Robert Wedderburn (radical)
|Known for||Anti-slavery advocate|
Across his life, Wedderburn sought to reconcile his political priorities and religious views. Influenced by millenarian ideas, he moved across his adult life from Methodism and towards Unitarian leanings, before rejecting Christianity and embracing a deist outlook on life. An early freethinker, a combination of his deist views, associations with well-known radicals and atheists, and utopian political ideals led to his arrest for breach of blasphemy laws.
Robert Wedderburn was born in Jamaica. His mother, Rosanna, had been born in Africa, and was enslaved. Wedderburn's father, James Wedderburn, was born in Scotland. Wedderburn's grandfather's, Sir John Wedderburn, 5th Baronet of Blackness, execution for treason resulted in his father and uncle, John Wedderburn of Ballendean, fleeing Scotland. James Wedderburn settled in Kingston, making a living first, as a doctor, and then as a sugar plantation owner. While in Jamaica he had children by several different enslaved women.
After she had already given birth to two children by him, James Wedderburn sold Rosanna, then five months pregnant with his third child, back to her previous owner. (James Wedderburn later returned to live in Britain. His legitimate son and heir, Andrew Colville, 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 he officially registered both Robert and an elder brother, James, as free. 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, who was then raised by his maternal grandmother, a woman known as "Talkee Amy".
To escape the insecurity and abuse of the plantation, Wedderburn signed on with the Royal Navy at the age of 16. 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.
Arrival in Britain
Wedderburn arrived in Britain aged 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. 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. As he referred to himself as a "flint" 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. 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.
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 origins 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.
Radicalism and activity
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 was an impassioned speaker and became de facto leader of the Spencean Society in 1817 after the nominal leaders were arrested on suspicion of high treason. Wedderburn published fiery periodicals advocating republican revolution, using violence if necessary, to bring about redistribution of property in Britain and the West Indies. In 1824, he published an anti-slavery book entitled The Horrors of Slavery, printed by William Dugdale and possibly coauthored by George Cannon.
To promote his religious message, he opened his own Unitarian chapel in Hopkins Street in Soho, London. After he began to question Christian tenets He was later associated with the freethought movement, including popular deists and atheists such as Richard Carlile. He also campaigned for freedom of speech.
Wedderburn served several prison terms. According to Peter Linebaugh (2000) it is recorded that Wedderburn "did time in Cold Bath Fields, Dorchester, and Giltspur Street Compter prisons for theft, blasphemy, and keeping a bawdy house." While imprisoned, alongside his associate Richard Carlile, 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 City, where a newspaper records his involvement in a fraud case and refers to him as "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". He returned to London shortly after. 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.
Some have located Wedderburn's deism, radicalism, and secularism within a history of British humanism. The Humanist Heritage website recalls that "Wedderburn and others like him fostered a humanist tradition of rationalism, compassion, and tolerance, suffering the effects of blasphemy laws the like of which humanists continue to fight today."
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. 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.
Representation in Media
- Robert Wedderburn, The Horrors of Slavery, 1824.
- McCalman (1986), 107.
- Malcolm Chase, "Wedderburn, Robert (1762–1835/6?)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2008, accessed 17 November 2012.
- McCalman (1986), 100–101.
- McCalman (1986), 101.
- McCalman (1986), 102.
- McCalman (1986), 103.
- '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.
- McCalman (1986) 104.
- James Raffan, Emperor of the North: Sir George Simpson and the Remarkable Story of the Hudson's Bay Company, 2007, p. 52.
- McCalman (1986), 108.
- 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 978-0-8147-9456-2.
- The Times (London), 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...."
- 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), 12 August 1829; p. 3.
- Peter Linebaugh, Marcus Rediker, The Many-headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden, 2000, p. 288.
- May 1820: Wedderburn was sentenced to two years' imprisonment at Dorchester-gaol for blasphemy: The Times (London), 26 February 1820; p. 3.
- New York Evening Star, 6 January 1834.
- "Robert Wedderburn". Humanist Heritage. Humanists UK. Retrieved 4 April 2021.
- "England and Wales, Non-Conformist Record Indexes (RG4-8)", index, FamilySearch; accessed 17 November 2012.
- Bill McCarthy, "Lord Wedderburn of Charlton obituary", The Guardian, 12 March 2012.
- Chase, Malcolm (2008) . "Wedderburn, Robert (1762–1835/6?)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/47120. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- Hunt, Nadine (2012). "Remembering Africans in diaspora: Robert Wedderburn's 'freedom narrative'". In Ojo, Olatunji; Hunt, Nadine (eds.). Slavery in Africa and the Caribbean: A History of Enslavement and Identity since the 18th Century. London: I.B. Tauris. pp. 175–198. ISBN 9781780761152.
- McCalman, Iain (1986). "Anti-Slavery and Ultra-Radicalism in Early Nineteenth Century England: The Case of Robert Wedderburn". Slavery and Abolition. 7 (2): 99–117. doi:10.1080/01440398608574906.
- McCalman, Iain (1988). Radical underworld: prophets, revolutionaries, and pornographers in London, 1795-1840. Cambridge University Press. pp. 50–72. ISBN 0-521-30755-4.