Number 212 Whitechapel High Street is an unremarkable stretch of London street today — though doubtless home to good works as the site of the Methodist Church’s Whitechapel Mission. But two centuries ago, it was one of the linchpins of a much more ambiguous charitable institution… and it has a pivotal role in the history of London.
For this was the site of the White Raven tavern, and it was from here that the controversial Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor disbursed its funds, and launched a plan to resettle the ever-growing non-white population of London back in Africa. It’s a period in London history that’s uncomfortable to recall today… but part of London history it is.
The image of London as a white city before the large-scale immigrations of the 20th century is, of course, a myth. While those living in rural England would likely never have seen a Black, Asian or Chinese face, the story in the port cities of England, in London, Liverpool and Bristol, was different.
One of the major reasons was slavery, with many Black people being brought to London as servants, but there were also Black seaman who had signed up on British ships and found themselves settled, or marooned in London, alongside ‘Lascars’, as Asian seamen were known. And after 1776, many Black soldiers who had fought on England’s losing side in the American War of Independence, ended up back in London — refugees from retribution by the victors. Many suffered prejudice: though the word racism had not yet been coined a Black sailor seeking employment in London was unlikely to have much luck, and so many found themselves destitute.
And so it was that a group of London worthies established the Committee in in 1786 to help. But almost immediately they met suspicion from their beneficiaries — and little wonder. Among the founders of the committee were Thomas Beddington: a philanthropist, an abolitionist… but also a trader with the West Indies and a slaver. Alongside George Peters, the Governor of the Bank of England, there was John Julius Angerstein. Another self-professed philanthropist, Angerstein had grown so rich on his slaving estates in Grenada that he could stock his Pall Mall home with the finest collection of art in London. When he died, it would form the nucleus of the new National Gallery’s catalogue. And there was General Robert Melvill, Governor of the slave colony of Grenada.
Samuel Hoare, a Quaker and one of the founders of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was aboard too, as was Granville Sharp, who would become one of the most tireless campaigners for the rights of slaves in the celebrated Jonathan Strong case, but it was hardly surprising that many were sceptical about the motives of men so bound up in profiting from slavery.
Initially the alms distributed at the White Raven were for the relief of the Lascars, and then the Committee identified 250 ‘Blacks in Distress’, just 35 of them from the East Indies, the others originating from Africa and the West Indies. 100 of those said they had been in the Royal Navy before being washed up in London. Significant funds were raised, and distributed from the door of the White Raven, but the Committee soon had grander plans. Rather than trying to settle Black people in Wapping, Whitechapel and the City, how about finding a new home for them back in Africa?
London historians argue about the motives of the men. Were they trying in some small way to right the injustice of the countless million slaves who had been taken from Africa over the centuries? Or simply trying a little proto-ethnic cleansing of the streets of London, returning them to their once exclusively white status? And certainly Britain’s earliest attempts to resettle displaced Black people were less than successful. After the American Civil War, large numbers of freed slaves, and those who had fought on the losing side were offered the chance to resettle by the British authorities — in Nova Scotia. Not surprisingly perhaps, this experiment in a cold and unhospitable corner of America largely failed. The Committee, at their Whitechapel meetings, now set their eyes on a new state in Africa — Sierra Leone.
It’s a testament to how bad things must have been in London that any signed up to travel at all. The invitation, after being taken from Africa by force, transported halfway around the world in chains, and marooned in a foreign land, was to be uprooted once more, for a strange country most of them would never have seen (many of them would never have seen Africa at all, let alone Sierra Leone). to leave London and travel back to a part of Africa most of them had never seen. And yet, in October 1786, barges left London’s Wapping en route to three ships off Deptford (and thence to Africa). There were several hundred men, women and children aboard (they would be followed by another fleet from Portsmouth the following year).
Each signed an agreement that they would remain British subjects, and enjoy the protection of the Royal Navy, and each was handed a paper granted them citizenship of Sierra Leone. And in May 1787 they landed in ‘the Province of Freedom’ and set about building the new capital of Granville Town, named after Mr Sharp. The result was perhaps sadly predictable — disease and attacks from the local people cut a swathe through the colonists. But still they came.
The Committee continued meeting at Whitechapel’s White Raven in any event, and soon mutated into the Sierra Leone Company. The new colony, with its new capital Freetown, continued to welcome new settlers, including hundreds from the ill-conceived Nova Scotia experiment, and still they struggled. The new Africans found that their ‘protection’ from the British Government was a double-edged sword, with British companies holding trading rights for the colony, and their own ventures unable to thrive. The Sierra Leone Company refused to let the settlers have freehold of the land: the ‘freed’ Black settlers were still working for a company in far-off London. And the brave new world conceived in an East End pub was beginning to look horribly familiar.