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Josiah Wedgwood and the Abolition of the Slave Trade

Josiah Wedgwood, the English potter, was an original member of the Lunar Society, a group of prominent figures in the Midlands, including industrialists, natural philosophers, and intellectuals. Matthew Boulton, Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley, and the author and abolitionist Thomas Day were members of the social club formed to discuss issues with other like-minded individuals.

In 1773 Thomas Day wrote the epic poem The Dying Negro, which may have been partly responsible for arousing Josiah’s practical opposition to the slave trade. Wedgwood joined the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade on or around 1787. Later that same year, using an adaptation from the design from the seal of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in England and using the phrase “Am I not a Man and a Brother?” from the poem, Wedgwood enlisted William Hackwood, a modeler at the factory, to design a cameo. 

Wedgwood White Jasper Slave Medallion modeled by William Hackwood, with raised “AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER?”

Additionally, in 1788, Josiah Wedgwood sent 400 of the medallions to Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia; Franklin was to have distributed them among his many friends. At that time, Franklin was president of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. Wedgwood’s interests went much further than the production of the cameo. As a member of the Committee, he was also very involved in “promoting publications, meetings and petitions, and in canvassing the support of anyone whose voice might command respect.”

Principally designed in black and white jasper, Wedgwood distributed the cameo free to all those concerned with the movement of abolition. Some were mounted as jewelry and worn by notables promoting the cause of justice, humanity, and freedom. Worn by both men and women, the abolitionist cameo was very fashionable in the late 18th century.

Skinner’s April sale of European Décor & Design will feature an 18th century slave medallion.

Consider Reading : Encaustic Wedgwood and its Historical Origins


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