When I first saw one of the "slave medallions" on display in the Charlotte, North Carolina's Mint Museum, I was struck by the image and even more by the message of the medallion. At that point I knew this slice of history must have a place of prominence in one of my novels. So - the phrase around the edge and man in chains are linked to the characters and plot of Desert Winds. But like much fiction, the true story overshadows any pretense of fiction.
When Fashion Promoted the Cause of Humanity - an article from the Wedgwood Review, courtesy of the Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston Stoke-on-Trent, England.
A block-print copy of an anti-slavery medallion cast by Josiah Wedgwood in 1787. The actual medallion is about two inches tall, black figure and letters on a blue background, typical of Wedgwood Jasperware products.
"Throughout his life Josiah Wedgwood expressed an ardent concern over the social and political upheavals which characterized the age in which he lived. Such concern was not limited to his immediate responsibilities, the welfare and working conditions of his employees for example, but extended to the American War of Independence and the French Revolution, amongst others. It is not surprising then that towards the end of his life Wedgwood became actively involved with the move towards the abolition of slavery.
From 1787 until his death in 1795, Wedgwood actively participated in this cause, becoming a member of one of the committees of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery. It is probable that Wedgwood’s awareness of the immorality of the slave trade and the necessity for its abolition developed in part through his friendship with Thomas Bentley. It was Bentley's knowledge both of the arts and sciences which influenced Wedgwood to a large extent, and he was very much opposed to the slave trade despite the fact that he was a Liverpool merchant and stood to gain financially from it. He refused to join with others in welcoming the slavers back to port and his feelings most likely influenced Wedgwood’s thoughts on the topic. Following Bentley’s death in 1780, Wedgwood subscribed to every pamphlet concerned with the abolition of slavery and did all he could to help the cause.
Further involvement in the anti-slavery movement came about through Wedgwood’s association with Thomas Clarkson, or the ‘friend of the slave’, as he came to be known. Clarkson was instrumental in setting up the Sierra Leone Company in 1791, which was to provide a colony for the habitation of slaves who had been made free. In August 1791 Clarkson wrote to Wedgwood telling him that he had at last been successful in securing shares in the Sierra Leone Company for him: furthermore, he urged Wedgwood to take ten shares instead of the eight he had originally intended to buy. Wedgwood complied with Clarkson’s request and became a shareholder in the Sierra Leone Company, simultaneously demonstrating his support of the anti-slavery movement.
Wedgwood’s involvement with the anti-slavery cause is well documented in his correspondence. In particular, the exchange between Wedgwood and Thomas Clarkson gives insight into Wedgwood’s feelings on the matter, and furthermore indicates how he was able to contribute to the success of the movement. In a letter written to Wedgwood on 9 January 1792 Clarkson suggests that he might consider helping to persuade the public of the wrongs of the slave trade — it seems from this that Clarkson was aware that Wedgwood’s good social reputation could be used for the cause, in that people would readily take note of his protests against the slave trade. In his letter Clarkson discusses a pamphlet compiled by William Fox in 1791 called: ‘An address to the People of Great Britain on the propriety of abstaining from West's India sugar and rum’. He writes of its value as a means of encouraging petitions for the abolition of slavery and he goes on to suggest that perhaps Wedgwood himself could ask a bookseller to circulate the pamphlet.
Accordingly, Wedgwood replies on 18 January 1792 and suggests that the appeal of the pamphlet could be further enhanced by the advertisement on the title page being replaced by a print of the emblem of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery. For this reason he proposes to have a wood-cut made, at his own expense, depicting the kneeling Negro in manacles, surrounded by the motto: ‘Am I not a man and a Brother’, and at the same time he orders 2,000 more pamphlets. It also becomes evident from the correspondence held in the Wedgwood archives that on numerous occasions, Wedgwood met and corresponded with William Wilberforce, the parliamentary leader for the cause of the abolition of slavery. Wilberforce was ultimately responsible for the passing of the bill enforcing the gradual abolition of slavery and it is to Wedgwood’s credit that his comments on this topic were apparently of much importance to Wilberforce. In several letters written to Wedgwood and addressed to the Greek Street showroom in Soho, Wilberforce welcomes comments made by the former in previous communications and promises to give these ideas his ‘full support in the House of Commons’. Wilberforce was also a guest at Etruria Hall and an entry in his journal dated 16 November 1791 speaks flatteringly of the Wedgwood family, calling them a ‘fine, sensible, spirited family intelligent and manly in behaviour.’
During this period Wedgwood was a well-known, much-respected man and was therefore, sufficiently influential to be able to convince friends and colleagues of the evils of the slave trade.
Indeed, his most important contribution to the movement for the abolition of slavery - the slave medallion - was one which brought the attention of the public to the slave trade. The production in 1787 of the slave medallion, a black and white Jasper copy of the emblem of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery, modeled by William Hackwood, shows how Wedgwood was able to adapt his craft for a political function.
At the same time he is seen to have been instrumental in turning popular feeling in favor of the movement. As Clarkson remarked: ‘He made his own manufactory contribute to this end’, and it is also Clarkson who records the effect of the medallion, thousands of which had been distributed by 1791. Following the adaptation of the medallion to adorn snuff boxes, hat pins and brooches, Clarkson remarked: ‘Fashion, which usually confines itself to worthless things was seen for once in the honourable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity and freedom’, and it is evident that through the success of the medallion. Wedgwood had achieved, at least in part, the desire to make known the suffering of the slave, for he believed that knowledge of the evils of the slave trade would inspire universal detestaion of its cruelty and conviction of its injustice.
Wedgwood sent a large number of cameos to Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia who also remarked on the value of the medallion as a means of bringing awareness of the existence if slavery to the public. Wedgwood had become acquainted with Franklin through his association with the Lunar Society and the two men had much in common. Franklin was particularly interested in the art of pottery and his appreciation of Wedgwood’s art is seen from his reply to Josiah on receipt of the gift of slave medallions. He writes: ‘I am distributing your valuable present of cameos among my friends in whose countenances I have seen such marks of being affected by contemplating the figure of the Suppliant (which is admirably executed) that I am persuaded it may have an effect equal to that of the best written pamphlet in procuring honour to those oppressed people’."
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