The barbarous treatment of slaves was for the benefit of local gentry

The barbarous and cruel treatment of slaves, described by Mary Prince from her own experience, greatly helped the campaign for abolition.

Drawing of Mary Prince.
Mary Prince. Illustration by Clifford Harper.

She was working as a charwoman at 4 Keppel Street (opposite Store Street) in 1829 after fleeing her slave owner John Wood (1783-1836) of Leigh Street, Bloomsbury. Wood resolutely refused to grant her release to enable her to return to her husband in Antigua.

A petition was presented to parliament on her behalf in the same year but, after he falsely promised to help her, the petition was allowed to lie on the table, and she was never able to return to her husband.

Her life story was published in 1831 and exposed the horrors of slavery (the 2004 Penguin Classics edition of the book The History of Mary Prince is still in print).

She was born a slave in Bermuda in 1788, and at the age of 12 was separated from her mother and sisters to be sold like cattle to a new owner. She was frequently stripped naked, hung by the wrists and whipped until her flesh was opened up for the slightest offence. A pregnant slave whom she knew was tied to a tree and flogged until streaming with blood for allowing a cow to slip its rope. The slave had a miscarriage, then her body swelled, water burst out of her body and she died.

An old slave called Daniel had become lame in the hip so was slower at shovelling salt. He was stripped, whipped with a rod of rough briar until his skin was raw, then had a bucket of salt flung into the raw flesh as he writhed and screamed in agony. His wounds never healed and became full of maggots. Another old and infirm woman did not wheel her barrow fast enough so was severely beaten and flung into a cactus bush, causing her to die a few days later after her body swelled and festered.

Mary was forced to work in salt ponds, immersed in brine, causing blisters and boils which ate into her bones for long hours in scorching heat surrounded by mosquitoes. The master also sexually abused her so she was pleased when he sold her to John Wood who took her to Antigua.

By then Mary was lame from untreated rheumatism but was forced by Wood and his wife to work long hours and was frequently whipped with a cat-o-nine-tails without justification. Once she was flogged in a cage for an argument over ownership of a pig, despite a magistrate later ruling in her favour.

When she married a carpenter called Daniel James, her master’s wife was so enraged that she got her husband to horsewhip Mary. Mrs Wood said she would not allow a “nigger man” on her premises or allow his clothes to be washed in the same tub as hers. Eventually they allowed him to live in their yard.

In 1828 they moved to London and took Mary with her. The law at the time meant slaves became technically free when in England, but slaves again on their return to the colonies unless released by their masters. On the voyage Mrs Wood warned Mary that she would continue to treat her as a slave.

When they arrived in London Mary’s rheumatism seized her limbs swelling her body. A doctor said doing washing work would make her worse. Despite this Mrs Wood forced her to do even more washing, including heavy loads such as mattresses and bed clothes, and all for no payment. When she complained the couple threatened to throw her out, knowing she would have difficulty finding another home or job. On the fourth time they did this she took them at their word and left, going to the Wesleyan Missionary Society and the Anti Slavery Society for help.

They had her medically examined and found “the whole of the back part of her body is distinctly scarred, and, as it were, chequered, with the vestiges of severe floggings. Besides this, there are many large scars on other parts of her person, exhibiting an appearance as if the flesh has been deeply cut, or lacerated with gashes, by some instrument wielded by most unmerciful hands.”

She managed to get living-in work as a charwoman for Mrs Forsyth in Keppel Street, who treated her humanely and gave her a good reference.

The Anti-Slavery Society offered money to John Wood to release Mary so that she could return to her husband in Antigua without becoming enslaved again. Not only did he refuse but he ordered the eviction of her husband, and informed him falsely that Mary had taken up with another man.

Another former slave, Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) wrote of his sufferings, which paved the way for abolition, while living at 73 Riding House Street, where he is commemorated by a green plaque.

When the slave trade in Britain was finally abolished in stages from 1833 it was not the slaves who received compensation for past mistreatment (indeed they continued as unpaid labour until 1838), but the slave owners who were generously recompensed for loss of their “property”.

Several of these lived in and around Fitzrovia.

Louisa Maltby (1769-1841) of 23 Charlotte Street, for instance, received two payments of £3,333 and £1,686 in 1836 for her 273 slaves in Grenada. Earlier she had lived at 44 Charlotte Street from 1819 to 1829 with her husband Rowland (who had been an agent for a mistress of the Duke of York during a royal scandal in 1809).

Eliza Parker (1775-1858) of 36 Portland Place (by the corner of New Cavendish Street) owned a large slave plantation in Jamaica and had an 18-year-old youth hanged for stealing a teapot from her in Portland Place in 1824. She later moved to 6 Albany Terrace, Marylebone Road (opposite where Great Portland Street station now is).

George Pennant (1760-1840) of 56 Portland Place was paid £15,000 in 1835 for 764 slaves in Jamaica. He also inherited Penrhyn Castle in North Wales.

But the biggest beneficiary was George Hibbert (1757-1837), also of Portland Place, who received £38,603 (a massive fortune in those days) for his 1,618 slaves in Jamaica. His mansion in Portland Place housed his 14 children, and his collection of priceless books (such as a bible signed by Martin Luther) and paintings (including Rembrandt, Rubens, and Leonardo da Vinci).

When University College London was founded in Gower Street in 1828 two of its founders were prominent campaigners for the abolition of slavery — Henry Brougham (1778-1868), a Whig MP, and Zachary Macaulay (1768-1838), who had seen the horrific violence of slavery when an assistant manager on a plantation in Jamaica. There is a memorial to him in Westminster Abbey, depicting a kneeling slave with the motto: “Am I not a Man and Brother?” Irked by them the slave owners financed the setting up of a rival college, the Anglican Kings College.

Much of the information for this article came from an exhibition on “The Slave Owners of Bloomsbury” which was shown at UCL. This article was originally published in the September 2012 print issue of Fitzrovia News (FN126).

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