Jamaican Revolutionary and Abolitionist
The lives, activities and writings of the two eighteenth century African abolitionists Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano have now become better known, but much less is known of the Jamaican activist Robert Wedderburn, who arrived in Britain in 1778 and became politically active in the early nineteenth century.
Wedderburn, the son of a slave mother and a slave owning father, joined the revolutionary movement in London in the early part of the 19th century and began his political writing in 1817. His most well-known work The Horrors of Slavery, includes some information about his own life and was first published in London in 1824.
Wedderburn also organised political meetings in London, including one in which those present debated the question 'Has a slave an inherent right to slay his master who refuses him his liberty?' It was reported that the audience not only supported the right of slaves to free themselves by violence, but that several of those present declared their readiness to assist them. On another occasion Wedderburn invited two other speakers from the Caribbean to address a meeting to oppose the activities of missionaries who, it was said, were preaching 'passive obedience' and telling slaves not to rebel.
Wedderburn became one of the leaders of the revolutionary movement in London after he joined one of the principal organisations - the Society of Spencean Philanthropists. He was as concerned with the struggles of working people in Britain for a free press and for political rights, as he was with the liberation of the slaves in the Caribbean and he called on both to rise up and overthrow their oppressors.
Wedderburn continued to write and publish revolutionary literature even when this resulted in his arrest and imprisonment. In 1817 he began the publication of a periodical The Axe Laid to Root that is addressed to both a Caribbean and British audience. According to Wedderburn this publication was smuggled to those enslaved in Jamaica.
Indeed, historians still disagree about who were the intended audience and Wedderburn uses the experience of struggle of the Jamaican Maroons and the revolution of St. Domingue to appeal to both slaves and working people in Britain to fight for their rights. In fact, Wedderburn argued that the slaves of the Caribbean and the working people of Britain were united in a common struggle.
Progress, No. 14, August 2001
African and Caribbean Progressive Study Group, London
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