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Born in Jamaica to an African-born house-slave master, Robert Wedderburn (1762-1835/6?) was a Unitarian, ultra-radical leader, and anti-slavery advocate in early nineteenth-century London.


Early Life

James Wedderburn was a Scottish doctor and sugar planter working in Kingston.[1] He sold Robert's mother Rosanna, then five months pregnant with his child, to Lady Douglas, stipulating that the child (Robert) should be free from birth.[2] Although he was free, Wedderburn was raised in a harsh environment, as his mother was often flogged due to her 'violent and rebellious temper' and was eventually re-sold away from her son.[3] Wedderburn was then raised by his maternal grandmother, a women known as 'Talkee Amy' and renowned for her oratory skills.[4]

To escape the insecurity and abuse of the plantation, Wedderburn signed on with the Royal Navy at age 16.[5] On the ships, food and living conditions were horrific, and it was during this time that Wedderburn became increasingly aghast at the violent punishments used by the British both on their ships and in their colonies.[6] He arrived to the Kingdom of Great Britain at age 17 and lived in St. Giles among a community of runaway slaves, Jamaican ex-servicemen, and other immigrant minorities including Jews, Lascars and Irish.[7] Known as the 'London blackbirds', this ethnically diverse subculture is reported to have been relatively free of the racial discrimination so prevalent elsewhere in this era. However, as people living on the margins, the 'blackbirds' often relied on criminal activity in order to survive.

Through means that remain unclear (it is possible that he had been an apprentice in Jamaica or had learned while in the Navy), Wedderburn became a journeyman tailor.[8] As he referred to himself as a 'flint' tailor, this suggests he was registered in the book of trades and shared values typical of other artisans - including pride in his craft and a belief in economic independence.[9] Unfortunately, the instability of his career made him increasingly susceptible to the affects of a trade recession, inflation and food shortages, and he was soon reduced to part-time mending work on the outskirts of town.[10] By now married and desperate for money during one of his wife's pregnancies, Wedderburn visited his father's family at Inveresk on the outskirts of Edinburgh. As this proved unsuccessful (apparently his father disavowed him and he was sent away with some small beer and a bent sixpence), Wedderburn dabbled in petty theft and keeping a bawdy house.

Religious conversion and activity

In 1786, Wedderburn stopped to listen to a Wesleyan preacher he heard in Seven Dials. Influenced by a mixture of Arminian, millenarian, Calvinist, and Unitarian ideas, he converted to be a Methodist, and soon published a small theological tract called Truth Self Supported: or, a Refutation of Certain Doctrinal Errors Generally Adopted in the Christian Church. Although this work contained no explicit mention of slavery, it does suggest Wedderburn's future path in subversive and radical political action.

Politically influenced by Thomas Spence, Wedderburn published an anti-slavery book entitled The Horrors of Slavery in 1824.

To promote his religious message, he opened his own Unitarian chapel in Hopkins Street in Soho in London. He also campaigned for freedom of speech and in 1831, at the age of 68, he was arrested and sent to Giltspur Street Prison. While imprisoned, Wedderburn wrote a letter to Francis Place, which is his last mention in the historical record. Although it is assumed he died in prison, the exact year is unknown.


McCalman, Iain (1986). "Anti-Slavery and Ultra-Radicalism in Early Nineteenth Century England: The Case of Robert Wedderburn". Slavery and Abolition 7: 99-117.  

Chase, Malcolm (2008), Wedderburn, Robert (1762–1835/6?), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.), Oxford University Press,  



  1. ^ McCalman, 100."
  2. ^ Chase.
  3. ^ McCalman, 100."
  4. ^ McCalman, 100-1."
  5. ^ McCalman, 101."
  6. ^ McCalman, 101."
  7. ^ McCalman, 102."
  8. ^ McCalman, 103."
  9. ^ McCalman, 104."
  10. ^ McCalman, 104."

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