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Servants, Ayahs and Alternative Employment *
Fighting for the Empire *
On the High Seas *
The Black Poor *
The Wealthy Few *
Black Loyalists *
Indian boy *

The Black Poor


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 Glossary - opens new windowpoor 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.

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List of Black people receiving Bounty from the Government (extract) - opens new window
Black People Receiving
Bounty from the
Government (242KB)
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| Transcript

Indians in Poverty

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.

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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 Compensation Board.

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 given out.

Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor, minutes of meeting held on 4 August 1786  - opens new window
The Black Poor Committee:
Indians, Smeathman and
Sierra Leone
(329KB)
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Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor, minutes of meeting held on 26 July 1786 - opens new window
The Choice of Sierra Leone
Document | Transcript


Agreement guaranteeing security required by Blacks being sent to Sierra Leone, 1786 - opens new window
Bound for Sierra Leone (178KB)
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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.

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Letter to Navy Commissioners from the captain of the Nautilus - opens new window
Equiano Protests
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Glossary - opens new windowOlaudah 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.

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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.

Passenger lists of the Atlantic and the Vernon - opens new window
The Passenger Lists
of the Vernon and
the Atlantic (435KB)
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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


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