Poverty in Britain
In past centuries, poverty was a common experience for much
of Britain's population. Wages for the masses were low, and
when crops failed or manufacturing was depressed, workers
were often in danger of destitution. The poor
laws prevented many from starving, but did not keep them
out of poverty.
It is not known whether, through the centuries, Black and
Asian people in Britain were more likely to be in poverty
than the White population. Elizabeth
I blamed the 'great numbers of negars and blackamoors'
for consuming food in time of shortage, but this tells us
only about the queen's need to find scapegoats, not about
Black people's poverty. However, we do know that in the 1780s
there was a great deal of hardship and destitution among Black
people in London.
Black People Receiving
Bounty from the
Document | Transcript
In 1786, the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor was
founded in response to the numbers of destitute Indians walking
the streets of London. Lascars,
the Indian sailors who worked on East India Company and other
ships, were promised their passage home - but the Company
did not always fulfil its responsibilities and many of them
were set adrift in England. Historian Rozina Visram records
the plight of Lascars begging in Westminster.
Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor
The committee was soon handing out relief to other Black
people who had fallen on hard times. One group in particular
swelled the numbers of the destitute: Black
Loyalists who had fought on the British side in the American
War of Independence. Large numbers arrived after the British
defeat in 1782, and very few of them received help from the
The committee met regularly at Batson's Coffee House in London
to assess the problems facing the Black poor and organise
a solution. Relief came in the form of food. The committee's
agents also began distributing sixpence per person every day,
from two public houses. On 20 April 1786 it handed out 75
such doles. By September, nearly 1,000 people were receiving
money. The government paid more than half of the £20,000
The Black Poor Committee:
Indians, Smeathman and
Sierra Leone (329KB)
The Choice of Sierra Leone
Bound for Sierra Leone (178KB)
The Sierra Leone Scheme
The 'incredible number of these [poor] black men in
every town and village' came to the attention of businessman
and botanist Henry Smeathman. In 1786, Smeathman proposed
a plan that was accepted by the Black Poor Committee and the
government. He pledged to transport the 'troublesome
Blacks back to Africa' - to Sierra Leone, to be precise.
By doing so, he would 'remove the burthen of the Blacks
from the public forever'.
To the amazement of Jonas Hanway, the chairman of the Black
Poor Committee, Black people were reluctant to settle in Africa
(some, initially, wanted to move to Nova Scotia). But many
would not have known Africa, as they had not been born there.
Their biggest fear was of being captured and taken into slavery
in Sierra Leone.
The government and the committee tried a number of ways to
encourage and even force them to go. Payments to the Black
poor were now made only to people who agreed to go to Sierra
Leone. The government also gave the settlers a written agreement
that appeared to offer them some protection.
Equiano (Gustavus Vassa) was employed by the government
to arrange supplies for the journey. However, he was sacked
after complaining about the corruption and mistreatment of
the Black poor by Joseph Irwin, who had taken over the organisation
of the scheme after Smeathman's death in July 1786.
From the beginning, the colonisation scheme was prone to
disaster. Some 400 of those who signed the 'repatriation'
agreement refused to embark on the ships that were to carry
the settlers to Africa. These vessels - the Vernon,
Belisarius and Atlantic - were then held
up in the Thames, where the passengers endured wretched conditions.
The writer and Black leader Ottobah
Cugoano, who opposed the scheme, described how 'many perished
with cold and other disorders' while waiting to leave.
The ships left England on 9 April 1787 with
350 Black passengers (including 41 women) and 59 White women
(the wives or widows of Black men). During the voyage, 35
of them died. When the three ships reached Sierra Leone, conditions
were grim. Heavy rains made it difficult to build homes or
grow food. The rations brought from England were exhausted.
Many of the new arrivals died of disease. Their settlement
was destroyed by fighting between slave traders and a local
ruler. By 1791, only 60 of them survived.
The British government had failed to make any sort of alliance
with the inhabitants of Sierra Leone. Cugoano believed that
had such an agreement been sought, many more Africans in Britain
would have embraced the opportunity 'with great gladness
to reach their native land'.
The future of the new colony, known as the Grain Coast of
West Africa and renamed by the British as the 'Land
of Freedom', was left to an entirely fresh set of Black
Loyalists who emigrated from Nova
Scotia, in Canada. They
established a settlement which they named 'Freetown',
the capital of today's Sierra Leone.
The Passenger Lists
of the Vernon and
the Atlantic (435KB)
References and Further Reading
Beier, A. L., The Problem of the Poor in Tudor and Early
Stuart England, London, 1983
Norton, M. B., 'The Fate of Some Black Loyalists of the
American Revolution', Journal of Negro History,
58 (4), 402-26, 1973
Bevan, A., Tracing Your Ancestors in the Public Record
Office, London, 2002
Cugoano, O. (ed. Carretta, V.), Thoughts and Sentiments
on the Evil of Slavery, London, 1999
Fryer, P., Staying Power: The History of Black People
in Britain, London, 1984