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 played a crucial role in the proposal to form a colony in Sierra Leone. The work of the Committee overlapped to some extent with the campaign to abolish slavery in Britain and its empire.
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 a portion 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, subsequent 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 Burgoyne 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. There was a desire to remove black people from London. The Sierra Leone Resettlement Scheme was formulated because humanitarians like Granville Sharp saw it as a means of showing the pro-slavery lobby that black people could contribute towards the running of the new colony of Sierra Leone. Government officials became involved because they saw the scheme as a useful tool to remove the black poor from the streets of London. William Pitt the Younger, prime minister and leader of the Tory party, had an active interest in the Scheme. There was a prevalent view among the contemporary 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".
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. Some historians believe that, with government assistance, in total 4,000 blacks were transported from London for resettlement to the colony of Sierra Leone in 1787.
However, even though the Committee signed up about 700 members of the Black Poor, only 441 boarded the three ships that set sail from London to Portsmouth. The authorities, with the support of the Committee, sought to force street beggars from the streets of London to make up numbers. However, a lot of black Londoners were no longer happy to take part in the Scheme, and the acts of coercion used by the Committee and the government to force black Londoners to board the ship may have had the opposite effect. Equiano, who was originally involved in the Scheme, became one of its most vocal critics. Another prominent black Londoner, Ottobah Cugoano, also condemned the project.
On the 9th 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. White women who accompanied the Black men were more likely to be the wives or girlfriends.  On the voyage between Plymouth and Sierra Leone, 96 passengers died. The ones that could finish the voyage arrived off the shore of Sierra Leone on 15 May 1787. In 1792, in a move that pre-empted the women's suffrage movements in Britain, the heads of all households, of which a third were women, were given the right to vote. Today the descendants of the Black Poor are the Sierra Leone Creole people.
- 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).
- Sivapragasam, Michael, ‘Why Did Black Londoners not join the Sierra Leone Resettlement Scheme 1783-1815?’ Unpublished Masters dissertation (London: Open University, 2013), p. 22.
- Sivapragasam, Michael, ‘Why Did Black Londoners not join the Sierra Leone Resettlement Scheme 1783-1815?’ Unpublished Masters dissertation (London: Open University, 2013), p. 35.
- Sivapragasam, Michael, ‘Why Did Black Londoners not join the Sierra Leone Resettlement Scheme 1783-1815?’ Unpublished Masters dissertation (London: Open University, 2013), pp. 26-7.
- Sivapragasam, Michael, ‘Why Did Black Londoners not join the Sierra Leone Resettlement Scheme 1783-1815?’ Unpublished Masters dissertation (London: Open University, 2013), pp. 28-33.
- Archived 2007-09-28 at the Wayback Machine
- "Gustavus Vassa: Olaudah Equiano". Plymouth City Council website.
- "Economic History of Sierra Leone". Retrieved 10 October 2016.
- Sivapragasam, Michael, ‘Why Did Black Londoners not join the Sierra Leone Resettlement Scheme 1783-1815?’ Unpublished Masters dissertation (London: Open University, 2013), p. 36.
- Simon Schama (2006) Rough Crossings, p. 363.
- "The Sierra Leone Company", Black Loyalists: Our History, Our People.
- 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)
- Sivapragasam, Michael, ‘Why Did Black Londoners not join the Sierra Leone Resettlement Scheme 1783-1815?’ Unpublished Masters dissertation (London: Open University, 2013).
- "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.