Emancipation in England Pricked Conscience of US

Mother country taught former colonies a lesson


By Gretchen Gerzina

Rutgers University Press

244 pp., $29.95

In a sense, black slavery is still full of peril. Presenting the horror of enslavement, historians risk demoralizing contemporary men and women. This new study manages to illuminate the slave era, while emphasizing black resistance to race hatred and abuse.

In "Black London," Gretchen Gerzina outlines the life of English blacks before their emancipation. During the 18th century, free black men and women coexisted with enslaved Africans.

Of the 15,000 blacks in London, many were servants. Fostered by churches and meeting places, a black community provided a constant challenge to the whole range of stultifying British notions of race.

Blacks were called upon to confront both the slaveholders' view that they were violent and dimwitted, and the abolitionists' depiction of blacks as passive and naive.

In art, as in life, ideas of blacks were also conflicted. For example, black women were portrayed as wanton sexual creatures or as virtuous wives and mothers wrenched from their families.

In her survey, Gerzina recounts the history of Granville Sharp, the abolitionist who tirelessly fought for emancipation, and Lord Mansfield, the magistrate who presided over most of the historic cases. She details the legal wranglings in the 1772 case of James Somerset, an escaped black slave, whose trial became a media event.

The Somerset decision, which determined that slaves who escaped and managed to reach England could not be compelled to return to their masters, reverberated in the American colonies. Borrowing the rhetoric of the Somerset decision, white colonists proclaimed themselves "enslaved" by the British. The Declaration of Independence was quickly followed by petitions from both freed and enslaved blacks daring Americans to free the real slaves.

Black emancipation took a surprising turn after England lost the war with America. It seemed to many, including blacks, that poverty could only be alleviated if blacks were to leave England.

When plans to start a settlement in Halifax fell through, a scheme to form a self-sufficient colony in west Africa gained appeal.

After several punishing delays, three transport ships set sail for Sierra Leone. The black settlers began an uneasy existence in the midst of ongoing slave trade.

The notorious 1781 Zong massacre helped keep the issue of slavery before the British. When supplies ran low, an English ship called the Zong threw 133 slaves, some of them shackled, overboard. Public outcry brought to light even more horrific incidents.

At the same time, the French Revolution strengthened concepts of freedom and equality. Finally, in March 1808, the slave trade was abolished in England. Full emancipation did not take place for almost another two decades.

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