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15May2016

ANTI-SLAVERY AND ADHERENCE

The medallions above were designed by Josiah Wedgwood in 1797, based on the seal of the Anti-Slavery Society, the society of white British abolitionists. Anthony Appiah suggests that the Wedgwood medallion enjoins the viewer to ‘see me as someone like yourself’. But that is not quite right, for the motto and kneeling image are at odds with each other. The motto makes, in the form of a negative interrogative, an assertion of status and equality which the docile, pleading image denies. The slave is not ‘someone like yourself’, because he is placed on his knees as the white abolitionists – the invisible objects of his appeal – are not, have not been, and never expect to be. It is a piece of ventriloquism, captured in abolitionist Thomas Clarkson’s comment that the words are produced ‘as if he were uttering the words himself’.

The medallion is a good illustration of one important characteristic of the anti-slavery movement, which is that it was disjoint campaigning: that is, collective action on behalf of others. In Other People’s Struggles, my research project, I distinguish disjoint campaigning from conjoint campaigning, which is collective action on one’s own behalf. In one chapter of the project, I contrast the anti-slavery movement with two other cases: the mid 19th century Chartists, and late 19th century movements for poverty relief, both of the conjoint ‘neighbouring’ and ‘self-help’ kind, and the disjoint charitable kind.

JOSIAH WEDGWOOD, HENRY WEBBER AND WILLIAM HACKWOOD, AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER (‘THE WEDGWOOD MEDALLION’) (c.1790s) (WHITE JASPER WITH A BLACK RELIEF AND MOUNTED IN GILT-METAL) /  ENGRAVING OF THE WEDGWOOD MEDALLION, IN ERASMUS DARWIN, THE BOTANIC GARDEN: A POEM IN TWO PARTS (1791).