In Black History Month, I wanted to write about – and honour – Thomas Anson.
In the knitting community, we have had much-needed discussion about issues around BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) knitters and designers; discussions happening on Instagram and Ravelry as well as other places. I’ve seen a not dissimilar dialogue going on in Living History communities, as well.
Several years ago, someone told me that a group doing living history for the 18thC period, had told a prospective member who was black, that he could only participate if he portrayed a slave. I was outraged. I told my friend to educate the group – to visit the Wilberforce House Museum in Hull, to see the range of lives black people lived in eighteenth century England; as cabinet makers lawyers, famous pugilists, writers, musicians, craftspeople, artists, pub landlords, soldiers and sailors and working in various industries. Apparently the group wasn’t open to the idea that anyone black should portray anything other than a slave in a grand house. Which – apart from the obvious racism – also shows a woeful ignorance of history.
In the context of this, it isn’t hard to understand why tone policing – suggesting that people should ‘calm down’ when it comes to reacting powerfully to racism – is objectionable, and should be objectionable to anyone with an ounce of common sense. Or a sense of history. It’s always wise to listen and learn and throw away preconceptions. I’ve always believed passionately that the kind of history I write about belongs to us all – is universal.
That said, an unflinching look at textile history inevitably includes discussion of slavery. Slave labour produced US cotton and as, around the 1790s, linen fabrics were being replaced by cotton – it was inevitably a profound part of textile history. Inventions like Eli Whitney’s cotton ‘gin (1794) had a human cost (slavery, as the new invention made cotton production cheaper and perceived economically viable with slave labour) – just as the introduction of gigging mill machines caused so much misery in the UK (leading to the Luddites and their desperate, doomed bid for survival).
Researching my book, I realised pretty quickly that I also had/have plenty to learn. Researching my own family history, I discovered I’m related twice over (but only by marriage) to the well known abolitionist, William Wilberforce. Around 1800, the Poll Books for this very village revealed that only 3 people here had the vote. All 3 were amongst my farming ancestors. All 3 voted for Wilberforce. (This area of Yorkshire was his constituency and Wilberforce came from the same Methodist background as my yeoman farming ancestors). This made me proud. Yet later, I realised – it wasn’t the full story. And it isn’t the full story for any of us with UK ancestry.
Until 1807, there were slaves in Britain as well as slaves working on plantations owned by the British in the Caribbean and elsewhere. The UK also imported upto 90% of US cotton production as well as importing cotton from India. And this continued long after abolition had happened in the UK; meaning the UK economy still supported slavery and also exploited cheap labour, for decades after slavery had technically been abolished, here. In other words: we still benefited from slavery happening in the US, and exploited our colonial power in our own sphere of influence; benefitting from cheap labour, when it wasn’t slave labour. Yes, slavery was abolished, here, decades before it was in the US. But Britons still benefited from slavery in other countries.
For those of you who know Jane Austen’s ‘Mansfield Park’ – remember avuncular Sir Thomas Bertram? And his lengthy business trip to… Antigua. Totally not commented upon as cruel or unusual. Yet, I doubt his plantation was run by anyone other than slaves. Austen’s “dead silence” on the subject is instructive; this unspoken complicity would have been par for the course in genteel society. Wanting to police the tone of debate now is not dissimilar to Austen – and others’ – complicit “dead silence”.
Textiles, as a fundamental part of life, were inextricably stained with slave and colonial labour and even the most ardent abolitionist, who read about and studied abolition (as many Georgians did), and made a studious attempt to avoid items produced by slave labour – for example avoiding sugar from the Caribbean (as many Georgians did) – still wore clothing made from US or Indian produced cotton, made by slave labour in the US and labour resulting from colonial exploitation in India. In other words, then as now, those people who tried their best to do the right thing still, inevitably, and unconsciously, benefited from the privilege they automatically got from being white. Then, as now.
In my upcoming book, one chapter takes a look at the role slavery and colonial exploitation took in textile history. One story I stumbled on, that of Thomas Anson, was particularly pertinent to my interest in Yorkshire textile history. I will get to Thomas’s story after I’ve covered a handful of the clothing references I found in runaway slave adverts. In the book, I also cover runaway apprentices and servants – all clearly regarded as such “non people” that they were often only described in terms of their clothing, not themselves.
