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‘Bound by the Wrongs We Have Done in the Past’: English Catholics and the Anti-Slavery Movement in Victorian Britain

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 February 2015


This article examines the growing involvement of English Catholicism in the antislave trade and anti-slavery campaigns of the nineteenth century. Early in the century, Catholics in England were conspicuously absent from the Wilberforce-inspired crusade to eradicate the slave trade. By the end of the century, Catholics in England played a leading role in that continuing crusade. The article examines several events that led to growing Catholic participation as the century progressed, including the restoration of the hierarchy, the American Civil War, Herbert Vaughan’s missionary endeavours, the death of Charles Gordon in Khartoum, and the celebrated efforts of French Cardinal Charles Lavigerie to end the slave trade in northern Africa. This argument is placed within the greater context of papal encyclicals on the subject of slavery from the nineteenth century and earlier. The article surveys the work and words of Cardinals Wiseman, Manning and Vaughan, as well as the Catholic press, including the Tablet, the Dublin Review, and the Month.

Copyright © Catholic Record Society 2012

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1 See for example the works of Drescher, Seymour, including, Capitalism and Antislavery: British Mobilization in Comparative Perspective (London: Oxford University Press, 1987)Google Scholar or Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). See also Temperley, Howard, British Antislavery 1833–1870 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1972)Google Scholar, Anstey, Roger, The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition, 1760–1810 (London: MacMillan, 1975)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Turley, David, The Culture of English Antislavery, 1780–1860 (London: Routledge, 1991)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Oldfield, J. R., Popular Politics and British Anti-Slavery: The Mobilization of Public Opinion Against the Slave Trade, 1787–1807 (London: Routledge, 1998)Google Scholar, and Brown, Christopher Leslie, Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006)Google Scholar,

2 Turley, David The Culture of English Antislavery, 1780–1860 (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 7 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Gray, Richard, A History of the Southern Sudan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), pp. 186–7Google Scholar.

4 Arnstein, Walter, Protestant Versus Catholic in Mid-Victorian England: Mr. Newdegate and the Nuns (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982), p.3 Google Scholar.

5 Turley, David, The Culture of English Antislavery, 1780–1860 (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 150 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Another interesting factor is that even though many nonconformist abolitionists favoured liberty in the mid-century nationalistic movements in Italy and Hungary, they altered their support for indigenous nationalism when viewing Ireland. Clearly, many of the same people pressing for abolition worldwide harbored ethnocentric, anti-Catholic prejudices that English Catholics were sure to detect and experience.

6 See Maxwell, John Francis, Slavery and the Catholic Church: The History of Catholic Teaching Concerning the Moral Legitimacy of the Institution of Slavery (London: Barry Rose Publishers, 1975)Google Scholar. Maxwell argues that despite papal encyclicals on the evil of slavery dating back to the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church failed to adjust its theological stance on slavery in the post- Enlightenment era, thus causing some amount of ambiguity in the nineteenth century on the topic, especially regarding slavery in the United States and the American Church. On the American Church, see pp. 110–15.

7 In Supremo Apostolatus, Papal Encyclicals Online, (accessed March 25, 2011).

8 ‘Negro Slavery’,The London & Dublin Orthodox Journal of Useful Knowledge, 4 January 1840, pp. 25–6; ‘Lines on Slavery’,The London & Dublin Orthodox Journal of Useful Knowledge, 7 October 1837, p. 340. Another lengthy poem demanding the end of slavery in the Empire was published even earlier in the Catholic Magazine in August 1831 under the title ‘Negro Slavery’ two years before Parliament followed through with legislation to that effect. See Catholic Magazine, August 1831, pp. 441–2.

9 Evans, Eric J., The Forging of the Modern State: Early Industrial Britain 1783–1870 (London: Longman Group, 1983), p. 422 Google Scholar; Hughes, Philip, ‘The English Catholics in 1850’, The English Catholics 1850–1950, ed. Beck, George (London: Burns Oates, 1950), p. 45.Google Scholar These figures are estimates and the figure for 1850 has been one that has fluctuated greatly. A Catholic MP in 1851 told Parliament that Catholics numbered 1.5 million, a number that held sway for much of the remainder of the century. Modern demographers have lowered that considerably.

10 Champ, Judith F., ‘Priesthood and Politics in the Nineteenth Century: The Turbluent Career of Thomas McDonnell’, Recusant History 18 (1987), pp. 290–1Google Scholar; Lyon, Eileen Groth, ‘The Politics of the Bible: Radicalism and Non-Denominational Cooperation in the Birmingham Political Union’, Studies in Church History 32 (1997), p. 394 Google Scholar.

11 Daniel O’Connell to Joseph Sturge, 7 July 1838, as cited in Temperley, Howard, British Anti– slavery 1833–1870 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1972), pp. 625 Google Scholar. See also Tyrrell, Alex, Joseph Sturge and the Moral Radical Party in Early Victorian Britain (London: Christopher Helm, 1987), pp. 79, 87, 122, 125, and 147 Google Scholar for O’Connell’s abolitionist labours.

12 Daniel O’Connell and the Committee of the Irish Repeal Association of Cincinnati (Cincinnati, Ohio: Catholic Telegraph Office, 1863), pp. 7–8.

13 There is evidence in a footnote from Richard Gray’s History of the Southern Sudan 1839–1889 that Cardinal Archbishop Manning was present at a November 1882 London meeting on the slave trade in Egypt. At this meeting Manning ‘contrasted the scanty attendance with the multitudes’ that used to attend. This implies that Manning had been involved for some time, although this may have been when he was still an Anglican. See Gray, p.188.

