In 1787, entrepreneurial potter Josiah Wedgwood (1730 – 1795) produced a ceramic medallion in support of the abolition of the slave trade. A forerunner of the protest badge, Wedgwood's anti-slavery medallions were distributed for free at abolitionist society meetings to promote the cause.
Wedgwood's design was based on a seal commissioned by the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade on 5 July 1787, showing a kneeling Black man in chains asking, 'Am I Not a Man and a Brother?'. The motif and motto were widely reproduced and disseminated in print, on textiles and ceramics throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries. The process of translating this design into ceramic sculpture remains something of a mystery. The medallion motif was adapted from the print design and sculpted in 1787, probably by William Hackwood, Wedgwood’s best modeller. Records in the V&A Wedgwood Collection archives offer insights into the story of how and why Wedgwood produced the medallion.
It is thought that thousands of medallions were distributed by the 1790s, although records in the Wedgwood oven books (which list what was loaded into the bottle ovens for firing), do not always reflect the full picture, and offer limited detail on exact quantities. Although they were in production from 1787, the medallions are not mentioned in the oven books until April 1792: "J. Steel made 14. Doz black slave cameos, 1 ¼." Josiah Wedgwood's correspondence gives a fuller picture. In a 1788 letter, Thomas Clarkson (1760 – 1846) a leading campaigner against the British slave trade, writes, "I should be extremely obliged to you to furnish me with as many as you can spare" as "tomorrow I enter upon a tour through the southern counties of the Kingdom on the subject of the slave trade." In 1788 Wedgwood sent a batch to future Founding Father Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790) in America.
The medallions became something of a fashion accessory, framed or mounted into brooches and buckles. As Clarkson commented, 'some had them inlaid in gold on the lids of their snuffboxes. Of the ladies, several wore them as bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental manner as pins for their hair. A fashion … was seen for once in the honourable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity and freedom.' Key to its success was that Wedgwood’s medallion was easily reproducible: The V&A Collection holds a number of the medallions in different ceramic bodies, sizes and dates, alongside models and moulds for its production.
This early white terracotta and black basalt version is larger in scale than most, with an unusual integral black basalt frame, the slogan impressed and painted. Another example of this size and composition is in the British Museum collection. Elements of the design were simplified for the widely disseminated two-colour versions produced in Wedgwood jasper – a high-fired non-porous stoneware body, which can be coloured with a mineral oxide stain. Considered his most important contribution to ceramic history, this new body was invented by Josiah Wedgwood who from the early 1770s carried out thousands of experiments to perfect the recipe.
Further archival material in the V&A Wedgwood Collection tells us something of Wedgwood's role in the political campaign, and reflects the fact that the medallion was just one of many tools in the fight for equality. Letters and correspondence between Wedgwood and Olaudah Equiano (about 1745 –1797), the prominent Black abolitionist and writer, reflect some of the challenges for Black people. Equiano's book, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, also known as Gustavus Vassa and the African, published in 1789, recounts his abduction in Nigeria and sale into slavery, before many years later arriving in London as a free man.
Equiano wrote to Wedgwood to get his support on a visit to Bristol, as he was concerned about being press ganged (forcibly taken to serve on a ship) and sought protection. Wedgwood also met and corresponded with William Wilberforce, the parliamentary leader for the cause of the abolition of slavery.
Given Wedgwood's commercial focus, it is revealing that the medallions were not for sale, but were handed out at abolitionist meetings. The early focus of the campaign was the abolition of the trade in enslaved people, rather than slavery itself – in the hope that the ultimate goal of abolishing the practice entirely would surely follow. In 1807, the abolition of the slave trade finally took place, prohibiting the trade of enslaved people in the British Empire. It was not until 1834 that the emancipation of enslaved people occurred in British colonies.
Many supporters of the cause, recognising the inter-connectedness of Empire and global consumption, were also anti-Saccharites, and began boycotting sugar for its connections to enslaved labour. The fashion for tea, coffee and chocolate, which taste bitter on their own, accelerated the demand for sugar and in turn for enslaved labour on sugar plantations in the West Indies. While the abolition of the slave trade would not happen in Wedgwood's lifetime, members of his family continued the fight: his daughter, Sarah, was involved in founding the first anti-slavery society for women in 1825, and his son, Josiah Wedgwood II was elected Stoke-on-Trent's first MP after 70 years of campaigning for new industrial areas to have representatives in Parliament, on a platform calling for the 'immediate abolition of slavery'.
The Wedgwood anti-slavery medallion's role as a fashionable accessory adds to its nuance: Wedgwood was well aware that by supporting and championing international causes such as the abolition of slavery and the French Revolution at the same time as being styled 'Potter to her Majesty' he could appeal to new and wider markets. Wedgwood profited hugely from the trade he personally opposed, finding new markets in the West Indies for wares that were no longer the latest fashion in Europe – as well as indirectly from the wealth of his individual clientele, and the wider industrialised economy.
For a long time the Wedgwood medallion has been talked about as an exemplary piece of anti-slavery propaganda. 'Am I Not A Man and A Brother?' became a unifying message for white abolitionists in the 18th century while they boycotted sugar and petitioned parliament for an end to the slave trade. The imagery reflects a complex and contradictory 18th-century viewpoint: both arguing for equality, and representing the Black slave as a submissive, shackled, and ultimately unthreatening figure, perpetuating and reinforcing racial myths.
Like the 18th century, our current moment is also one of polarisation and the politicisation of protest, and rightly makes us look again at the Wedgwood abolition medallion and its historic and contemporary meanings.