The year is 1819, and the working class of Britain is in revolt. The year is to end with the bloody Peterloo massacre of unarmed radical demonstrators in Manchester by sabre-wielding guardsmen.
But this is still the height of summer and a meeting room in Soho, London, is filling up. We can catch murmuring voices debating politics.
Up to the platform strides a confident man who variously describes himself as “the offspring of an African” and “a self taught West Indian”.
He catches the attention of his fellow radicals and announces the subject of today’s debate: “Has a slave an inherent right to slay his master who refuses him liberty?”
The meeting is gripped as their favourite speaker, Robert Wedderburn, states his case.
Everyone understands the double-edged implication of the debate.
The “slave” is both those Africans in bondage in the West Indian plantations and the working class of England.
The hated “tyrant” is both the Jamaican slave owner and the Lancashire cotton mill owner.
Wedderburn argues that both must strike simultaneously - the slave and the labourer - to bring down their common oppressor.
In a corner a man is writing down Wedderburn’s speech: “Before six months is over,” reports the government spy, “there would be (or he hoped there would be) slaughter in England for their liberty.
“Death was as acceptable as slavery, and if he was to die for his liberty it would rouse those he left behind him to kill their masters to gain their liberty”.
The meeting climaxes with a vote, for and against the rights of the slave.
“Nearly the whole of the persons in the room held up their hands in favour of the question,” notes the spy disappointedly. “Mr W then exclaimed, ‘Well, gentlemen, I can now write home and tell the slaves to murder their masters as soon as they please’.”
The meeting breaks up with a roar of approval.
Here we have before us a black revolutionary at the heart of the British working class movement.
Robert Wedderburn’s mother was a slave named Rossanna. His father, James Wedderburn, was a Scottish slave master and rapist. Robert was born in 1762 in Jamaica into a world of legalised barbarism.
In his autobiography he recounted how “I have seen my poor mother stretched on the ground, tied hands and feet, and flogged in the most indecent manner though pregnant at the same time”.
Fortunately Robert was spared this cruel fate.
He had been born “free”, and as soon as he could he left Jamaica.
He became a sailor and was soon involved in radical action He was known to have been connected to the British naval mutiny at the Nore.
Settling in England, he joined other blacks that took to the streets alongside the wider London working class in the explosive 1780 Gordon Riots.
At one point Wedderburn was known as the leader of the London radical movement.
Wedderburn became a tailor, as did that other black revolutionary William Cuffey, who in the 1830s was to head the far left of the London Chartist movement.
Wedderburn’s activity got him into trouble on many occasions. After his speech on the right to kill a master he was shopped by the spy and ended up in Newgate jail.
His supporters published an appeal, and the £200 bail (a vast sum at the time) needed to free him was quickly raised.
At his 1820 trial for sedition an unrepentant Wedderburn declared to the jury, “As nature has blessed me with a calm and tranquil mind, I shall be far happier in the dungeon where you may consign me, than my persecutors, on their beds of down”. He was jailed for two years.
Wedderburn was to eventually find himself locked up in Dorchester, Cold Bath Fields and Giltspur Street prisons for various political offences.
Wedderburn was a prolific writer. Perhaps his most famous work was the anti-slavery The Axe Laid to the Root, in which he set out his communistic principles:
“The earth cannot be justly the private property of individuals, because it was never manufactured by man; therefore whoever sold it, sold that which was not his own.”
Just before Wedderburn’s death the British parliament, in part terrified of rebellion at home and on the slave plantations, abolished the slave trade in its colonies.
A step towards the liberty Wedderburn had always yearned for had been achieved.
Find out more:
- The Horrors of Slavery and Other Writings by Robert Wedderburn, edited by Iain McCalman
- Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain by Peter Fryer
- Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History by Rozina Visram