On the afternoon of Thursday 15 May 1828 Newcastle’s Guildhall played host to a gathering of professionals and clergymen who advocated the gradual, rather than the immediate, abolition of West Indian slavery. The attendance was recorded as ‘respectable’ but ‘not numerous’. James Losh, the Unitarian lawyer, explained that public meetings and petitions were the primary means by which the political power of the West India planters could be broken, and he called on the gathering to back an anti-slavery petition to the British Parliament. Public pressure had worked in the past (notably with the abolition of the slave trade in 1807), but as Losh explained, British antislavery had lost much of its momentum since the early 1820s: slave holders, he claimed, had evaded instructions from government that they ‘ameliorate’ the condition of their slaves. Losh favoured gradual emancipation as, for him, this would protect the trade and property of slaveholders, secure the empire to Britain, and give time for educators and missionaries to prepare slaves for full freedom.
The meeting provides a valuable insight into the attitudes of moderates who tried to mesh abolition with the maintenance of public order, the protection of property and the principles of the British constitution. One speaker said ‘the idea of 800,000 of our fellow-subjects being doomed to interminable slavery is most revolting to every human mind’, but he also said that ‘our object is not to injure the property of the planters, but to protect it; not to excite to rebellion, but to prevent it’. The members of the meeting all appear to have been fired by a missionary agenda. One thought gradual emancipation would ‘promote the spiritual interest of the slaves’, and another stated that ‘not less than 25,000 of the slave population pass into eternity every year’ without knowing the truth of the gospel. The vicar of Newcastle said that the Church of England (which owned slaves on Barbadian plantations) was ‘friendly to the abolition of slavery’, but as public pressure would ‘embarrass government’ he could not sign the petition that was forwarded to London.
The hopes of the meeting were partly realised in 1834 when the British government replaced slavery with a system of 'apprenticeship'. Losh and his colleagues at the meeting would also have welcomed the fact that the slaveholders were compensated for the loss of their property - their slaves - by the British taxpayer.
Newcastle Courant, 17 May 1828; John Charlton, Hidden Chains: the slavery business and North East England 1600-1865 (Newcastle, 2008).