the occasion of some of the first defensive proslavery rhetoric as well. Accordingly, this article examines some of Fox's major writings on slavery in the Barbadian context, paying attention both to the content of those writings and to their form and style. Throughout, I will show how Fox's views on slavery evolved, first as a theoretical stand on a practice that was taking place far beyond his experience; second, in response to his personal experience of the institution in Barbados; and, finally, retrospectively, after his return to England.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Barbados was one of Britain's most valuable plantations. Claimed for James I in 1625, and first settled by British colonists in 1627, the island rapidly became an important producer of tobacco, cotton, indigo, and sugar. …

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