I want to say upfront; I hope that to look at these brief descriptions of runaway slaves and apprentices, in advertisements for their return, is not to disrespect or objectify the people whose lives were ripped apart by slavery. I researched and wrote in the spirit of honouring lives that historians have often ignored and also in an attempt to understand something, however infinitessimal, about what ordinary people wore, or how their lives related to textiles; what their textiles could say about them and society.
Much of my work has been about finding the names of otherwise anonymous craftspeople; re-discovering even just fragments about them and their lives and reclaiming them back into the light from obscurity. Looking for clothing references, I inevitably found many describing the clothing of runaway slaves, servants and indentured apprentices. The shocking runaway slave notices tell us, unintentionally, of the misery of the people described – but also are revelatory of the slave owners’ attitudes. Here, from Scotland:
“RUN away on the 7th Instant from Dr. Gustavus Brown’s Lodgings in Glasgow, a Negro Woman, named Ann, being about 18 Years of Age, with a green Gown and a Brass Collar about her Neck, on which are engraved these Words: ‘Gustavus Brown in Dalkieth his Negro, 1726.’ Whoever apprehends her, so as she may be recovered, shall have two Guineas Reward, and necessary Charges allowed by Laurance Dinwiddie Junior Merchant in Glasgow, or by James Mitchelson, Jeweller in Edinburgh.”
Edinburgh Evening Courant, 13 February 1727
I hope Ann managed to stay away, and get out of that degrading, cruel collar, whilst she was at it. And that the two guineas reward offered wasn’t enough to tempt someone to betray her. Two guineas seems to be the standard price placed on runaway slaves’ heads in the UK, in the early part of the eighteenth century.
Ann’s runaway notice describes only her “green gown” but other slaves’ notices describe the textile skills that might make them employable, by someone who could be harbouring them:
“Run away from her Master at Black-Heath, A Negro Woman, aged about 25 Years, pretty fat, (went by the Name of Cælia) and is indented by the Name of Cælia Edlyne, and has several Years to serve. She has a Cross, the Mark of her Country, on one Cheek, just under her Eye, and walks lame, being a little inclinable to the Dropsy: She Washes, Irons, Clear-starches, and Darns remarkably well. Whoever secures her, and gives Notice at the Bar of the Jamaica Coffee-House, so that she be brought to Justice, shall have Two Guineas Reward; but whosoever entertains her, shall be prosecuted with the utmost Rigour.”
Daily Journal, 8 August 1728
Another woman, named Billow, managed to make her escape on Christmas Day and with some clothing:
“A Thin Negro Woman, named Billow, run away from Capt. Healey Harris on Christmas-day in the Morning; when she went away had on a Blue Stuff Gown, and took with her two other Gowns, one a Strip’d Cotton Gown, the other an Olive Colour Gown fac’d with Blue; and likewise a Bed and 1 Pair of Blankets, &c…”
Daily Journal, 2 January 1731
Everyday clothing is rarely described and it’s even more rare for clothing to be extant, so these mentions – even in their grim and tragic context – were valuable.
Amongst the runaway slave notices, I discovered a remarkable man’s story. A story which overturned my naive view of the past on remote Northern English farms.
A slave called Thomas Anson escaped from a farm in Dent, Yorkshire. He was ‘owned’ by a yeoman farmer, Edmund Sill, in Whernside, high in the Yorkshire Dales, in the area most famous for its handknitters, the ‘terrible (awesome) knitters of Dent’.
Dent knitters worked for the Kendal market, knitting stockings and other items including a kind of cap worn by slaves, called “bump-caps”, which were described as being “made of a very coarse worsted, and knit a yard in length, one half of which is turned into the others, before it has the appearance of a cap”. (ie: The cap is knitted twice its finished length with one half of it being the lining for the other half).
The Old Hand-Knittters of The Dales, p.80
It may be possible that Edmund Sill commissioned knitters to make bump-caps and/or stockings for sale in the Caribbean; they could have been transported there by his brother, John. Thomas may well have been brought from the West Indies at some earlier time, imported the same as the rum and mollases that were later shipped to England from the Sills’ plantation in Jamaica.
