This medallion, first made in 1787, became a popular icon in the British movement for the abolition of the slave trade in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Staffordshire pottery manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood probably engaged sculptor Henry Webber to create the design of a kneeling slave, his hands in chains, a figure based on the cameo gemstones of antiquity. The modeler, William Hackwood, then prepared the medallion for production in Wedgwood’s black jasper against a white ground of the same ceramic paste. Above the figure the words “AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER” appeal to the reason and sentiment of late-eighteenth-century men and women, disturbed by accounts of atrocities committed on the trans-Atlantic slave trade routes, and informed by abolitionist literature distributed in coffee-houses, taverns, public assembly rooms, reading societies, and private homes. The medallion expressed in material form the growing horror at the barbarous practices of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the premises upon which that trade thrived. Wedgwood produced the medallion for the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave trade, founded in 1787 by Thomas Clarkson, who in 1786 published his Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species. Wedgwood was a member of the Committee – later known as the Society for the Abolition of the Slave trade - and it is likely that distribution of the medallions took place through the organization, and that Wedgwood bore the costs himself.
In America, Quaker groups were active in their opposition to the slave trade in the late seventeenth century. When British opposition emerged in the 18th century from among the non-conformist congregations - Quakers, Methodists, Baptists, and Unitarians – communication between the North American and British groups was quickly established. In 1788, Josiah Wedgwood sent a packet of his medallions to Benjamin Franklin, then president of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, with the words “It gives me great pleasure to be embarked on this occasion in the same great and good cause with you, and I ardently hope for the final completion of our wishes.” Franklin wrote to Wedgwood: "I am persuaded [the medallion] may have an Effect equal to that of the best written Pamphlet in procuring favour to those oppressed people." Neither Franklin, nor Wedgwood, lived to see those wishes fulfilled.
The medallion became the emblem for the British movement carried forward by Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, leading to Parliament’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Men and women appropriated the cameo for personal ornament on snuff-box lids, shoe buckles, hair pins, pendants, and bracelets. By 1807, and before the abolition of slavery in all the British colonies in 1838, many versions of the kneeling slave found their way onto the surface of artifacts made in ceramic, metal, glass and fabric. The representation of the slave in the Wedgwood medallion carries several conflicting meanings. Here we see a man on his knees, pleading to his white masters, and perhaps to God at a time when many slaves took the Christian faith. The rhetorical question, “AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER”, calls for pity, but at the same time demands a review of the black African’s place in the world as fellow human being, rather than a separate species, a status conferred upon them by slave owners and traders. The image of the kneeling slave is noble, but at the same time without threat; he kneels, and he is in chains. He may represent the literary figure of the “noble savage,” and at the same time draw forth in late 18th-century white men and women their sense of magnanimity. Materially, the medallion underscores the message with the figure rendered in black on a white, or in some versions a pale straw-colored background.
Against fierce opposition, and for all their contradictions, hypocrisies, and ill-informed sentiments, the British campaigners for the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and for the abolition of slavery, were astonishingly successful in achieving their aims. Strategies like widespread petitioning, the distribution of leaflets, pamphlets, and printed images, and the production of artifacts like this medallion, established the tactics for subsequent political and social pressure groups on local, national, and now on a global scale. The printed T-shirt, badges, and mugs distributed or sold today are the descendents of the Wedgwood medallion.
Guyatt, M. “The Wedgwood Slave Medallion,” Journal of Design History, 13, no. 2 (2000): 93-105
Margolin, S. “And Freedom to the Slave”: Antislavery ceramics, 1787-1865, Ceramics in America, edited by Robert Hunter (Hanover and London: Chipstone Foundation, 2002), pp. 80-109
Myers, S. ‘Wedgwood’s Slave Medallion and its Anti-Slavery Legacy’
Walvin, J. “British Abolitionism, 1787-1838,” Transatlantic Slavery: Against Human Dignity, edited by Anthony Tibbles (London: HMSO and National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, 1994), pp. 87-95
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