Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor
The Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor was a charitable organisation founded in London in 1786 to provide sustenance for distressed people of African and Asian origin. It became a crucial organisation in the subsequent proposal to form a colony in Sierra Leone.
The Black Poor in 18th-century England
The "Black Poor" was the name given in the late 18th century to indigent residents of London who were of Black ancestry. The Black Poor had diverse origins. The core of the community were people who had been brought to London as a result of Atlantic slave trade, sometimes as slaves or indentured servants who had served on slave ships. At the time, Black American sailors served on both navy and merchant ships. The Black Poor had become a rare but noticeable sight on the streets of London. Most of the Black Poor lived in impoverished East End parishes, or in Seven Dials and Marylebone. They formed part of the broader Black British community, which predominantly consisted of people employed at menial urban jobs, but had prominent members such as Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano. While the broader community included some women, the Black Poor seem to have exclusively consisted of men, some of whom developed relationships with local women and often married them.
On 5 January 1786 an announcement appeared in the Public Advertiser that Mr. Brown, a baker in Wigmore Street, Cavendish Square, was to "give a Quartern Loaf to every Black in Distress, who will apply on Saturday next between the Hours of Twelve and Two". Details followed that enabled people to subscribe. A meeting was organised for 10 January and by the end of the month, a group had summarised the situation. Originally concern was expressed about Lascars, Asian seamen. But, the group found that there were about 250 "Blacks in Distress," of whom only 35 came from the East Indies, the others being from Africa or the West Indies. One hundred men said they had been in the Royal Navy. In common with other responses to serious social problems, the issue was addressed by concerned citizens who set up appeals and fund-raising lists, e.g. there was also a subscription list to support distressed weavers in Spitalfields.
After the original meeting, held in the premises of Mr Faulder, a bookseller of Bond Street, the following meetings were held in Batson's Coffee House, opposite the Royal Exchange. The effort attracted some prominent figures from London's financial elite: George Peters, Governor of the Bank of England, Thomas Boddington, the noted philanthropist and slave owner, John Julius Angerstein, General Robert Melville. Montagu Borgoyne was the original chair person, but after a few weeks his business interests took him away from London and he was replaced by Benjamin Johnson, who in turn suffered ill-health and was replaced by Jonas Hanway. The abolitionists Samuel Hoare and two of the three Thornton brothers, Henry and Samuel, were also involved, along with James Pettit Andrews and Sir Joseph Andrews.
On 14 February The Morning Herald remarked:
- "The example of the Duchess of Devonshire, in contributing to the relief of the poor Blacks, has had a salutary effect. The Countess of Salisbury, the Countess of Essex, Marchioness of Buckingham and a variety of other titled characters are also on the charitable list."
When the appeal was closed on 18 April, a total of £890 1s had been raised. Donors included many bishops and clergy, including Herbert Mayo and William Pitt. Aside from general benevolence, this cause attracted particular sympathy because so many were Black Loyalists who had served in the British armed forces and been resettled in London after the American Revolution. The largest donation was collected from among the Quakers by Samuel Hoare.
The Committee soon organised two venues for regular distribution of alms: the White Raven tavern in Mile End and the Yorkshire Stingo, in Lisson Grove, Marylebone. These venues were open for several hours a day providing outdoor relief. There was also a sick house set up in Warren Street, where 40-50 men needing medical attention were provided for with indoor relief. Some of the recipients of aid were found jobs, particularly as seamen. In providing clothes so that men could get work as sailors, some of the committee members were simply applying the same charitable methods they had used in organisations such as the Marine Society. But, the shortage of work at sea meant that unemployment remained a problem. Surplus labour was drifting in from the countryside, and many English people also took up begging in London. Lacking the resources to set up any new industry, the Committee took heed of such individuals as Richard Weaver who was "willing and desirous to go to Halifax and other Parts of Nova Scotia where there is a fairer Prospect of Employment" (see Black Nova Scotians). Soon the charity focused its goals on giving "a temporary relief to the objects of the Charity, and in future to provide them with clothes and a settlement abroad" . . . "to such places as may put them in a condition of getting their bread in freedom and comfort".
Migration to Sierra Leone
The committee also was instrumental in the transfer of Black Poor to Sierra Leone. Historians differ as to whether a desire to remove black people from London was a principal goal of the committee or whether it was more focused on strictly altruistic goals. Although there was a prevalent view among contemporary the British West Indian plantocracy that racial intermarriage was abhorrent. However, the chair of the committee wrote to the Standing Committee of West India Planters and Merchants requesting their advice and assistance in procuring an act of parliament to "prevent any Foreign Blacks being brought to this country to remain", though not much came of this proposal.
By the end of October 1786, three transport ships were commissioned and docked at Deptford. The applicants for the settlement were to sign an agreement, agreeing to the condition that they would retain the status of British subjects, to be defended by the Royal Navy. They were then given a document granting the citizenship of Sierra Leone. On 9 April 1787 the ships left Portsmouth with about 280 Black men, 70 White women, and 40 Black women. They were accompanied by some English tradesmen. The white women were most likely the wives and girlfriends of Black men. Today the descendants of the Black Poor are the Sierra Leone Creole people. The ones that could finish the voyage arrived off the shore of Sierra Leone on 15 May 1787.
- Stephen Braidwood, Black Poor and White Philanthropists: London's Blacks and the Foundation of the Sierra Leone Settlement 1786 - 1791, Liverpool University Press, 1994.
- Peter Fryer in Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (London: Pluto Press, 1984; p. 195) quotes a contemporary commentator who called them "indigent, unemployed, despised and forlorn", saying that "it was necessary they should be sent somewhere, and be no longer suffered to invest [sic] the streets of London" (C. B. Wadström, An Essay on Colonization, 1794-5, II, 220).
- "The Sierra Leone Company", Black Loyalists: Our History, Our People.
- "Gustavus Vassa: Olaudah Equiano". Plymouth City Council website.
- Economic History of Sierra Leone.
- Braidwood, Stephen (1994). Black Poor and White Philanthropists: London's Blacks and the Foundation of the Sierra Leone Settlement 1786 - 1791. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. ISBN 0-85323-377-2.
- Simon Schama, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution, BBC Books, 2005 (ISBN 0-563-48709-7)
- "Committee for the Relief of Poor Blacks and their emigration to Sierra Leone", Your Archives, National Archives, UK
- Cassandra Pybus, Black Founders: The Unknown Story of Australia's First Black Settlers, UNSW Press, 2006.