By Seunfunmi Tinubu
Elizabeth Heyrick was born as Elizabeth Coltman in Leicester She was exposed to the writings of Thomas Paine, one of the most influential authors of the American revolution, as a child. On March 10th, 1787, she married John Heyrick, a Methodist lawyer. When John died 8 years later, Elizabeth became a Quaker. The Quakers had progressive views on women’s rights for that time period. In the Society of Friends, it was common for women to have their speaking and writing given the same weight as that of the men. This was attributed to the belief that males and females are one in Christ. Thomas Clarkson once described the effect that the Quaker church has on women by saying it “gives them, in fact, a new cast of character. It produces in them, a considerable knowledge of human nature…It elevates in them a sense of their own dignity and importance.”
After becoming a Quaker, Heyrick’s abolitionist stance solidified. In 1823, she joined the Anti-Slavery Society, officially known as the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions. Heyrick wrote and published her pamphlet ‘Immediate not Gradual Abolition’ in 1824. In this pamphlet, she attacked the current stance of leading abolitionists like Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce who were pushing for gradual abolition. She went so far as to write: “The perpetuation of slavery in our West India Colonies is not an abstract question, to be settled between the government and the planters; it is one in which we are all implicated, we are all guilty of supporting and perpetuating slavery.” Heyrick’s rhetoric was not well received by Wilberforce who instructed that leaders of the abolitionist movement should not speak at women’s anti-slavery societies. However, the majority of other abolitionist leaders supported Heyrick despite Wilberforce’s stance. Heyrick remained undaunted by opposition and encouraged a boycott of sugar from the West Indies in an attempt to affect the profits of the planters and importers of slave-produced goods. Heyrick believed that women should be involved in these issues as they are particularly qualified to “not only sympathize with suffering, but also to plead for the oppressor.”
On April 8th, 1825, Lucy Townsend, a friend of Elizabeth Heyrick, held a meeting at her home in West Bromwich in order for women to come together and discuss their role in the anti-slavery movement. Elizabeth was present for this meeting and it was here that the Birmingham Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves was established. Elizabeth became the treasurer for the organization. At this point in time, abolition was a hotly contested topic in the United Kingdom as well as the United States – unsurprisingly, men were at the forefront of the movement. In the United Kingdom, men were pushing for gradual abolition. Heyrick, of course, wanted to push for more immediate abolition.
William Wilberforce, who is given the majority of the credit for securing the abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom, was a Member of Parliament. While his Parliamentary position gave him a platform to speak, he was not an adept strategist when it came to legislative matters. Wilberforce would introduce abolition bills annually, but late in the Parliamentary session, or at a time when MPs were more occupied with other issues. While he did not attempt to foreground the issue of abolition, the work of Elizabeth Heyrick and The Birmingham Ladies Society for the Relief of the Negro Slave was more tangible and had an impact both nationally and internationally that has been overlooked by history.
The Birmingham Ladies Society for the Relief of the Negro Slaves was independent of the national Anti-Slavery Society and quickly became “the hub of a developing national network of female anti-slavery societies.” These women had a strong presence within Birmingham as they worked to promote the sugar boycott; they would also go to shops and speak to shoppers in hopes of dissuading them from purchasing West Indies sugar. Within a year, almost a quarter of the town’s population had given up West Indian Sugar – a tribute to the success of her methods. However, Heyrick’s most successful and prominent pamphlet was ‘Appeal to the Hearts and Consciences of British Women’. In it, she fervently advocated the view that ‘gradual’ abolition was insufficient, and encouraged abolitionists to take a firmer stance.
Independent Women’s Groups were formed across the country – the Women’s Group in Leicester was personally started by Elizabeth Heyrick. By 1831, there were seventy-three of these groups pushing for the abolition of slavery, and the work of these women was integral to the national conversation on the topic of abolition. The society’s work was even published in The Genius of Universal Emancipation, a periodical from American abolitionist Benjamin Lundy. 1,500 copies of this periodical were bought by the society for distribution in 1828-29. The publicity in Lundy’s periodical had a direct influence on the origin of female anti-slavery societies in the United States – despite it taking a longer time time to develop, by the 1850s in the US there were more women anti-slavery societies than men’s. Heyrick had helped start a movement that would spread across the world.
