During the eighteenth century the movement to abolish the Slave Trade and slavery in the British colonies was strongest in urban centres. Large towns and cities were often home to cultural and philosophical societies where the urban elite could debate the major issues of the day. Urban centres were also well served by newspapers: the most important medium for conveying the parliamentary debate about slavery to the public at large. During this period Wales had few towns, and the first weekly newspaper, the Cambrian, did not appear until 1804.

To compound matters, in Wales there was also opposition to the abolitionist movement. For instance, in 1788 Thomas Williams, a copper master at Penclawdd, near Swansea, petitioned the House of Lords to express his dismay about a proposed new law designed to regulate the Slave Trade. He and his partners had invested over £70,000 in plant and machinery specifically to make goods for the `African Trade’. [1] The proposed new law, he claimed, would “entirely ruin the British trade to Africa”: an important business connection that provided employment for many local people. Moreover, many of the leading families in Wales also had interests in sugar plantations in the West Indies.[2] It is little surprise that the abolitionist movement was slow to develop in Wales.

The situation changed during the 1820s. In 1822, a joint anti-slavery society was established at Swansea and Neath.[3] By the mid-1820s similar societies had also been established in the neighbouring towns of Milford Haven, Brecon and Carmarthen.[4] Key to the growth of the abolitionist movement in south Wales was Thomas Clarkson’s national tour of Britain between 1823 and 1824. Clarkson visited Swansea in July 1824. [5]

Cambrian 9th April 1831 sharpen

Cambrian 21 Jan 1826 Sharpen

The leading figure in the Swansea and Neath anti-slavery society was Joseph Tregelles Price, a local Quaker with a controlling interest in the Neath Abbey Iron Works. Working alongside other prominent individuals including Sir John Morris, Lewis Weston Dillwyn and the Portreeves of Swansea and Neath, Tregelles Price organised numerous public meetings. [6] He was also the driving force behind a series of petitions that the people of Swansea and Neath sent to the Houses of Parliament between 1823 and 1833.

 

Women also played an important role in the abolitionist movement at Swansea and Neath. This is evidenced by the formation of a Ladies anti-Slavery Association at Swansea in 1830.[7] Little is known about the membership of this group, but it probably included Jessie Donaldson (nee Heineken), a young preparatory school teacher at Swansea in the early 1830s. Subsequently, Donaldson spent time in America where she operated a safe house for runaway slaves on the banks of the Ohio River.[8]

By the 1830s the abolitionist movement had become a cause célèbre in Swansea and Neath. This was the backdrop to the events that unfolded in 1833. In January 1833 an American ship, the St. Peter, arrived at the port of Swansea.  On board was a 20-year-old black slave named Willis. On hearing that slavery was outlawed on British soil, Willis called for a magistrate to be sent to his ship. A short time later the Portreeve of Swansea confirmed that there was no basis for slavery on British soil, which allowed Willis to walk ashore a free man.[9]

Cambrian 2nd Feb 1833

During the 1830s Swansea and Neath were at the forefront of the campaign to abolish slavery in the British colonies. Swansea had come a long way since the 1780s when the copper master, Thomas Williams, petitioned the House of Lords in defence of the Slave Trade.

[1] Petition from Thomas Williams Esquire and partners, 7th July 1788, HL/PO/JO/10/7/788, Parliamentary Archives

[2] Legacies of British Slave-ownership database https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/search/ (viewed 04/08/2020)

[3] Richard C. Allen, `“An Indefatigable Philanthropist”’: Joseph Tregelles Price (1784-1854) of Neath, Wales’ Quaker Studies, Vol. 23/2 (2018) p. 235

[4] Cambrian 10 April 1824, 28 Jan 1826, 25 Feb 1826

[5] Richard C. Allen, `“An Indefatigable Philanthropist”’: p. 236

[6] Richard C. Allen, `“An Indefatigable Philanthropist”’ p. 236; Chris Evans, Slave Wales, pp 84-85, Cambrian 21 Jan 1826, 9 April 1831

[7] Cambrian 13 Nov 1830

[8] Cambrian 13 Sept 1889

[9] Cambrian 2nd Feb 1833

Dr David Morris

West Glamorgan Archive Service

 

 

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