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Speech by William Wells Brown, Delivered at the Hall of Commerce, London, England 1 August 1851

From: Ripley, C. Peter, et al., eds. The Black Abolitionist Papers, Vol. I: The British Isles, 1830-1865, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1985. Used by permission of the publisher. Originally published in The Liberator, 5 September 1851.


The Chairman (who upon taking the chair was received with loud applause), in opening the proceedings, remarked that, although the metropolis had of late been inundated with meetings of various characters, having reference to almost every variety of subject, yet that the subject they were called upon that evening to discuss differed from them all. Many of those by whom he was surrounded, like himself, had been victims to the inhuman institution of slavery, and were in consequence exiled from the land of their birth. They were fugitives from their native land, but not fugitives from justice, and they had not fled from a monarchical, but from a so-called republican government. They came from amongst a people who declared, as a part of their creed, that all men were born free, but who, while they did so, made slaves of every sixth man, woman and child in the country. (Hear, hear.) He must not, however, forget that one of the purposes for which they were met tonight was to commemorate the emancipation of their brethren and sisters in the isles of the sea. That act of the British Parliament, and he might add in this case with peculiar emphasis, of the British nation, passed on the 12th day of August, 1833, to take effect on the 1st day of August, 1834, and which enfranchised 800,000 West Indian slaves, was an event sublime in its nature, comprehensive and mighty in its immediate influences and remote consequences, precious beyond expression to the cause of freedom, and encouraging beyond the measure of any government on earth to the hearts of all enlightened and just men. This act was the commencement of a long course of philanthropic and Christian efforts on the part of some of the best men that the world ever produced. It was not his intention to go into a discussion or a calculation of the rise and fall of property, or whether sugar was worth more or less by the act of emancipation. But the emancipation of slavery in the West Indies was a blow struck in the right direction at that most inhuman of all trafficks, the slave trade - a trade which would never cease so long as slavery existed, for where there was a market there would be merchandise; where there was demand there would be a supply; where there were carcasses there would be vultures; and they might as well attempt to turn the water, and make it run up the Niagara River as to change this law. It was often said by the Americans, that England was responsible for the existence of slavery there, because it was introduced into the country while the colonies were under the British Crown. If that was so, they must come to the conclusion that, as England abolished slavery in the West Indies, she would have done the same for the American States, if she had had the power to do so; and if that was so, they might safely say that the separation of the United States from the mother country was (to say the least) a great misfortune to one-sixth of the population of that land. England had set a noble example to America, and he would to Heaven that his countrymen would follow the example. The Americans boasted of their superior knowledge, but they need not boast of their superior guilt, for that was set upon a hilltop, and that, too, so high that it required not the lantern of Diogenes to find it out. Every breeze from the western world brought upon its wings the groans and cries of the victims of this guilt. Nearly all countries had fixed the seal of disapprobation to slavery, and when, at some future age, this stain upon the page of history shall be pointed at, posterity will blush at the discrepancy between American profession and American practice. What was to be thought of a people boasting of their liberty, their humanity, their Christianity, their love of justice, and at the same time keeping in slavery more than three millions of God's children, and shutting out from them the light of the Gospel, by denying the Bible to the slave? (Hear, hear.) No education, no marriage, every thing done to keep the mind of the slave in darkness. There was a wish on the part of the people of the Northern States to shield themselves from the charge of slaveholding, but as they shared in the guilt, he was not satisfied with letting them off without their share in the odium.

And now, a word about the Fugitive Slave Bill. That measure was in every respect an unconstitutional measure. It set aside the right formerly enjoyed by the fugitive of trial by jury—it annulled his claim to the writ of habeas corpus—it afforded to him no protection, no opportunity of proving his right to be free, and it placed every free colored person at the mercy of every unprincipled person who might wish to lay claim to him. (Hear.) That law is opposed to the principles of Christianity—foreign alike to the laws of God and man; it had converted the whole population of the free States into a band of slavecatchers, and every rood of territory is but so much hunting-ground, over which they might chase the fugitive. But while they were speaking of slavery in the United States, they must not omit to mention that there was a strong feeling in that land, not only against the Fugitive Slave Law, but also against the existence of slavery in any form. There was a band of fearless men and women in the city of Boston, whose labor for the slave had resulted in good beyond calculation. This noble and heroic class had caused the whole country to be in agitation, until their principles have taken root in almost every association in the land, and which, with God's blessing, will in due time cause the Americans to put in practice what they have so long professed. (Hear, hear.) He wished it to be constantly held up before the country, at the Northern States are as deeply implicated in the guilt of slavery as [e South. The North had a population of 13,553,328; the South had a population of only 6,393,756 freemen; the North has 152 representatives in the House, the South only 81; and it would be seen by this that the balance of power was with the free States. Looking therefore, at the question in all its aspects, he was sure that there was no one in this country but who would find out that the slavery of the United States of America was a system the most abandoned and the most tyrannical. (Hear, hear.)

With reference to Mr. Thompson's visit to America, the Chairman proceeded:

I am glad that we have upon this platform one who has recently returned from America. (Cheers.) I am somewhat acquainted with the doings of the noble friend that I have alluded to. I had some acquaintance with his connection with the anti-slavery movement before I came to this country. I have had ample opportunity of judging of his zeal in the cause of the slave since I have been here. I have myself been a frequent guest at his table, where I have met many fugitives who have been entrusted to his care, and I know that they have received from him the most friendly advice, and more than that, substantial assistance, to help them on their way in this country. I was present at the farewell Soiree given to him before he embarked this second time for America. I was the last to shake hands with him as he left the railway station, and the first to welcome him on his return at the same place. I watched his movements in every direction. I gained information from every source, public and private, from slaveholders and abolitionists, respecting the course of Mr. Thompson through the country, and I am satisfied that he gave an impetus to the cause of freedom there which it had not received for years before. His tour through the States of Massachusetts and New York, the zeal with which the people came forth to welcome him at every meeting—the fact that when he left the city of Boston, the friends in Boston accompanied him a long distance to where the steamer was moored, is enough to satisfy my mind as to the value placed upon his labors and talents by the friends of my oppressed race. I was anxious, in common with many other fugitives—those who are present as well as numbers who cannot attend this meeting—to meet together here, not only to celebrate this, the anniversary of West India emancipation, but also to welcome our friend, and thank him for his labors in the United States within the past eight months. And now I will take my seat by welcoming Mr. Thompson, and expressing to him the thanks of the fugitives in this country for the labors, co-operation and noble zeal with which he has aided the cause of the slave in the U. States. I am sure that this audience will be better satisfied with hearing remarks from him than almost any one in the meeting. And now, Sir (turning to Mr. Thompson), I beg to thank you for your noble exertions in behalf of my oppressed people (shaking Mr. Thompson by the hand, amidst the loud applause of the meeting). I had the assurance of William and Ellen Craft, two of the noblest fugitives from the United States of America, that they would be present at this meeting; but at a late hour, I received a letter from them, informing me that unfortunate circumstances beyond their control prevented their attendance. We have, I am happy to say, the presence of a noble man upon this platform, who has been lynched within the last year in the State of Kentucky, simply because he was a sharer in abolition feelings.

Titles by William Wells Brown