The eighteenth century had seen changes in the position of women, not all positive. While arguments for rights for all citizens clearly offered an opening for women to claim these rights, the tendency to assign women to a separate domestic sphere counteracted this. Even in charity work, where women were long pivotal, the growth of institutions tended to push female control to the sidelines. The setting up of institutions for women by women tended to counteract this trend, and women also continued to operate within the boundaries society had set for them.
The campaign against the slave trade was one philanthropic cause that appealed to women, and for which they could directly act. In January 1792 William Drennan in Dublin wrote to Samuel McTierin Belfast: “The Quakers here are forming associations against sugar, and I should much like to see family resolutions on the subject drawn up and subscribed by some of the matrons of Belfast most famous for conserves and preserves.” If a boycott of West Indian sugar was to be effective, it needed the support of those in charge of food production: the women.
The Quaker campaign against the slave trade had deep roots. The founder of the Irish Society of Friends, William Edmundson, had denounced the trade as early as 1685 and in the 1750s Mary Peizley, a Kildare Quaker, had worked as an acceptable minister in the North American colonies, living among black slaves and criticising Quaker slave owners. Anthony Benezet, who wrote against slavery citing Hutcheson’s arguments, corresponded with those living in Ballitore, a strongly Quaker town in Co. Kildare. By the 1780s the journal of Mary Leadbeater of Ballitore shows that the sufferings of the slaves were a matter of everyday comment.
Mary Leadbeater was a member of the Shackleton family who ran the school Edmund Burke attended. She wrote poetry, including some praising Burke, though like most women of the time her works were circulated only within her family and social circle.
In May 1798 Burke spoke supporting Wilberforce’s motion for the complete abolition of the slave trade. As a result Mary wrote a poem, The Negro: a poem addressed to Edmund Burke”. A “cleverly constructed amalgam of flattery and encouragement” (Rodgers, p. 142), it aimed to encourage Burke’s ongoing support of the anti-slave trade campaign, and opens (Rodgers, p. 143):
Thou! this country’s boast, this age’s pride,
Freedom’s first friend and Pity’s gen’rous guide
Thou wert not silent that important day,
On such a theme thou couldst not silent stay.
The poem speaks little about the Negro of the title, beyond emphasising his spiritual equality with his oppressors. The poem denounces slave trading as against the law of God and of nature, and emphasises the danger to the British love of freedom that the trade holds. Listing those famous for their benevolence, the poem promises that Burke will be added to this list.
Though not published until 1808, this poem was a first foray into politics for Mary, followed by further activity in 1792, the year after Wilberforce’s measures were defeated in parliament. A cousin of Mary’s had brought a pamphlet, Address to the People of Great Britain (respectfully offered to the people of Ireland) on the utility of refraining from the use of West Indian sugar and rum to Ballitore. Strongly affected by it, Mary strongly encouraged her friend Molly Bewley in Dublin to reprint the pamphlet, and a circle of female friends worked to circulate it. This was the campaign Drennan wrote of that spread and flourished in Belfast as part of the anti-slavery campaign there. Leadbeater later wrote her first published work, Extracts and original anecdotes for the improvement of youth (1794) which contained strong anti-slavery elements.
Contemporary Irish pamphlets written in the wake of the Address on refraining from sugar make it clear this was seen as a women’s campaign. Molly Bewley and her friends found the major support outside the Society of Friends to be Ireland’s evangelical female elite. It was to these women that the young Dublin Quaker, Mary Birkett, addressed her A poem on the African slave trade, addressed to her own sex (1792). This, apparently the only anti-slavery poem written by a woman and addressed to women, both appealed to the reader’s emotions and answered questions often put by those hostile to the anti-slavery cause (such as why God would allow such a trade to continue). It opens with the account of a young African man who lives a happy and productive life before being snatched by slavers and facing the brutality of whips, chains, the slave ship and slavery on plantations. She advocates the end of the slave trade and the reconstruction of Africa, calling on Irish women: “Oh let us rise and burst the Negro’s chain!” She argues that giving up sugar is not a futile gesture – even if the slave trade did not collapse immediately, some Africans would benefit.