Their popularity was not well received by Wilberforce who did not support their “militant” approach. He instructed leaders of the anti-slavery movement not to speak at any women’s anti-slavery societies, although not everyone shared Wilberforce’s views towards the women of the anti-slavery movement. George Stephen, one of the leaders within the abolitionist movement declared that: “Ladies Associations did everything…..they formed the cement of the whole anti-slavery building. Without their aid we never should have kept standing.” Thomas Clarkson, another leader within the movement believed, that women deserved proper education and told Lucy Townsend that “he objected to the fact that “women are still weighed in a different scale from men… very little is paid to their opinions.”
From a legal standpoint, the Slave Trade Act of 1807 had outlawed the slave trade but not the status of slavery itself. The reasoning behind this was that it would be easier to outlaw the slave trade then to abolish slavery outrigh. The assumption was that if the slave trade was illegal, slavery would eventually die out. The Slave Trade Act of 1824 was made to amend the laws in regards to the abolition of the slave trade, and section 9 of this Act stated that the punishment would be the death penalty. These Acts formed the basis of the existence of the Female Society of Birmingham; the work of Elizabeth Heyrick, including her pamphlets and boycotting, was geared towards obtaining the abolition of slavery in addition to the abolition of the slave trade. Her impact on abolition cannot be underestimated. “In America she was remembered as the first one to speak out for the abolition of slavery. The law was changed eventually, with the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 which abolished slavery throughout the British Empire, with the exception of “the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company, or to the Island of Ceylon, or to the Island of Saint Helena.” Elizabeth Heyrick unfortunately did not live to see the abolition of slavery as she passed away in 1831. Slavery was abolished in India with the Indian Slavery Act of 1843. The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 was repealed by the Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1998, but that did not mean slavery was legal again. Without the work of women like Elizabeth Heyrick and the Female Society for Birmingham, abolition might not have been reached at the time it was.
If Elizabeth Heyrick and The Birmingham Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves contributed so much to the abolition of slavery, why have they been relegated to background in the historical narrative of this time period? When the history of the abolition movement is discussed, it is rare to see the role of the women’s groups emphasised, let alone the specific contributions of a woman like Elizabeth Heyrick. Minimizing the role of these women is dangerous as it doesn’t give us a clear understanding of the full scope of the abolition movement. Looking at this movement through a male lens only tells one side of the story, and not the side that contributed the heavy lifting towards the actual attainment of abolition in the United Kingdom.
Elizabeth Heyrick had an acute understanding of the traditional role of women, especially in the domestic sphere, yet she did not view it as a limitation to the part that women could play in the movement to secure abolition. In her pamphlet ‘Appeal To The Hearts And Consciences Of British Women’, she spoke of how women could bring about the end of slavery by boycotting West Indian sugar for East Indian sugar. She wrote: “in the domestic department they [women] are the chief controllers; they, for the most part, provide the articles of family consumption…”
It is clear that she knew the importance of women to the running of the home at that point in time. She went on to write “instead of purchasing that luxury, the cultivation of which constitutes at once the chief profits and oppressions of slavery, they can substitute that which is the genuine produce of free labour.” Heyrick did not see limitation in the traditional role bestowed upon society by women, but rather looked at how that role could be used strategically as a tool in the fight for abolition. Women as individuals were encouraged to use their position in the home as an area of strength in terms of boycotting, while women’s groups continued to pressure the men into moving towards an immediate abolition rather than a gradual one. Jeffreys has suggested that “… it seems likely that female pressure helped to precipitate and support men’s actions.”
When we look at gender and the law, we need to also examine the role that gender plays in telling the story of how the law is structured. If we accept that the state is masculinist, then by default, the laws that are passed are done so through a male perspective and the recording of these laws is done from a male perspective as well. The state traditionally thinks of men in terms of rights, justice, and power while it thinks of women in terms of love, care, and sexual virtue. Men and women are categorised differently, and viewed under different guidelines and this is accepted as it is seen as natural. Applying this to the pursuit of abolition in the United Kingdom, men are allowed to take the forefront in the historical narrative of abolition because traditionally, it is men that are deemed to have the strength to fight for rights and justice. This serves to erase the work of women like Elizabeth Heyrick and The Birmingham Ladies’ Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves because their work does not fit into the traditional terms through which the state has viewed women. Having an understanding of this, will allow for a more critical look at major events in history as well as at how present day events are recorded for future generations, so that all women can be given the credit they deserve, rather than the few that are deemed worthy of recognition. Yellin and Horne accurately point out: “… far more voluminous is the literature, including general histories of abolition and histories of political antislavery, that marginalizes women’s role in the cause.”
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— Letter to Lucy Townsend (3rd August, 1825)
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