Slavery

In the 1780s Josiah Wedgwood became increasingly concerned about the inhumanity of slavery. In 1787 he became a leading member of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. This group included many of the most notable campaigners against the trade, such as Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, with whom he became close friends. Each member would contribute something to the campaign, especially Wilberforce with his parliamentary connections.

Josiah Wedgwood's contribution was twofold. Extremely well connected in science, the arts, industry, and through the Unitarian church, he was able to focus people's attention on the issue. His second and perhaps most important contribution was the design, manufacture and distribution of the slave medallion. The distribution and circulation of these medallions was central to the movement, as they publicly advertised the wearer's support.

In the same year that the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed, Josiah Wedgwood asked his senior craftsman, William Hackwood, to model what was to become the most important symbol of the abolitionist movement. The small cameo featured a kneeling slave in chains and the motto 'Am I not a Man and a Brother', which was also the seal of the Society. The slave medallions were worn in hatpins, brooches and necklaces and were also inset in other items, such as snuffboxes. They were one of the earliest examples of a fashion item that was used to support a cause.

Wedgwood produced the slavery medallions at his own expense, and freely distributed them. One notable batch was sent to American founding father Benjamin Franklin in 1788. A copy of Josiah's accompanying letter exists in the Wedgwood Museum archives, where he explained, "…the subject of freedom will be more canvassed and better understood…"

Josiah's commitment to the anti-slavery campaign led him to offer help to Olaudah Equiano, also known as Gustavus Vasa or 'The African', a freed slave. Equiano sought the protection of Wedgwood, rightly knowing that his message would not rest with the potter, but be passed on to friends, family and associates.

Images

Slave Medallion, An example of the slave medallions produced by Josiah Wedgwood to promote the abolition of slavery, © Wedgwood Museum

Slave Medallion, An example of the slave medallions produced by Josiah Wedgwood to promote the abolition of slavery
© Wedgwood Museum