Am I Not a Man and a Brother?

views updated

Am I Not a Man and a Brother?


By: Anonymous

Date: 1837

Source: The Library of Congress.

About the Artist: The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed in Britain in 1787 for the purpose of distributing anti-slavery literature and rousing public opinion against the slave trade. The primary source image was inspired by their official seal.


Long before the U.S. Civil War (1861–1865), the Quakers—also known as the Society of Friends—were staunch Abolitionists (opponents of slavery) both in the United Kingdom and in the United States. In 1787, a group of Quakers in London formed an organization called the "Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade." As part of the creation of the Society, several members designed a distinctive seal for its use, intended to be emblematic of its mission and belief system. The image they created was that of a kneeling African male, shackled at the wrists and ankles, bound by chains, bearing the caption "Am I not a man and a brother?" It was then made into a metal engraving that was used by the Society, and eventually adopted as emblematic of the cause of Abolitionists in the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere. The phrasing of the emblem ("Am I not a man and a brother?") took on progressively more philosophical and political meaning over time.

It is noteworthy that the original intent of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was purported to be much more specific than abolition of slavery—it was intended merely to focus attention on the malfeasance of process of the African slave trade—but not to abolish the whole of slavery, although that is what the logo that they commissioned came to symbolize. There is, however, considerable disagreement in that regard recorded in historic documents attributed to individual members of the Society, many of whom were completely opposed to slavery.



See primary source image.


As was the case in the United States, the history of the abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom progressed through several phases. In 1807, the importation of slaves to the British colonies was formally halted, although slaves remained in servitude throughout the British Empire. In 1833, all aspects of slavery were outlawed, both importation and ownership. However, slave owners were paid large sums of money (typically reported to be on the order of twenty million pounds) as part of the abolition, and they were permitted to retain their former slaves in a form of indentured servitude (an unpaid apprenticeship) for a period of one dozen years.

At a convention at Exeter Hall, London, in 1837, there was much outcry against the perceived unfairness of the apprenticeship programs, with many reports that they amounted to slavery under a different name. At that conference, the Central Emancipation Committee (CEC) was formed, with the goal of complete emancipation of all slaves throughout the British Empire. Again, the plantation owners and others who owned slaves were offered financial incentives for cooperation.

The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (BFASS) got its start at Exeter Hall in 1839, The goals of the BFASS were similar to those of the CEC but with a more global perspective—although much of their work continued to be focused on the British colonies for the next decade. Essentially, it was this group's mission to prevent former slave owners from imposing indentured servitude on the freemen (and women), and to raise money so as to offer financial assistance to former slaves who wished to establish independent living and working situations. The organization helped large numbers of former slaves relocate to Jamaica and the West Indies, to form small farming communities there.

The design portrayed in "Am I not a man and a brother?" became symbolic of a larger ideal, and made its way into the upper echelons of society. In effect, it transitioned from the simple insignia of a particular organization to an artistic and political statement adopted by people around the world who were opposed to slavery. The seal became a design imprinted on a Wedgewood cameo, and a considerable number of the cameos were shipped from the United Kingdom to the United States. From there, the design was made into medallions that were copied onto all manner of accessories, from bracelets to hair clips. The designs were worn by the populace who desired to make personal anti-slavery statements. That trend has continued, symbolically, to the present day, wherein people express their philosophical and political sentiments by displaying or wearing colored ribbons or bands associated with various causes ranging from cancer awareness to support for the Armed Forces.



Bennett, C.L. Africa in America: Slave Acculturation and Resistance in the American South and the British Caribbean. Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

Brougham, Henry Peter.Opinions of Lord Brougham on Politics, Theology, Law, Science, Education, Literature, Etc., Etc. Boston, Massachusetts: Adamant Media, Elibron Classics Division, 2005.

Fladeland, Betty. Men and Brothers: Anglo-American Anti-Slavery Cooperation. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1972.

Ripley, C. Peter, Ed. The Black Abolitionist Papers, Volume One: The British Isles, 1830–1865. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 1985.


Howard, Percy. "The Passing of Exeter Hall." The Civil Service Observer. 13(5) (1907): Inclusive.

Web sites

Privy Council Office. "Office Objectives and Structure.". 〈〉 (accessed April 25, 2006).

The Library of Economics and Liberty. "Contributor's Forum: The Secret History of the Dismal Science: Economics, Religion and Race in the 19th Century." January 22, 2001. 〈〉 (accessed April 25, 2006).