1688 Quakers Protest Slavery

Today in 1688, a group of Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania  staged one of the first formal protests against slavery in the “New World”. Celebrate this fact by reading up about #blacklivesmatter and who the freaking Black Panthers were before you start going off on Beyonce being disrespectful to the hallowed, sacred temple that is the freaking Superbowl.

Slavery may have been a part of many human societies going back to ancient times, but the way slavery developed in the west following the Renaissance was unique, if only because of the industrialization of oppression and the sheer scale of the movement of peoples. After all, Anglo-Saxon culture was rife with the use of slaves, which only came to an end when the Norman French invaded England in 1066. Theoretically between 1100 and the early modern period, there weren’t supposed to be slaves in the English sphere of influence, save exceptional cases such as when a diplomat brought in their “servant.”

That isn’t to say that there weren’t people of African descent in Elizabethan England. On the contrary, we keep finding more and more of them appearing in the records. The vision of Tudor England as a land awash in white faces is simply wrong. For more on this, look at the work of Duncan Salkeld and Imtiaz Habib and their work on the historical trace left by the Reasonable family in Southwark just around Shakespeare’s time.


African Musicians 1522
Drawing of African Musicians in Lisbon, Portugal, ca. 1522

Henry VIII had black trumpeters playing at his court and they were paid as a part of the regular groups of musicians. Less than 100 years later however, as a part of his marriage celebrations, James I watched African dancers perform acrobatics in the snow. Something had obviously changed. Personally, I blame John Hawkins, who was the first English man to get involved in the slave trade.

That said, by the time slavery was being abolished in the English speaking world, there were not just a handful of exceptional cases, but literally millions of individuals, mostly of African descent, who served as slaves in homes, on plantations, in manufactories, and elsewhere. To give you an idea… Census figures in the US don’t really exist for the early days of settlement, but there are some stats on the populations of slaves following the Revolutionary War:

# Slaves # Free
Total US
% black
of total
1790 697,681 59,527 757,208 7.9% 3,929,214 19%
1800 893,602 108,435 1,002,037 10.8% 5,308,483 19%
1810 1,191,362 186,446 1,377,808 13.5% 7,239,881 19%
1820 1,538,022 233,634 1,771,656 13.2% 9,638,453 18%
1830 2,009,043 319,599 2,328,642 13.7% 12,860,702 18%
1840 2,487,355 386,293 2,873,648 13.4% 17,063,353 17%
1850 3,204,313 434,495 3,638,808 11.9% 23,191,876 16%
1860 3,953,760 488,070 4,441,830 11.0% 31,443,321 14%
1870 0 4,880,009 4,880,009 100% 38,558,371 13%
Slaves aboard Ship 1868
Slaves aboard ship 1868

In short, please take some time today to remember that the history of race relations in the English speaking world is far more complex than the rather bone-headed narrative of “Things were bad back then, but they’re just fine now!” There are deep histories of suffering and integration that we are only just beginning to understand. Let’s explore them.


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