Robert Wedderburn (radical)

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Robert Wedderburn

Born in Jamaica to an African-born house-slave and a plantation owner, Robert Wedderburn (1762–1835/36?) was a Unitarian, ultra-radical leader, and anti-slavery advocate in early nineteenth-century London.

Early life[edit]

Wedderburn's father, James Wedderburn, was a Scottish doctor and sugar planter settled in Kingston, Jamaica, who while there had children by several different slaves.[1][2] After she had already given birth to two children by him[1] Wedderburn sold Robert's mother Rosanna, then five months pregnant with his third child, back to her previous owner.[1] (James Wedderburn later returned to live in Britain. His legitimate son and heir, defending his father after these details were made public in the British press, denied the paternity and further claimed Rosanna was both promiscuous and unable to control her temper.) James Wedderburn stipulated, however, that Rosanna's child (Robert) when born should be legally free, and himself officially registered both Robert and an elder brother, James, as free.[1][3] Although born free, Wedderburn was raised in a harsh environment, as his mother was often flogged due to her "violent and rebellious temper". She was eventually re-sold away from her son,[2] who was then raised by his maternal grandmother, a woman known as "Talkee Amy".[4]

To escape the insecurity and abuse of the plantation, Wedderburn signed on with the Royal Navy at the age of 16.[5] On the ships, food and living conditions were horrific, and it was during this time that Wedderburn became increasingly aghast at the violent punishments used by the British both on their ships and in their colonies.[5] He arrived in Britain at age 17 and lived in the district of St. Giles, London among a community of runaway slaves, Jamaican ex-servicemen, and other immigrant minorities including Jews, Lascars and Irish.[6] Known as the "London blackbirds", this ethnically diverse subculture is reported[where?] to have been free of the racial discrimination so prevalent elsewhere in this era. However, as people living on the margins, the "blackbirds" often relied on criminal activity in order to survive.

Through means that remain unclear (it is possible that he had been an apprentice in Jamaica or had learned while in the Navy), Wedderburn became a journeyman tailor.[7] As he referred to himself as a "flint"[8] tailor, this suggests he was registered in the book of trades and shared values typical of other artisans - including pride in his craft and a belief in economic independence.[9] Unfortunately, the instability of his career made him increasingly susceptible to the effects of a trade recession, inflation and food shortages, and he was soon reduced to part-time mending work on the outskirts of town.[9] By now married and desperate for money during one of his wife's pregnancies, Wedderburn visited his father's family at Inveresk on the outskirts of Edinburgh. As this proved unsuccessful (apparently his father disavowed him and he was sent away with some small beer and a bent or broken sixpence), Wedderburn dabbled in petty theft and keeping a bawdy house. At some point he published in Bell's Life in London an account of his origin and his father's failure to provide for him. His alleged half-brother Andrew Colvile published a reply citing his father's denial of paternity and later threatened to sue the paper if it published any further slanders.[10]

Religious conversion and activity[edit]

In 1786, Wedderburn stopped to listen to a Wesleyan preacher he heard in Seven Dials. Influenced by a mixture of Arminian, millenarian, Calvinist, and Unitarian ideas, he converted to be a Methodist, and soon published a small theological tract called Truth Self Supported: or, a Refutation of Certain Doctrinal Errors Generally Adopted in the Christian Church. Although this work contained no explicit mention of slavery, it does suggest Wedderburn's future path in subversive and radical political action.

Politically influenced by Thomas Spence, Wedderburn published an anti-slavery book entitled The Horrors of Slavery in 1824, printed by William Dugdale and possibly coauthored by George Cannon.[11]

To promote his religious message, he opened his own Unitarian chapel in Hopkins Street in Soho in London. After he began to question Christian tenets[12] he was later associated with Deism.[13] He also campaigned for freedom of speech.

Wedderburn served several prison terms. According to Linebaugh (2000)[14] it is recorded that Wedderburn "did time in Cold Bath Fields, Dorchester,[15] and Giltspur Street Compter prisons for theft, blasphemy, and keeping a bawdy house." While imprisoned, Wedderburn wrote a letter to Francis Place.

