William Wilberforce, slavery and Whitby

Matthew Wigzell explores items in our collections that tell us more about slavery, and the journey towards its abolition.

We have recently undertaken work to make available and promote some of the more unusual items in our collections, and to record the context and stories behind them (for example, our earlier blog post about a Scarborough siege coin).

As part of this process we discovered that we hold an election ticket or medal, issued by William Wilberforce during the 1807 general election. Wilberforce was a sitting MP for Yorkshire, and was one of three candidates seeking two seats. The other candidates were Charles William Fitzwilliam (Viscount Milton), and the other sitting MP, Henry Lascelles. One of the big issues of the time was slavery, with Wilberforce leading the abolitionist movement in Parliament. Lascelles on the other hand, was a slave-owner from an aristocratic family, and had vast wealth based on plantations in the Caribbean.

The Borthwick Institute here at York holds the Lascelles Slavery Archive, a wonderful resource documenting the business interests of the Lascelles family, and shedding light on slavery in the Caribbean and life on the plantations.

William Wilberforce medal
The election itself was highly significant. Yorkshire was the largest constituency in the country and regarded as a highly valuable seat. The candidates spent the vast sum of £250,000 on campaigning, with Lascelles and Milton accounting for most of the expenditure. Such was the scale of the campaign, it was dubbed the "Austerlitz of electioneering", and was the grandest election in the pre-reform era. The University Library has recently acquired a copy of "The Great Yorkshire Election of 1807" by Ellen Gibson Wilson, and you can also see copies of the original poll book in our collection, containing lists of voters and their chosen candidates.

The medal in our collection has a hole in the top, allowing it to be hung around the neck of Wilberforce supporters. Wilberforce was returned with the most votes, with Milton a close second. Just a few months before the election, the slave trade had been outlawed by the Slave Trade Act of 1807, but it wasn't until 1833, and the Slavery Abolition Act, that slavery itself was finally outlawed in British law.

Sidgwick's Best Virginia
We have several other items in our collection with links to the slave trade. This copper plate was used for printed packaging or advertising material, for Sidgwick's best Virginia tobacco (you can see the letters are are reversed so that they appear correctly on the printed copy). Unfortunately we don't have an awful lot of information about Sidgwick's, but they seem to have been a tobacco dealers based on Briggate, Leeds.

The plate probably dates from the 18th century and is evidence of the lucrative trade in tobacco and other goods from British colonies, built on the exploitation of slave labour. By the mid-1800 they were around 300,000 slaves in Virginia working large, labour intensive tobacco plantations, which were the backbone of Virginia's economy. We have a number of books in our collection where you can find out more information about the slave trade in Virginia.

Civilization of Africa lecture
Finally, our collection has evidence of the links between Britain and the United States abolition movements. This handbill advertised a lecture by Elliott Cresson, an American philanthropist and outspoken critic of slavery. Cresson participated in movement which promoted the idea of moving freed slaves to Africa, where he thought they would have a better life than in the US. The handbill shows he travelled to Britain in 1832, trying to find support for the idea. In 1835, he founded a colony in Liberia with around 120 freed slaves. Unfortunately this venture proved unsuccessful, and the colony was attacked and destroyed by local tribesmen.

The handbill is part of a collection printed in Whitby in the 1820s and 1830s, which provides an insight into the public life of the town at the time. All the items are part of the Raymond Burton Yorkshire collection and can be viewed in the Borthwick Institute for Archives.

All images taken by Paul Shields. Copyright is University of York