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Black Lives During the Industrial Revolution

Just as a woman's place was thought to be in the home in the eighteenth century, a black person's place in Britain was thought to be as a servant.

Black people have lived in Britain probably since Roman times, and there had been a black population of several hundred strong in London from the late 1500s, mostly working as servants.

The involvement of merchants from Great Britain in the transatlantic slave trade was the most significant factor in the development of the Black British community. By 1795, Liverpool had 62.5 percent of the European Slave Trade, and Liverpool is home to a black community, dating at least to the 1730s.

By the 1790s, it is estimated that there were around 15,000 black people living in Britain, with around 10,000 of them in London. Most worked as servants, although a number of public houses were also owned and run by black people, and there were several black preachers in the Church of England. Inter-marriage was not uncommon at that time.

However, there few examples of black Britons achieving positions of status in society.

Charles Ignatius Sancho

Charles Ignatius Sancho was born on board a slave ship around 1729. The child was given to two sisters in Greenwich near London, where he became well regarded as an intelligent and agreeable young man.

He became a butler in 1749, eventually working for the Duke of Montagu in the 1760s. In 1774 he opened a greengrocer's shop in Mayfair in London and became well-known in polite society. He wrote letters supporting the abolition of the slave trade to a number of famous people.

As a financially independent male householder living in Westminster, he qualified to vote in the parliamentary elections of 1774 and 1780. He is the first person of African origin known to have voted in Britain. He is also the first Black person to be given an obituary in the British press.

Sancho died in 1780, but 160 of his letters were published soon after and sold so well that his widow received royalties of £500 – the equivalent of around half a million pounds today.

Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano was born in the West African country of Benin around 1745 and was taken by slavers as a child and sent for sale to Virginia. There he was bought by a lieutenant in the Royal Navy and brought to England as a valet in the late 1750s. His owner had him taught to read and write. However, his owner sold him on, and Olaudah ended up in the state of Georgia in the United States in 1765.

His new owner was a merchant, and Equiano began to trade for him. He did well and was offered a partnership in the business but elected instead to buy his freedom using money he had earned trading.

Equiano worked as a deckhand on Royal Navy ships for a number of years, eventually settling in London around 1780, where he became involved in campaigning for the abolition of slavery. He was instrumental in publicising the murder of slaves on the British owned slave ship Zong that took place in 1781. When the ship ran low on drinking water, 132 slaves were thrown overboard. A subsequent court case in 1783 found that the deliberate murder of enslaved people was legal. Reports of the murder greatly stimulated the abolitionist cause and, in 1788, The Slave Trade Act was passed, which limited the number of slaves that could be carried on British slave ships. Slave mortality on British ships did decline, but slave trading remained legal.

The Slave Trade Act of 1807 outlawed the trading in slaves in the British Empire, although it was still legal to purchase and own slaves until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

Olaudah Equiano went on to work to help the black poor both in London and later in Sierra Leone. He became a spokesman for the black community and promoted the interests of black people everywhere. He published his memoirs in 1789. It sold well and remains in print to this day.

Equiano married an Englishwoman in 1792, and they had two daughters, although one died aged four. Olaudah Equiano died in 1797 and is honoured as one of the most influential campaigners for the abolition of slavery.

Thank you for listening to this lesson. In our next lesson, I summarise the developments of the eighteenth century that created foundations for the massive growth of business and industry in the nineteenth century.

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Written by

Ross Maynard