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Monday, 25 April 2011

Samuel Romilly and Social Reform

Samuel Romilly entered the House of Commons as MP for Queenborough. When Lord Grenville was invited by the king to form a new Whig administration he invited Romilly to became his solicitor-general.

As solicitor-general Romilly advocated reform of the criminal law, especially in the areas of corporal punishment and capital punishment. He also criticised the policy of flogging in the military. Romilly also opposed transporting criminals to penal colonies or confining them in prison ships or common gaols. He led the campaign to restrict the death penalty. In 1808 he obtained the repeal of the law which had made pickpocketing a capital offence. However, most of his colleagues did not share his liberal views and was unsuccessful in persuading them to pass very much legislation. For example, Romilly twice introduced bills to abolish capital punishment for theft to the value of at least 40s. from a house or ship on a river, and on each occasion they were lost or defeated. Similar attempts to reduce the punishment for shoplifting goods of a minimum value of 5s. also ended in failure.

Samuel Romilly played an important role in the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act (1807). Romilly felt it to be "the most glorious event, and the happiest for mankind, that has ever taken place since human affairs have been recorded."

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Sierra Leone Company

In 1786 Jonas Hanway established the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor. This was an attempt to help black people living in London who had been victims of the slave trade. Simon Schama has argued in Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and Empire (2005) that the harsh winter of 1785-86 was one of the factors that encouraged Hanway to do something for the significant number of Africans living in poverty: "In the East End and Rotherhithe: tattered bundles of human misery, huddled in doorways, shoeless, sometimes shirtless even in the bitter cold or else covered with filthy rags."

Granville Sharp came up with the idea that this black community should be allowed to to start a colony of free slaves in Sierra Leone. The country was chosen largely on the strength of evidence from the explorer, Mungo Park and a encouraging report from the botanist, Henry Smeathman, who had recently spent three years in the area. The British government supported Sharp's plan and agreed to give £12 per African towards the cost of transport. Sharp contributed more than £1,700 to the venture. Several supporters of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade invested money into what became known as the Sierra Leone Company. This included William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, Samuel Whitbread, William Smith and Henry Thornton.

Monday, 4 April 2011

James Zwerg and the Freedom Riders

Transport segregation continued in some parts of the United States, so in 1961, a civil rights group, the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) began to organize Freedom Rides. After three days of training in non-violent techniques, black and white volunteers sat next to each other as they traveled through the Deep South. James Farmer, national director of CORE, and thirteen volunteers left Washington on 4th May, 1961, for Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. The group were split between two buses. They traveled in integrated seating and visited "white only" restaurants. When they reached Anniston on 14th May the Freedom Riders were attacked by men armed with clubs, bricks, iron pipes and knives. One of the buses was fire-bombed and the mob held the doors shut, intent on burning the riders to death. James Peck later explained what happened: "When the Greyhound bus pulled into Anniston, it was immediately surrounded by an angry mob armed with iron bars. They set about the vehicle, denting the sides, breaking windows, and slashing tires. Finally, the police arrived and the bus managed to depart. But the mob pursued in cars. Within minutes, the pursuing mob was hitting the bus with iron bars. The rear window was broken and a bomb was hurled inside. All the passengers managed to escape before the bus burst into flames and was totally destroyed. Policemen, who had been standing by, belatedly came on the scene. A couple of them fired into the air. The mob dispersed and the injured were taken to a local hospital." The surviving bus traveled to Birmingham, Alabama. A meeting of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee decided to send reinforcements. This included Zwerg, John Lewis, and eleven others including two white women. The volunteers realized their mission was extremely dangerous. James Zwerg later recalled: "I called my mother and I explained to her what I was going to be doing. My mother's comment was that this would kill my father - and he had a heart condition - and she basically hung up on me. That was very hard because these were the two people who taught me to love and when I was trying to live love, they didn't understand. Now that I'm a parent and a grandparent I can understand where they were coming from a bit more. I wrote them a letter to be mailed if I died. We had a little time to pack a suitcase and then we met to go down to the bus."