“From Dent in Yorkshire, on Monday the 28th of Aug last. THOMAS ANSON, a Negro Man, about five Feet six Inches High, aged 20 Years or upwards, and broad set. Whoever will bring the said Man back to Dent, or give any Information that he may be had again, shall receive a handsome Reward from Mr. Edmund Sill of Dent, or Mr. David Kenyon, Merchant in Liverpool.”
Williamson’s Liverpool Advertiser, 8 September 1758
Whether Thomas worked as a farm labourer, or was maybe, like everyone else in Dentdale male or female, engaged in hand-knitting, we cannot know. It’s more than likely Thomas did both knitting and labouring. Sill’s brother, John, worked as a merchant in Liverpool, owning two ships the Dent and the Pickering, which sailed for the West Indies in 1757, one for Jamaica and the other headed for St.Kitts.
We can assume the Sills had been involved in trading in the Caribbean for some time. Thomas Anson made his escape before Sill’s ships were back in Liverpool.
Thomas made his brave escape from Dent Town; the absolute epicentre of the Yorkshire handknitting industry. We don’t know whether Thomas made his escape on foot or by horse but he must have done well to put enough distance between himself and any pursuers.
John Sill was later to buy a plantation worked by 266 slaves. As the Former British Colonial Dependencies’ Slave Registers (now on Ancestry.com) show – British slave owners were spread across various echelons of society; they were vicars’ daughters and farmers; businessmen, maiden aunts and the “genteel”. Often people who had inherited a group of fellow human beings they would never meet or see, who were forced to work in the Caribbean, thousands of miles away. Slaves of British people were usually managed by overseers. This sheer distance between many British owners and their slaves probably explains why there were so many apparently unlikely slave owners. What they had done, what they were perpetuating, was not something they confronted.
Researching a textile mill in remote Lancashire or Yorkshire, the historian may be unaware that the business concerned profiteered from slave labour (usually no records are extant) or, as in the case of the manufacture of bump caps, the existence of slavery in another country – long after slavery here had been abolished.
Thomas Anson escaped successfully and joined the 4th dragoons, where he served until 1768 aged 30, as a trumpeter. (Dragoons is interesting as it suggests Thomas could ride – presumably something he learned in his time on the Sills’ farm. Dragoons were trained to ride into battle then sometimes dismounted to fight, unlike cavalry).
Thomas’s story reminded me of Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’. Heathcliff, an orphan found in Liverpool (the port many sailed to and from the Americas), is treated like a slave on the farm Wuthering Heights, when his adopter dies. How many other people of colour were in these remote places, working as slaves or later, maybe unindentured servants? Many more than was previously thought, I suspect.
Thomas was discharged on half pay as a Chelsea Pensioner. I am not sure whether he is the first known black Chelsea Pensioner, or not – according to “Runaway Slaves in Britain”, there were at least two other black dragoons in Thomas’s company, although both were captured and returned to their “owners”:
But either way, I was cheering him on when I read of his escape. (Thomas’s story was originally researched by Audrey Dewjee, see link above).
We can only wonder whether, when enslaved on the remote farm, Thomas was expected to entertain Dent knitters by playing an instrument, when they ‘ganged a sittin’’ – the large groups of knitters who gathered in alternate homes, at night. It is reported that the knitters took turns to read to eachother, or some would sing or play and instrument whilst the others knitted. Thomas may have ganged a sittin’ as in the mid eighteenth century, men as well as women, knitted.
Having only recently caught up with some of the discussion in our community, I’d like to finish by saying this. To discuss issues like the need for BAME/BIPOC designers, and concepts like white privilege and tone policing, as a community, isn’t ‘virtue signalling’. The very concept of ‘virtue signalling’ is in itself another form of gaslighting; intended to perpetuate the old patterns of behaviour and perpetuate privilege. Our knitting and textile history belongs to us all. Understanding it better, benefits us all. Taking a long, hard look at the sometimes brutal side of history informs us about our lives, now – the human cost of economic forces; the casual cruelty of the privileged few to the less privileged many; and how the geographical distance between ourselves and those who make our clothing, inures us to their poor conditions, low wages, damaged lives.
As we’re seeing at the moment: those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat its mistakes.