In the late 1700s, the image of a kneeling, enslaved African man, accompanied by the words ‘Am I not a man and a brother’ became the most prominent emblem for those wishing to abolish the Transatlantic slave trade, in both Britain and America. As well as appearing in books, prints and pamphlets, it was also reproduced on an extraordinary variety of everyday and household items – from crockery and soft furnishings, to jewellery and hairpins.

The image was made popular by Josiah Wedgwood (1730 – 1795), the pioneering potter and entrepreneur. In 1787, Wedgewood became a leading member of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, along with other key figures in the Abolition campaign such as Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce. To help gather support for the campaign, Wedgewood asked his senior craftsman, William Hackwood, to design an anti-slavery medallion featuring the now famous image, based on the seal of the society.

Wedgewood was very well connected in the worlds of science, art and industry. He used his own money, to produce and freely distribute these medallions to influential people, including Benjamin Franklin – one of the founding fathers of the USA. It quickly became popular and was copied and reproduced on a surprising number of different items. By displaying the medallion image, people could immediately show their support for the campaign.

The Wedgewood medal and image became a central, enduring symbol, which undoubtedly made a great contribution to the eventual abolition of the British and American transatlantic slave trades in the early 1800s. However, the image of an African man as a supplicant – on his knees pleading for his freedom – has also attracted criticism, with some arguing that it reinforces the idea of enslaved people as passive or docile in the Abolition movement when in fact many actively fought against and resisted their enslavement, through means such as revolution, literature, ‘go-slows’, the ‘underground railroad’ and retention of African cultures.

In this example, the medallion image has been adapted to create a colourful enamel plaque mounted on the front of a drawer handle, intended to bring the international matter into a prominent position within the home.

 

Did you know..?

Josiah Wedgewood continually employed apprentices – including women, training them up to become skilled workers in his potteries. He had to pay the men more to accept and work with these women. He was also the grandfather of Charles Darwin.

 

Use our Education activities to investigate this object and the theme of Abolition further.

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Sources & acknowledgements

This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above.