Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Quaker abolitionist’s unseen anti-slavery archive to go under the hammer

The previously unseen papers of a tireless Quaker anti-slavery campaigner in Georgian Britain will be offered at auction next month.

The archive of over 60 pages of documents, bound in album, charts the abolitionist activities of American-born banker Samuel Starbuck during the 1820s. It reveals how he authored and distributed anti-slavery literature, spoke at public meetings about slaves’ suffering and sent letters to recipients from newspaper editors and colonial servants to the Duke of Wellington.

Catherine Southon Auctioneers & Valuers said there was “huge” interest from prospective buyers and they expected it to fetch considerably more than the estimate of £6,000-£8,000 in their sale at Farleigh Court Golf Club, Selsdon, Surrey, on February 8.

The Starbucks were early settlers and successful whalers in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Like many of their Quaker coreligionists, they were active in the anti-slavery movement in Britain and America during the 18th and 19th centuries. Samuel’s branch settled in Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, after the American Revolutionary War and continued in the whaling business there, as well as diversifying into banking.

Samuel Starbuck’s annotated copy of the ‘Stowage of the British slave ship Brookes under the Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788‘. Photo: Catherine Southon Auctioneers & Valuers

The descendant who is selling the papers said that, while some prominent abolitionists were remembered today, voices of “ordinary” people active in the cause, like Samuel, were rarely heard. He hopes the collection, which has not been studied by historians, will be bought by a museum or other institution. “It has never seen the light of day. I’m the last descendant and it’s time that it got out into the public domain.”

Most of the documents are Starbuck’s copies of letters he sent while seeking to raise awareness of slavery and rally opposition. The album also includes letters in response; a printed handbill of Starbuck’s own proposals for an abolition scheme; and his annotated copy of the influential engraving Stowage of the British slave ship Brookes under the Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788. The illustration shows 470 African slaves transported side-by-side in suffocating conditions and states that, in reality, over 600 slaves had been held in the same space in a single voyage.

In his notes, Starbuck (1762-1829) wrote: “Not only the floors and the platforms are entirely covered with bodies, but the bodies actually touch each other, how wretched must have been their situations…” His descendant said it was likely that, as a young man in whaling, Starbuck had witnessed aspects of slavery first-hand. “It would have been almost inconceivable for them not to have come across slavery in some form or other in various ports that they visited.”

“He is robbed of his liberty, and with that everything that can render rational existence desirable”

Samuel Starbuck

The album dates from the period between the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire and the abolition of slavery in those territories. In a letter published in The Cambrian in May 1823, Starbuck wrote: “The Abolition of the Slave Trade and the abolition of slavery, are two very different things. The abolition of the African Slave trade was officially in 1807, but slavery in those West Indies colonies now exists with all its horror and with punishment and torturing even unto death.”

Writing to the Morning Herald, he said: “The Negro is the injured individual; he is robbed of his liberty, and with that everything that can render rational existence desirable.” He added that, denied all advantages of education, slaves were condemned to “toil under torture for life”. 

Another letter, published in the Carmarthern Journal in 1826, shows that Starbuck sought to spread awareness that slave traders were seeking to evade the British naval blockade intended to halt their activities. He quoted a speech he had made at an anti-slavery meeting in Haverfordwest, describing his conversation with a Captain King, of the Royal Navy. According to Starbuck, King told him that, while patrolling off the coast of Africa with Commodore Sir George Collier’s West Africa Squadron, he had boarded a French vessel and discovered two enslaved girls, aged 12 and 14, concealed in a cask. The girls, who were doubled together and “nearly expiring”, were only saved with great difficulty.

Starbuck’s copy of his 1826 letter to the Carmarthern Journal, on the right-hand page, describes blockade-running slave traders. Photo: Catherine Southon Auctioneers & Valuers

Starbuck added: “During this chase Sir George Collier had run through or passed several casks floating on the sea, which they learned had in this manner been packed full of those wretched victims, and thrown overboard, thus miserably to terminate their existence, and to prevent the confiscation of the vessel.” He said the trade winds and long chase had carried the British ships so far from the casks that it was impossible to retrieve them.

The auction house is only sharing details and images of a handful of the papers ahead of the sale, to preserve the archive’s financial value. It has not shared full details of Starbuck’s letter to the Duke of Wellington — then prime minister — but an extract indicates that he sought “to present his ideas of Plan for the abolition and extinction of slavery”.

If Starbuck was keen to influence powerful individuals, on the one hand, he also sought to increase a groundswell of popular anti-slavery sentiment. Discussing the necessity of freely distributing abolitionist literature in a letter to fellow Quakers, in 1825, Starbuck wrote: “In addition to those published by friends’ [Quakers’] Tract association, my family subscribe to the Religious Tract Society, buy and distribute many of the Church of England and methodists’ Tracts and we now make it a practice to give to each of the Sailors of all the Vessels that are Consigned to us some of the these various Tracts.”

In another letter preserved via Starbuck’s album, he told Nathaniel Coffin, collector of customs on the slave colony of St Kitts that — although the Quakers were among the first abolitionists — his own ancestors “together with the better part of all the inhabitants of North America” had been slave owners only 80 years earlier. Perhaps seeking to allay Coffins’ concerns around abolition, he said he favoured emancipation with compensation to slaveowners.

Starbuck did not live to see the Slavery Abolition Act (1833). He died in February 1829.

According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, over 12.5 million Africans were put on slave ships bound for the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries and about 11.7 million survived the voyage. In Britain, opposition to slavery came from former slaves such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano, many Quakers, and prominent Anglican abolitionists such as Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce. There was also widespread popular opposition, with hundreds of thousands boycotting slave-produced sugar in the 1790s. 

Abolitionists nevertheless faced fierce resistance from the pro-slavery lobby of slaveowners and others with a financial interest in the system. Under the Slave Compensation Act (1837), slave owners received about £20 million in compensation after their slaves were emancipated.

Catherine Southon, an antiques expert and owner of the auction house that is selling the archive, said she had never seen anything like it. “It blew our minds when we saw it. This is such an important archive. The whole family was prominent in the anti-slavery campaigns. There are lots of letters, but really it’s the picture — the image of all the slaves on the boat lined up by one — that hits home.”

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