Book Review: The Axe Laid To The Root – The Story of Robert Wedderburn

Robert Wedderburn was a writer, orator, publisher, agitator, and 'a notorious firebrand' of the 19th century who campaigned against slavery and for equality and justice for all. Born in Jamaica in 1762, to a black slave and her white Scottish owner, he was freed at birth as part of the sale of his mother. He grew up 'free' and when old enough came to England where he got involved with the Spenceans.

Thomas Spence, leader of the Spenceans, advocated revolution, not reform, stating baldly that, "if all the land in Britain was shared out equally, there would be enough to give every man, woman and child seven acres each". Wedderburn was one of the leaders, some say he became the leader after Spence's death, of his group of 'disciples'.

Post Waterloo, Wellington returned had home victorious to money and property but some 300,000 demobbed soldiers and sailors, many of whom were black, returned to an industrial slump. Wages were low, prices were held artificially high, and the hated Corn Laws caused riots due to famine levels of food. 1819 saw the St Peter's Field massacre where 50,000 people met to demand the reform and repeal of the Corn Laws, and the army responded with bloody brutality killing 11 and injuring 400.

Terrified of losing control of the masses, the government and ruling class named 33 leaders and agitators, including Wedderburn, and passed the 'Six Acts' which gave them powers to bring prosecutions for holding meetings or processions, publishing 'inflammatory material', and added fourpence tax to all newspapers and pamphlets. Organising legal protests became all but impossible without fear of imprisonment, transportation, or worse.

Against this repression, Wedderburn set up the Hopkins Street Chapel where he preached that revolution rather than reform was what was needed. He also argued against the Christian ministers in the West Indies who preached passive obedience to the slaves rather than Wedderburn's vision of revolution. Wedderburn saw strong links between the situation of the black slaves in the Caribbean and the disenfranchised poor of Europe.

Wedderburn narrowly missed being hung and decapitated, at the last such execution at Newgate, as part of the Cato Street Conspiracy – an audacious plot to assassinate most of the Cabinet. Wedderburn was clearly a great threat to the government, inspiring the poor to rise up and demand equality, and was eventually imprisoned for blasphemy.

This book is a tough read in places, the extracts from Wedderburn's actual speeches can be dense, but the story is really interesting if you persevere. It's stuffed with interesting titbits – did you know that in 1779 there were between10-20,000 black people living in England, yet by 1953 that figure had only increased to 25,000 despite the general population increasing fivefold. It's also tough to read as it's very graphic in its depiction of the brutality shown to the Africans forcibly transported to the West Indies and sold into slavery. But it sparked my interest to know more about the history of the time and the people involved.

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