Some more names we should know

Following on from Some names to remember (October this year), I’ve been meaning to write about abolitionists in or connected with Scotland but will now also deviate slightly to cover a couple of interesting recent BBC programmes on slavery’s connections with the Highlands.

Though I’ve been in Glasgow’s City Halls many times, I had no idea till recently that the great Frederick Douglass had spoken in there while on a tour of Britain and Ireland in 1846.

Mr Douglass had escaped from enslavement in Maryland, USA at age 20 and changed his original surname to one taken from a character in Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake. He became a preacher in Massachusetts and an abolitionist; he published Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in 1845.  While in Glasgow, he spoke twice at the City Halls – to about 1,500 people the first time, with up to 2,000 there for his second talk.  He was aware that Glasgow had profited from slavery but also that it had a “vibrant anti-slavery community” (see Laurence Fenton article reference below).  He met William Smeal who’d founded Glasgow’s Anti-Slavery Society and his sister Jane who was the Secretary of the Society, and he stayed with them in the Gallowgate.

He also spoke in Paisley, Kilmarnock, Arbroath and Dundee and one of his topics was how the fledgling Free Church of Scotland was raising money in slaveholding states; “their hands are full of blood” he said of the church leaders.   The slogan “Send back the money”  became popular and it was chanted on the streets and chalked on walls.   No money was returned.

I took this photo of a plaque on the end wall of the City Halls, at the corner of Candleriggs and Ingram Street.  It was put up for a Merchant City Festival walking tour in 2012 which explained Glasgow’s involvement in the tobacco and sugar industries but you can see that the audio has now been disconnected.  (Grateful thanks to My Favourite Niece for doing the cropping.)

Frederick Douglass also went to Ayrshire where he visited Robert Burns’ birthplace and met Burns’ sister Isabella; he’d bought Burns’ Collected Works some time in the 1840s.  He visited Perth and Edinburgh where he met other prominent anti-slavery campaigners, including Eliza Wigham who was the step-daughter of Jane Smeal.  Laurence Fenton had an interesting article about him in The Scotsman on 11 April 2018 – “The story of freed slave Frederick Douglass’ time in beautiful Scotland” and I also got information from where there’s a fascinating section called “Frederick Douglass in Scotland“.

Remember the Wedderburn family?  Well, John Wedderburn, the owner of Joseph Knight, had a most interesting mixed-race nephew called Robert who became a radical preacher and an abolitionist.   James Wedderburn was another son of the Jacobite Sir John Wedderburn and he also had to flee the country after his father’s execution; he went to Jamaica in 1747 where he worked first as a doctor – unqualified – and then he bought a sugar plantation.  He was the father of a number of illegitimate children born to enslaved mothers; Robert was the third Wedderburn baby born to a woman called Rosanna.  Although James Weddderburn sold Rosanna while she was pregnant, he registered Robert and an older brother, James, as “free”.

Robert Wedderburn joined the Royal Navy at 16, and then in 1778 he came to London where he worked as a tailor.  His father, James, had returned to Scotland in 1773 where he had married to his advantage.  Round about 1795 and possibly down on his luck, Robert went to visit his father at Inveresk Lodge, near Edinburgh but was apparently turned away with some small beer and a broken sixpence.

Robert then had the story of his early life and his father’s denial of him published in a London paper  called Bell’s Life in London whereupon his father’s heir – and his own half-brother – threatened to sue the paper.  Robert however continued his writing career and having converted to Methodism, published a religious tract on doctrinal errors in the Christian church.  In 1820, he was imprisoned for “theft, blasphemy and keeping a bawdy house” (London Times, 26 February 1820), a fascinating set of charges which suggests to me they were determined to get him for something!  In 1824, his book The Horrors of Slavery came out and the above drawing of Robert is taken from it; it was an attack on slavery and on the church’s role in supporting it, but also for good measure on his father.

He was now a Unitarian preacher, advocating democracy, free speech and the redistribution of property in both Britain and in Jamaica.  He was arrested again in 1831 and served two years in prison for running a brothel; on release, he went to New York where in January 1834, the New York Evening Star called him an “ambulating dealer in drugs, deism and demoralization in general”.  It is believed he died in London in the mid to late 1830s.   What a life!  To find out more, get onto  (and if you’ve got the time and the inclination, also look up Thomas Spence of whom Robert Wedderburn was a supporter.  “The land is the people’s farm” was chalked on walls at night by Spence’s supporters.)

Zachary Macauley is mentioned in an Edinburgh Evening News article by Steve Cardownie on 10 June 2020 called “Slave-trade Scots must be condemned but don’t forget the abolitionists“.   Mr Macauley who lived from 1768 to 1838 was from Inveraray and became a bookkeeper on a Jamaican plantation – this was the ‘career’ that Robert Burns was saved from by the success of the Kilmarnock Edition of his poetry when his plans for emigration were well advanced.  Zachary Macaulay, largely self-taught, had been getting into trouble in Glasgow and saw emigration as a way out for himself.  In Jamaica, he became disgusted by the violent treatment of the slaves and their denial of education.  After 5 years, he defied his father and gave up his position in Jamaica, going to stay with his sister in London in 1789.  The following year, he visited Sierra Leone, then a homeland for freed slaves, and he later served as governor of Freetown between 1794 and 1799.  Back in London, he got involved with campaigns against the slave trade and helped to found what became the Anti-Slavery Society.

Eliza Wigham, whom Frederick Douglass visited in Edinburgh, lived from 1820 to 1899 and just reading about her life made me feel tired!   She ran a Penny Savings Bank in Edinburgh for 40 years and she was right into women’s suffrage and anti-slavery; to borrow from Oliver Wendell Holmes’s quote, she was certainly sharing in the passion and action of her time, and hers was another life well-lived.

At age 20, she attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London and she was the Secretary of the Edinburgh Ladies Emancipation Society; in 1863, she wrote: The Anti-Slavery Cause in America and its  Martyrs.  I’m very sorry that this picture of her is so toatie but it’s defying all my attempts at enlarging it.

She was on the Executive of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage and in 1896, at age 76, she was collecting signatures for a parliamentary petition for Women of all Parties and Classes for Female Suffrage.  I understand there’s a campaign going on in Edinburgh to put up a statue to her and good on the organisers  –  though I’m hoping that if successful, they won’t be commissioning Maggi Hambling.

I’m now thinking you too might be feeling tired having read this far so I’ll keep the Highland slavery connections for a third post.


One thought on “Some more names we should know

  1. Pingback: Highland and Island connections with slavery – Splendid, Bella!

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