14 Tablet, 21 December 1861, p. 808; Tablet, 20 September 1862, p. 600; Tablet, 8 November 1862, p. 713.

15 Tablet, 11 May 1861, p. 297.

16 Tablet, 11 October 1862, p. 645.

17 ‘Causes and Objects of the War in America’ Dublin Review, April 1865, pp. 366–72.

18 Tablet, 16 August 1862, p. 523.

19 ‘The Negro in Africa and the West Indies’, Dublin Review, July 1866, pp. 140–1.

20 O’Neil, Robert, Cardinal Herbert Vaughan (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997), pp. 79110.Google Scholar

21 Ibid, pp. 189–91.

22 Vaughan, Bishop Herbert, ‘The Evangelization of Africa’, Dublin Review, January 1879, pp. 1889 Google Scholar.

23 Ibid, p. 197.

24 Hoppen, Theodore K., The Mid-Victorian Generation 1846–1886 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003), pp. 6623.Google Scholar

25 Letters of Manning to Lady Burdett, 19 March 1885 and 22 March 1885, Box 14, Folder 5, MSS 002, Manning Collection, Pitts Theology Seminary, Emory University.

26 Photocopy of Tablet, 6 June 1885, Box 12, Item 7, MSS 002, Manning Collection, Pitts Theology Library, Emory University.

27 The White Fathers were a Catholic Missionary group of secular priests founded by Lavigerie in 1868 to spread the Catholic mission experience within Algeria and further south and east into the Saharan region.

28 Francois Renault, Cardinal Lavigerie: Churchman, Prophet and Missionary, John O’Donohue, trans. (London: The Athlone Press, 1994), pp. 223–7.

29 Lavigerie believed that social and economic development went hand-in-hand with the chris- tianization of Central and Eastern Africa. The success of each was mutually-dependent on the success of the other. See Gray, Richard, Black Christians and White Missionaries (New York: Yale University Press, 1959), pp. 8998 Google Scholar for a concise description of the connection between Christian missionaries and modern development.

30 Cardinal Lavigerie to Brincat, 25 May, 1888, Documents sur la Fondation de l’Oeuvre Antiesclavagiste, as cited in Francois Renault, Cardinal Lavigerie: Churchman, Prophet and Missionary, John O’Donohue, trans. (London: The Athlone Press,1994), p. 369.

31 Granville was Gladstone’s former Foreign Secretary who had forced Zanzibar in 1873 to stop its exportation of slaves by sea.

32 Cardinal Manning to Salisbury, 3 June 1891, as cited in Leslie, Shane, Henry Edward Manning: His Life and Labours (London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne Limited, 1921), p. 267 Google Scholar.

33 Manchester Guardian, 1 August 1888, p. 3; Times, 1 August 1888, p. 4

34 Times, 1 August 1888, p. 4.

35 Ibid.

36 Cardinal Manning to Cardinal Lavigerie, 9 August, 1888, as cited in Leslie, Shane, Henry Edward Manning: His Life and Labours (London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne Limited, 1921), p. 266 Google Scholar.

37 Cardinal Manning to British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, August 1890, as cited in Purcell, Edmund Sheridan, Life of Cardinal Manning, Archbishop of Westminster Vol. II (New York: MacMillan and Co., 1896), p. 642 Google Scholar.

38 Ibid., pp. 642–3. Purcell comments in a footnote that the Prince of Wales stated at the time, ‘Cardinal Manning’s fervent eloquence reminded me of the late Bishop Wilberforce’. Bishop Samuel Wilberforce was the third son of William Wilberforce and Manning’s brother-in-law.

39 Catholicae Ecclesiae, Papal Encyclicals Online, (accessed March 24, 2011).

40 Pastoral Letter, 31 December 1890, #185, Folder E06 Bishop’s Circulars 1880–90, Box E01-E11, Nottingham Diocesan Archive.

41 See the reminder to diocesan clergy in Birmingham the following year in which Bishop Ilsley asked clergy to reread the Encyclical to their parishioners: Ad Clerum, 30 December 1891, Pastoral Letters of Bishop Ilsley 1–140, Birmingham Archdiocesan Archive.

42 Cardinal Manning to Lord Salisbury, 3 June 1891, as cited in Shane Leslie,Henry Edward Manning: His Life and Labours (London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne Limited, 1921), p. 267.

43 Cardinal Manning to Lord Salisbury, 25 June 1891, as cited in Ibid, p. 267.

44 Letter of Cardinal Manning to William Gladstone, British Library, MSS Add. 44250, f. 319–320.

45 Birmingham Daily Post, 25 November 1892, p. 5.

46 See for example: “‘Catholic Missions in Central Africa’, Dublin Review, April 1881; ‘Catholic Missions in Equatorial Africa’, Dublin Review, July 1881; ‘The Revolution in the Soudan’, Dublin Review, April 1884; ‘The Destiny of Khartoum’, Dublin Review, April 1885; ‘The New Crusade’, Dublin Review, January 1889; ‘The Propogation of Islam’, Dublin Review, October 1893; ‘The Missionary Crusade in Africa’, The Month, December 1888; ‘Cardinal Lavigerie and his Work’, The Month, March 1889; ‘Cardinal Lavigerie’, The Month, January 1890; ‘Among the Slaves in Africa’, The Month, July 1891.

47 E.M. Clerke, ‘The New Crusade’, Dublin Review, January 1889, pp. 1–2, 5–7, 11–12.

48 Ibid., p. 24.

49 ‘Cardinal Lavigerie and His Work’, The Month, March 1889, pp. 323–4.

50 Ibid., p. 327.

51 ‘Cardinal Lavigerie’, The Month, January 1890, p. 138.

52 ‘Among the Slaves in Africa’, The Month, July 1891, p. 344.

53 Miers, Suzanne, Britain and the Ending of the Slave Trade (New York: Africana Publishing Company, 1975), p. 202 Google Scholar.