The powerful Anti Slavery Medallion personally designed, manufactured and distributed by Josiah Wedgwood
A plaintive plea encircles the figure of a manacled and kneeling slave on a piece of jewellery which was to become a hugely important part of the British abolition movement in the late 1700s.
Set in gold, the medallion in this brooch is stark black-and-white jasperware – the same material that we’re so familiar with these days, in softer blue and white, as Wedgwood pottery.
The slave cameo was actually developed by the company’s founder, Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795), a prominent anti-slavery campaigner.
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Wedgwood was a leading philanthropist of the day, perhaps prompted by his own personal struggles – his father died when he was nine, and he had to abandon his education to help support his family by working as a potter.
A year or two later, he contracted smallpox – then a terrifying killer disease.
He survived, but was left with a knee infection which constricted his use of his potter’s kick-wheel on which the pottery shapes were formed – perhaps fortuitously, as he was instead forced to focus his attention on developing new techniques for ceramics, and marketing and selling his product, rather than actually making it himself.
By the 1780s, he was head of his own company, probably the most famous potter in the world, and increasingly concerned about the inhumanity of slavery.
In 1787 he became a leading member of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, a group which included many notable campaigners including Thomas Clarkson and the Hull-born MP William Wilberforce, with whom he became close friends.
Wedgwood’s contribution to the group was invaluable. His position as the head of one of the most successful companies in the country had left him extremely well connected: he knew royals, aristocrats, scientists, artists and men of the church.
He was also responsible for the design, manufacture and distribution of the medallion. The distribution and circulation of the medallions was central to the abolition movement, publicly advertising the wearer’s support: the 18th century equivalent of today’s charity wristbands.
Modelled by one of his senior craftsman – probably William Hackwood or Henry Webber – the cameo was set as hat and hairpins, bracelets, brooches and necklaces, and also decorated more practical objects such as snuff and patch boxes, and tea caddies.
Wedgwood produced and distributed the medallions at his own expense, even sending some to the States for Founding Father Benjamin Franklin.
His friend and fellow campaigner Thomas Clarkson wrote: “At length the taste for wearing them became general, and thus fashion…was seen for once in the honourable office of promoting the cause of justice and, humanity and freedom.”
Sadly, Wedgwood didn’t live to see the results of his imaginative campaign: the Slave Trade Abolition Act, prohibiting the trade of Africans into slavery in the West Indies, was passed in 1807 and is still considered to be one of the most momentous laws ever passed by the British parliament.
And while that early battle may have been won, the war isn’t over – in 2014, the UK government passed a Modern Slavery Bill, introducing tougher sentences for traffickers and creating an independent anti-slavery commissioner: recent figures suggest that up to 13,000 people could be victims of slavery in the UK today, often women forced into prostitution, domestic staff, and workers in fields and factories.
This exceptionally beautiful and important piece of jewellery is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust.
Scarborough, North Yorkshire
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