In the summer of 2020, Sheffield joined much of the rest of the world in responding to the murder of George Floyd. Thousands gathered at Devonshire Green on 6 June to protest his killing and to address institutional racism in Britain. The event, along with the wider Black Lives Matter movement, reinvigorated discussion around Britain’s role in the trade and enslavement of Africans in the Atlantic world and its pernicious legacies.
Yet, the events of 2020 also highlighted Sheffield’s complex relationship with this history. Some proposed that a fitting response was a statue of or memorial to the renowned white female anti-slavery activist Mary Ann Rawson and the Sheffield Female Anti-Slavery Society (founded in 1825). The controversial proposal reflects the common view that Sheffield – unlike other cities in the UK – is not ‘particularly “known” for its part in the slave trade’, and instead had ‘a big part to play in the abolition of slavery’.
It is certainly the case that working-class people in Sheffield – and particularly local women such as Rawson – played a prominent role in the political campaigns to abolish the slave trade and slavery through the organisation of mass petitions and boycotts. This local history is important to highlight and remember. However, focusing on and often celebrating anti-slavery activism has obscured the wider set of connections between Sheffield and the mass enslavement of Africans.
There is a more complex, and often more troubling story of the city’s relationship with the enslavement of African peoples in the Atlantic world. Our research as part of the ‘Sheffield, slavery, and its legacies’ project demonstrates how Sheffield and its wider region had deep-rooted and long-lasting connections to the Atlantic slave economy.
We explore four types of such connections in our research: the economic ties between Sheffield manufacturing firms and the transatlantic slave system; the careers of the traders and ‘owners’ of enslaved Africans who were either born or lived in Sheffield; how wealth generated through slavery influenced the built environment of the local area; and the history of African and African-descended peoples in the Sheffield region between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.
Sheffield’s relationship with transatlantic slavery began in the 1660s, only a few decades after the first English plantation colonies had been established in North America and the Caribbean. In 1662, George Sitwell – an ironmaster born in Eckington and with business operations in and around Sheffield and Chesterfield – discussed with London merchants the prospect of producing sugarcane rollers and sugar boiling stoves in his iron foundries. These metal rollers and stoves would then be shipped to the Caribbean for use in the sugar industry, where enslaved Africans were forced to use them when operating the mill and boiling sugar. This is just one of many examples of the economic connections between Sheffield manufacturers and slave societies in the Americas between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.
The city’s ties to the Atlantic slave economy continued until 1888, half a century after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Manufacturers in Sheffield continued to supply goods to societies in the Americas where slavery persisted, such as the United States, Cuba, and Brazil.
There are examples of both traders and ‘owners’ of enslaved Africans who were either born or lived in Sheffield and its surrounding area at some point in their lives. Their wealth influenced the built environment and local economy through the construction of stately homes and investments in railway infrastructure (to give just two examples).
However, when compared with other British cities with maritime ties to Atlantic slavery, such as Liverpool and Glasgow, the traders in enslaved Africans and absentee owners of plantations worked by enslaved people were only a small minority of Sheffield’s population.
The most significant link between Sheffield and slavery was therefore the close commercial relationship between the city’s metalware manufacturers and business people who were deeply involved in the transatlantic slave trade and plantation production.
A good example of the links between Sheffield manufacturers and merchants who trafficked enslaved Africans across the Atlantic is the business career of the Liverpool-based trader William Earle, who was a participant in 97 slaving voyages between 1753 and 1787. Most of the ‘Guinea knives’ that Earle used to purchase enslaved Africans were supplied by Joseph and Benjamin Broomhead, ‘manufacturers of cutlery wares’ who were based in Fargate, Sheffield.
Sheffield was also an important centre for the manufacture of the ‘plantation hoe’ in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Prominent metalware manufacturers in Sheffield such as William Butcher, Joseph Smith, and Frederick Stones profited from shipping plantation tools overseas to the Americas, where they were used by enslaved Africans working long hours in the plantation economy under brutal conditions.
Plantation work carried out using hoes was a central part of the lived experience of enslavement for African and African-descended women, men, and children in the Americas. For instance, Sara Colquitt (pictured below in a photograph taken in 1936-38), a woman who was enslaved in Alabama and interviewed late-in-life during the 1930s, described how she worked in the fields ‘every day from ‘fore daylight to almost plumb dark’. She continued: ‘I usta take my littlest baby wid me. I had two chilluns, and I’d tie hit up to a tree limb to keep off de ants and bugs whilst I hoed and worked de furrow’.
Overall, Sheffield provides a complex and important case study for exploring Britain’s ties to transatlantic slavery. It provides insights into how inland manufacturing centres in Britain – and not just the better-known port cities – had deep and lasting connections to the trade in enslaved people and the production of slave-grown cash crops.
The example of Sheffield is also interesting because it demonstrates how British cities with sustained connections to the Atlantic economy (and thus slavery) could at the same time function as centres of radical anti-slavery politics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
These research findings – which are explored in much greater detail in the full report of our project – will hopefully play a part in reinscribing the history of Sheffield’s links to the transatlantic slave trade and plantation slavery into the city’s conventional historical narrative, providing a more nuanced understanding of this history, which encompasses both abolitionist campaigning and the various material benefits Sheffield and the wider region accrued from its economic ties to the enslavement of Africans.
One message that has come through loud and clear in undertaking the project, though, is the need for researchers to situate the topic of slavery as one part of the broader histories of African and African-descended people connected to Sheffield. For instance, we identified examples of African and African-descended individuals living in Sheffield and its wider region as early as 1695 and 1725, and also demonstrated how a number of formerly enslaved people visited Sheffield as part of their campaigns to abolish slavery (including the renowned African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass).
However, in order to establish a richer picture of African-Caribbean histories, institutional resources need to go towards amplifying stories that do not just centre on pain and suffering – or for that matter the business portfolios of white investors – but explore other aspects of lived experience, past and present. In this respect, we see Sheffield and Slavery as a beginning, rather than an end.
Dr Michael Bennett is an honorary research fellow in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. His research explores the merchants in the City of London who financed the development of the plantation system and African slavery in the British Caribbean. He is currently employed by the Bank of England and is working on a major new research project investigating the Bank’s ties to historical slavery and colonialism between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.
‘Sheffield, Slavery, and its Legacies’ was a knowledge-exchange project that ran between February and July 2021, supported by the National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF) and led by Dr R. J. Knight with Dr Andrew Heath, Department of History, University of Sheffield. Dr Michael Bennett worked on the project as a postdoctoral researcher, and Dr Alex Mason was the Knowledge Exchange Project Manager.
Cover image: Plantation hoes sold by Joseph Smith of Sheffield. Joseph Smith, Explanation or Key, to the Various Manufactories of Sheffield, with Engravings of Each Article (1816). 672 SSTQ, Sheffield Local Studies Library.