Lancaster Quakers, the Transatlantic Slave Trade and ownership of the enslaved

In August 2020 Lancaster Quakers held a meeting to discern how we might be led to witness in relation to the Black Lives Matter Movement. Part of our Minute reads:

We have explored what slavery and racism mean to us as individuals and how they have created a structural problem in our society in terms of prejudice and inequality. We acknowledge that these are deep seated issues the result of centuries of white privilege and the development of an economy based on exploitation.

We will develop as clear a picture as is possible of the past of Lancaster Quakers in relation to these matters. We will use this information to acknowledge our past.’

In 2020 I had been looking at the history of Lancaster Quakers involvement in slavery for about a year as an interested historian. There is a gallery at the Lancaster Maritime Museum devoted to 3 Lancaster Quakers who were involved which provides a brief overview. I was to go on to discover the involvement of others not mentioned there and from the Meeting’s archive to find that some of those involved undertook significant roles in the running of the Monthly as well as Preparative Meeting as Clerks, Elders or Overseers.

Initially I was very shocked that Quakers were involved in the treatment of fellow human beings as commodities throughout the 18th century. I was applying my 21st century Quaker belief in equality to the situation, a testimony that was only really accepted as such in the second half of the 20th century by Britain Yearly Meeting. I needed to look with a different lens.

Lancaster University History Department identifies 9,500 people in Britain involved in investing in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. 57 Merchants operating in Lancaster and district were directly involved and of them I have identified 18 to be Quakers. In addition, 2 Quaker women had shares in their family slave trading company. The records I have reviewed suggest that this group of Quakers shipped at least 3,916 enslaved people from West Africa to the West Indies and America and one extended family owned 7 plantations. It is clear that the enslaving of West African people and colonisation of America and the Caribbean were felt to be absolutely necessary for a viable economy in that century. These Quakers were in accord with the prevailing economic ideology of the time.

The root of this goes back to 1325 and the arrival of Genoese traders in the Canaries followed by Portuguese and Spanish expeditions. A Papal Bull of 1403 classified the natives of the Canaries as infidels which made them liable for enslavement and to be traded. The Spanish set up a system that was to provide a model for future slave trading. The Portuguese found a system of slavery well established by Africans further south and by 1450 a trade in enslaved Africans had become Portugal’s most profitable commerce with Africa. Conflict between Spain and Portugal settled by a treaty gave Portugal a sphere of influence in Sub Saharan Africa that effectively cut Spain off from the main supply of African slaves. The treaty, drafted prior to the discover of the Americas in 1492, left both able to claim rights to the Americas. The Papacy acted as arbitrator and issued two new bulls in 1493 dividing the Atlantic world between the two Iberian powers. These gave a spiritual, political and legal justification to enslavement of infidels and colonisation of non-Christian countries. The opportunities that this offered were embraced by other countries including Britain and underpinned attitudes towards enslavement across 18th century British society. Thus, by this time the exploitation of people in West Africa as slaves and free labour had been developing for 200 years with the Papacy as arbitrator. It had become an entirely acceptable process to develop the new economies in the Caribbean and across the Americas both north and south. (James Walvin – A World Transformed - slavery in the Americas and the origins of global power 2022)

What did George Fox say about slavery I wondered? He had visited his step daughter on her plantation in Barbados in 1671. Whilst there he had not called for an end to slavery as a practice. He had urged Friends to provide time for the enslaved to worship; to provide them with a Christian education, to treat them well and to introduce them to Quakerism, to ensure they were law abiding. He did not however envisage a shared Meeting for Worship for the Quaker household and their enslaved (Katherine Gebner – Slavery in the Quaker World 2019.) Fox was concerned with their spiritual lives, that they should be offered spiritual equality before God. I was astounded to find that George Fox did not condemn slavery but, as Stuart Masters said in the Salter Lecture of 2020, found ‘a way to justify slavery in the form of a covenant slavery.’

This prompted me to begin to research what Quakers nationally had said about slavery only to find that London Yearly Meeting had first spoken out against slavery in 1727. Concern is minuted throughout the century, although at roughly 10 - 20year intervals, so not with any real sense of urgency. In 1747 the importation of slaves is minuted as ‘not commendable or allowed.’ 1758 Friends are told they should avoid profits from dealing in ‘negros’. In 1761 Friends found to own slaves were to be disowned. By 1783 London Yearly Meeting was becoming more concerned they called for the abolition of slavery throughout the world. Then in 1784 there was a request to ‘labour’ with any Friends involved and report back to Yearly Meeting in 1785, but it had to be repeated in 1785 as so few replies had been received.

In the minutes in our archive, I have found no reference till 1785 to any investigation of Lancaster Friends involvement and even then, the ownership of a plantation appears to be excused in the Lancaster Preparative Meeting minute as it had been inherited! None of the Lancaster Monthly Meeting Quakers involved were chastised or disowned for their involvement in slave trading or ownership of slaves. Some were disowned for being out of unity by marrying out; repeatedly getting into debt or privateering with an armed vessel and Letter of Mark. It is startling to find that in the 1790s one Lancaster Friend acquired a 50% share in 5 more plantations to add to his portfolio.

Quaker involvement in the Abolition Movement from 1787 is what we are known for but this darker side of our history needs to be brought into the light and acknowledged. The legacy of the racist attitudes developed in the 18th century remain to this day in the racism encountered by people of colour living in Britain.

Ann Morgan 2022 Lancaster Central & North Area Quaker Meeting