The second part, added in a later edition, calls on England (including MPs at Westminster) to repudiate the slave trade, pointing out that Ireland, innocent of participation, thereby shows itself to be superior morally: a true lover of freedom and a friend to the oppressed everywhere. (This theme was to be reiterated by others in later years, including by Daniel O’Connell.) This “rambling poem” anticipated many themes that came to dominate the nineteenth century: from anti-slavery and imperial expansion to nationalism, feminism and educational reform.
In Edgeworthstown, Maria Edgeworth was rather more equivocal about the benefits of the campaign against sugar. She was born into anti-slavery circles, her utilitarian father being a member of the Lunar Club and friends with many prominent abolitionists. She had already published a number of works on education by the time she published her second novel Belinda (1801). This touched on issues of race with a West Indian creole presented as a suitable suitor for her titular heroine, and his faithful black servant Juba marries a white girl. However these aspects were softened or dropped at the suggestion of her father in later editions.
Edgeworth’s major contribution to the debate was in “The Grateful Negro”, published in Popular Tales (1804). It is the account of a slave who prepares to take part in a slave revolt, but becomes loyal to his new master, Mr Edwards, who treats him well. This work criticises the cruel treatment of slaves, and the carelessness of the masters who are reckless financially and delegate all management of their estates to brutal overseers. She details in true utilitarian style the details of Mr Edwards benevolent regime – a plot of land for each slave family to work, a guarantee they would not be sold and so on.
In the course of the story Mr Edwards denounces the slave trade, calls for it to end in favour of free labour and declares, “the instant a slave touches English ground he is free. Glorious privilege! Why should it not be extended to all her dominions?” This, it should be noted, was published before the abolition of the slave trade in 1807.
This antislavery message probably reached more readers than the works of Mary Leadbeater or Mary Birkett, and its form – that of a story – was more appealing in a time where the issue had become overexposed, particularly in the form of verse. However the concentration on lessening the suffering of slaves over their emancipation tended to blunt the message.
This was a problem Elizabeth Hamilton, a Belfast-born friend of Maria Edgeworth and writer on education, managed to avoid. In a footnote in her 1801 Letters on the Elementary Principles of Education, she lambastes slave traffickers and those who support slavery
The reasonings of the traffickers in human misery, the self-interested abettors of the Slave-Trade, may with propriety be referred to as an illustration of my present argument. The imagination, inflamed by the passion of avarice, aggravated by pride and ambition, sees it just and reasonable that one part of the species should inflict upon another every kind and degree of misery that human nature can sustain, in order to gratify the avarice, pride, and luxury, of a few worthless individuals!
The campaign waged by these Irish women against the slave trade played its part in its eventual abolition. For some the campaign continued for the rest of their lives: even as an old woman in the 1850s Mary Ann McCracken was on the quays in Belfast handing out anti-slavery leaflets intended for those travelling to the southern United States.
In Ireland the campaign cemented the idea of the Irish as being on the side of the oppressed in the nationalist consciousness. It also got women involved in politics in a way they had not been previously. And for early feminists in Ireland, the analogy between slavery and the position of women was striking. ‘There can be no argument produced in the favour of the slavery of women that has not been used in favour of general slavery’, wrote Mary Ann McCracken to her brother Henry in 1797 (quoted in Rodgers, p. 157), a theme referenced by the later Anna Doyle Wheeler when she referred to the political, civil and domestic slavery of women in The Appeal of one-half of the human race.
References and further reading
The piece above, especially the material on Mary Leadbeater, Mary Birkett and Maria Edgeworth draws heavily on the Nini Rodgers paper:
Nini Rodgers, (2000) Two Quakers and a Utilitarian: The Reaction of Three Irish Women Writers to the Problem of Slavery 1789-1807 Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Vol. 100C, No. 4, pp. 137-157 (available on JSTOR)
Quote from William Drennan is from
D. A. Chart (1931) The Drennan Letters, p. 75
Hutcheson’s anti-slavery arguments that influenced Presbyterian and Quaker responses to slavery.