On May 22, 1787, a group of British Quakers in London formed the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which later became the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. They worked to educate the public about the abuses of slavery and sought the eradication of the slave trade. As its official seal, or engraved device and motto, the group chose the image of an enslaved African in chains kneeling with raised hands grasped together. Above the figure is the inscription, “AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER?”
Since no attempt was made to patent or copyright the seal, the image of the African in chains was repeated on a variety of objects. In this case, any copy was a good thing since it helped make the public more aware of the slave trade and the cause of the Committee.
This small snuff box was made of enameled copper set into a gilt metal mount. It was probably made in the Staffordshire region of England between 1790 and 1800, during the heyday of English enamel production. During this period, small enamel objects usually took the form of boxes for the taking of snuff, or tobacco, or for holding “patches,” or beauty marks, that women used to disguise imperfections on their skin. Small boxes were considered quite collectible and were often given as gifts.
The taste for decorative enamels came to England from France and the earliest enamels were painted by hand. However, the introduction of the transfer-printing process, which involved the use of engraved copper plates to “transfer” images printed on paper to enamel or ceramic objects revolutionized the industry, allowing companies to use less-skilled, and thus less-expensive, labor to decorate objects. The image on the snuff box was created using the transfer-printing process.
Almost no 18th-century English enamel was marked by the maker and consequently, we do not know who made this snuff box. By the turn of the 19th century, the quality of enamel production in England had declined and the demand for such objects stopped by the 1840s.
The most well known reproduction of the Committee’s seal was Josiah Wedgwood’s small medallion produced specifically for the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, of which Wedgwood became a member on August 27, 1787. His medallion was taken directly from the seal and was formed in a plaster mold using white jasper and black basalt.
Wedgwood sent a quantity of the medallions to Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia, himself a member of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, with the accompanying letter dated from London on February 29, 1788:
I embrace the Opportunity of a packet…to inclose for the use of Your Excellency and friends, a few Cameos on a subject which I am happy to acquaint you is daily more and more taking possession of men’s minds on this side the Atlantic, as well as with you. It gives me great pleasure to be embarked on this occasion in the same great and good cause with you, Sir, and I ardently hope for the final completion of our wishes. This will be an epoch before unknown to the world, and while relief is given to so many of our fellow creatures immediately the object of it, the subject of freedom itself will be more canvassed and better understood in the enlightened nations.
Wedgwood’s Slave Medallion was tremendously successful and quickly became an icon of the abolitionist cause. Examples were distributed and given away and soon made their way to different parts of Britain and the United States. Some were inlaid in gold on the lid of snuff boxes. Others were worn by ladies in bracelets or as pins for their hair.
The Committee’s seal has been called one of “the most influential and widely circulated imagery of slavery.” The design was widely copied by other artists and factories and applied to a variety of objects, mostly ceramic, including plates, pitchers, and tea canisters, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
The snuff box is currently on view through 2018 as part of Little Secrets, an exhibition at UAB’s Kirklin Clinic in Birmingham. The Slave Medallion is on view at the BMA in the Beeson Wedgwood Gallery.