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Joseph Sturge (1793-1859): The Radical Businessman

Joseph Sturge

Joseph Sturge was a Quaker and a leading campaigner in the abolition movement. He visited the Caribbean several times and worked for emancipation with African-Caribbean and English Baptists. He was born in Gloucestershire the son of a farmer. After building up a successful business in Birmingham, with his brother Charles, he began to concentrate on the causes in which he believed.

He became secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society in Birmingham in 1826. He thought the London leadership too cautious and argued for greater public agitation. "The people", he said, "must emancipate the slaves for the Government never will." In 1834, following the 1833 British Emancipation Act, Joseph Sturge sailed to the West Indies. His aim was to study the 'apprenticeship' system that replaced slavery.    

He travelled extensively, talking directly to apprentices, planters and others involved. Upon his return he published his ‘Narrative of Events Since the first of August 1834' in the name of a African-Caribbean witness, referred to as 'James Williams' to protect his true identity in case of reprisals.  It showed that slavery was far from abolished.

Visiting the Caribbean again in 1836, he saw that little progress had been made. Working conditions were as harsh as ever. A letter to him from a group of Jamaican abolitionists described the system as ‘iniquitous and accursed'; a system that was becoming increasingly oppressive. Whilst in Jamaica, Sturge worked with the Baptist chapels to help find a way to establish Free Villages that would provide homes beyond the control of plantation owners after full emancipation.

On his return to England, he published 'The West Indies in 1837' which outlined the cruelty and injustice of the system of apprenticeship and continued to campaign for its end. He was supported by Quaker abolitionists such as William Allen as well as Lord Brougham, who spoke favourably of his work in the House of Lords. In 1838, Joseph Sturge founded the 'Central Negro Emancipation Committee' and led a March for Justice in Birmingham. With the support mainly of Nonconformists, he headed the movement for immediate and full emancipation. As a result, emancipation was brought forward by the British Government to 1st August 1838.

Sturge's work did not end there. In 1839, he found the 'British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society' - its objective was world-wide emancipation. The Society organized the World's first International Anti-slavery Conference, in London, in 1840. It attracted delegates from Europe, America and the Caribbean and included African-Caribbeans, women and many nonconformists. 

Joseph Sturge also helped found the Peace Society and continued to work on behalf of enslaved people worldwide.  In 1857, he purchased the Elberton Sugar Estate on Montserrat to grow limes and show that free labour was productive. Joseph Sturge died in 1859 but the society he founded still survives today as 'Anti-Slavery International'.  

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