Sheffield’s uneasy link to slave trade

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THE West Indies, Brazil, Barbados, Carolina... they sound like holiday destinations from a travel agent’s brochure.

But these alluring titles refer not to holidays, but to the names of shovels made 200 years ago for slaves in North America and the Caribbean, crisply illustrated in a brochure belonging to a tool-making company right here in Sheffield.

Sheffield University lecturer Dr Esme Cleall, who specialises in the history of the British Empire, says: “Like many cities in the United Kingdom, Sheffield’s economy was bound up in empire and slavery.”

But the city’s significance in the history of slave trade isn’t all bad.

In fact, according to principal lecturer in history at Sheffield Hallam University Dr Alison Twells, Sheffield was significant in its support of the abolition of slavery.

“There were women such as Elizabeth Read and her daughters, who lived at Wincobank, who were the founder members of the Sheffield Ladies’ Anti Slavery Society. They would write anti-slavery pamphlets and poems and canvas signatories for petitions.”

Other support came from James Montgomery, editor of Sheffield newspapers The Register and The Iris.

James wrote a poem called The West Indies, which attacked the slave trade.

“Dead to the joys of light and life, the slave clings to the clod, his root in the grave,” read two lines.

The strong abolition movement in the city was owing - according to Alison - to its strong non-conformist Christian congregations.

“The common belief among these groups was that all people were equal,” she said.

“In the context of Britain, women abolitionists were progressive and radical.

“Their Christianity was all about seeing everyone as a child of God, and worthy of equal treatment and justice. They were absolutely against slavery, which was why they campaigned for its abolition.”

History has attributed the campaign for the abolition of slavery to an elite group of politicians which included William Wilberforce.

But in fact the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and the abolition of plantations in 1833 was also owing to people like James Montgomery and the popular campaigns of groups like the Sheffield Ladies’ Anti Slavery Movement.

Part of the Sheffield Ladies’ Anti Slavery Campaign was to distribute cards to Sheffielders, urging them to boycott sugar from the West Indies and opt for the more ethically-produced sugar from the East Indies - as Pete Evans, from Sheffield Archives, explains.

“In many ways the anti slavery movement in Sheffield was one of the first populist campaigns,” he says.

“The fact they printed little cards and gave them to people to try to persuade people not to buy sugar is comparable to the way people use Twitter or Facebook today.”

The cards, modestly-printed, read: “By six families using East India instead of West India sugar one less slave is required; surely to release a fellow-creature from a state of cruel bondage and misery, by so small a sacrifice, is worthy of the attention at all.”

By the 1820s, some families even took to sticking the anti-slavery stamp on their mail.

“It was a wax seal with ‘I Am Not A Man And A Brother’ embossed into it,” says Pete.

In 1789, some 769 metalworkers petitioned against slave workers, even though the steel industry - albeit indirectly - benefited from the slave trade.

Unlike Liverpool and Bristol, Sheffield’s economy wasn’t built on slavery, though it did provide the city with work, such as manufacturing the Carolina and Brazil shovels, which were ultimately slaves’ tools.

Esme says: “Sheffield did profit from slavery. There are so many examples in the archives of products that were made in Sheffield that were used in the slave trade, such as hoes to rake in the cotton.

“The history of slavery is so bound-up with the history of Britain. If the transatlantic slave trade hadn’t existed, Britain wouldn’t look the way it does today.”

And while, on the whole, Sheffield’s economic involvement with the slave trade was indirect, there were people dealing in slaves within the South Yorkshire region.

The Spencer-Stanhope family of Cannon Hall, Barnsley, made their fortunes from iron. But in the mid 18th-century Benjamin Spencer fell into financial difficulties and looked to the slave trade as a solution.

He bought a slave ship and called it the Cannon Hall, but it didn’t quite go to plan.

On December 23, 1755, North Carolina merchant John Guerard wrote to Benjamin Spencer explaining that ‘five slaves died on the passage’ and ‘three more are likely to go the same way’.

He also said ‘the rest are meagre and in poor condition’. It was for this reason that Spencer-Stanhope’s business venture into the slave trade was not a success. The letter from John Guerard and the deaths it reports also shed light on the dire conditions of the slave ships, as Esme explains.

“The experiences of enslaved people were horrific but they are an important part of the history of Britain and the history of this city.”

But Sheffield’s role in this history was two-sided - while some sought to harness the slave trade for financial gain, others were writing poems, holding meetings and canvassing to stop it.

As Esme says: “The people of Sheffield were involved with both the slave trade itself and the abolition of it.”