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ENGLISH FRIENDS AND THE ABOLITION OF THE BRITISH SLAVE TRADE By Alan M. Rees* It is well known that a strong bond of kinship and friendship linked British and American Quakers in the eighteenth century. A most significant illustration of this fact lies in their common endeavors towards the abolition of the African slave trade. The treatment and condition of the African Negro was first brought to the attention of the London Yearly Meeting as early as 1712 when Philadelphia Yearly Meeting forwarded to London its yearly Epistle, in which it outlined its attitude towards slavery and the slave trade. The Epistle complained of the activity of the nonQuaker slave traders, against whom their pleas for the discontinuance of the trade were ineffective, and requested the counsel and advice of the London Meeting on the subject.1 The London reply was sent in the following year, when the Yearly Meeting wrote to Pennsylvania, expressing the cautious opinion that consultation should be had with the other plantations before a decision was taken as to what their official attitude should be. The sense of the London Yearly Meeting was expressed in this Epistle, for it was declared that the importing of slaves from their native country "is not a commendable nor allowable practice."2 Again in 1715 it was their opinion that "To be any ways concerned in bringing Negroes from their native country, and selling them for slaves is a trade not fit for one professing truth to be concerned in."3 No further action was taken by London, although in 1720 a general disapprobation of slavery was contained in an Epistle * Graduate Assistant in History, Ohio State University. The research for this article was principally done in the Library of Friends House in London. The author's grateful thanks are due to Mr. John Nickalls, Librarian , and Miss Muriel Hicks, Assistant Librarian, for their kindness and assistance . All MSS cited are in the Friends House Library. 1 Ezra Michener, Retrospect of Early Quakerism (Philadelphia, I860), pp. 338-39. 2 Epistles Sent (MS)5II, 106. 3 Michener, p. 339. 74 English Friends and the Abolition of the Slave Trade 75 from Friends in London to those in New York. This was a delayed response, for the New York Meeting had admitted in 1718 that their members had conscientious scruples against both slave-dealing and slave-keeping.4 The tactics of the Yearly Meetings both in England and in Pennsylvania were those of delay based on caution and the fear that the unity of the Society might be threatened if too violent action were taken against those Friends who engaged in the slave traffic. Nevertheless, in 1727 London Yearly Meeting gave its opinion that "It is the sense of this Meeting that the importing of Negroes from their native country and relations by Friends is not a commendable nor allowable practice . . . and that practice is censured by this Meeting."5 For thirty years no official action was taken. Ostensibly the issue slumbered until 1757 when the Yearly Meeting, "being apprehensive that some under our name, both in this nation and the colonies abroad, are concerned for filthy lucres sake in dealing in Negroes," requested the Meeting for Sufferings to arrange for copies of the minutes of the Yearly Meetings relating to the Negroes, together with extracts from the printed Epistles, to be sent to the Quarterly Meetings at home and in the colonies.6 As a result of this minute of the Yearly Meeting, the Meeting for Sufferings appointed a sub-committee to attend to the work. This was the first Quaker anti-slave-trade committee, the first of its kind in England, and consisted of Joseph Pease, Dr. Fothergill (the Royal Physician) , four Anglo-American merchants — Robert Bell, Philip Eliot, Henton Brown and John Sherwin — and Richard Partridge (Parliamentary agent for the Friends). After finding only the minute of the 1727 Yearly Meeting to guide them, they decided to refer the matter back to the Yearly Meeting for further advice.7 4 Ann T. Gary, "The Political and Economic Relations of English and American Quakers, 1750-1785," Oxford D. Phil, thesis, 1935; John Cox, Jr., Quakerism in the City of New...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-1504
Print ISSN
0033-5053
Pages
pp. 74-87
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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