In 1831, at the age of 68, he was arrested and sent to Giltspur Street Prison and sentenced to two years in jail, having been convicted of keeping a brothel. On his release he appears to have gone to New York, where a newspaper[16] records his involvement in a fraud case and refers to him as a "a tailor and breeches maker, field preacher, anti-bank deposite politician, romance writer, circulating librarian, and ambulating dealer in drugs, deism, and demoralization in general".[17] He returned to London shortly after.[17] His last mention in the historical record was in March 1834 when a Home Office informer listed him as present among the congregation at the Theobald's Road Institute.[17]

Death[edit]

The exact year of his death is unknown, although it appears to have been before official registers of death began to be kept in 1837.[17] He may be the "Robert Wedderborn" who died aged 72 in Bethnal Green and was buried in a non-conformist ceremony on 4 January 1835.[18]

Descendants[edit]

The British Labour politician Bill Wedderburn, Baron Wedderburn of Charlton, was a direct descendant of Robert Wedderburn.[19]

References[edit]

• Nadine Hunt, “Remembering Africans in diaspora: Robert Wedderburn’s ‘freedom narrative,’” in Olatunji Ojo and Nadine Hunt, eds., Slavery in Africa and the Caribbean: A History of Enslavement and Identity since the 18th Century (London/New York: I.B. Tauris, 2012), 175-198.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d Robert Wedderburn, The Horrors of Slavery, 1824
  2. ^ a b McCalman (1986) 100.
  3. ^ Chase (2008)
  4. ^ McCalman (1986) 100-101.
  5. ^ a b McCalman (1986) 101.
  6. ^ McCalman (1986) 102.
  7. ^ McCalman (1986) 103.
  8. ^ '1764: Chron. in Ann. Reg. 66/2: Journeymen taylors..who, refusing to comply with the masters terms, and the regulations of the magistrate, call themselves Flints, in contradistinction to those who submit, and are in derision stiled by the first Dungs.'"flint, n.". OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 28 October 2013
  9. ^ a b McCalman (1986) 104.
  10. ^ James Raffan, Emperor of the North: Sir George Simpson and the Remarkable Story of the Hudson's Bay Company, 2007, p. 52.
  11. ^ Wong, Edlie L. (2009). Neither Fugitive Nor Free: Atlantic slavery, freedom suits, and the legal culture of travel. America and the long 19th century. NYU Press. p. 276. ISBN 0-8147-9456-4. 
  12. ^ The Times (London, England), Saturday, 26 February 1820; p. 3. Wedderburn was charged with blasphemy for holding a debate at Hopkins-street chapel which referred to "the absurdities" contained in the Bible. In his defence he said "he was the offspring of a slave, and had been neglected by a Christian father. As he was a Christian himself, he thought, when at home, that if he could once get to a Christian country he should be happy; but, on his arrival here, he found the number of sects so great, that his mind was distracted with doubts...."
  13. ^ A woman describing her husband in court said: "He is one of your Deists, and a follower of Mr. Carlile...and there is another fellow he goes after, a black preacher of the name of Wedderburn..." The Times (London, England), 12 August 1829; p. 3.
  14. ^ Peter Linebaugh, Marcus Rediker The Many-headed Hydra: sailors, slaves, commoners, and the hidden 2000, p. 288.
  15. ^ May 1820: Wedderburn was sentenced to two years imprisonment at Dorchester-gaol for blasphemy: The Times (London, England), 26 February 1820; p. 3.
  16. ^ New York Evening Star, 6 January 1834.
  17. ^ a b c d Malcolm Chase, "Wedderburn, Robert (1762–1835/6?)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2008 accessed 17 Nov 2012.
  18. ^ "England and Wales, Non-Conformist Record Indexes (RG4-8)," index, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/FQLD-XZY : accessed 17 Nov 2012)
  19. ^ The Guardian, 12 March 2012, "Lord Wedderburn of Charlton obituary" [1]

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