The Anti-Slavery Protest at the Great Exhibition That You Never Knew Happened

You might remember my blog post in October about William and Ellen Craft, their escape from slavery in the United States, and their time in London in the 1850s and ’60s. Well, one thing I didn’t have time to include in the last post took place in that latter period. In 1851, during the world-famous Great Exhibition.

You may have heard of the Great Exhibition. A huge exhibition celebrating British industry and empire, modelled on similar exhibitions in Europe at the time. It was held in Hyde Park in, essentially, a huge greenhouse, known as the Crystal Palace, and was intended as a feat of engineering itself. A behemoth of glass and iron, over 560 metres long and thirty metres high.

The Crystal Palace (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Exhibition was a massive success: over 100,000 exhibits and visited by six million people in just six months. It generated a profit of tens of millions of pounds in today’s money, which funded the building of Albertopolis next door, dedicated to education and knowledge. A legacy it’s maintained to this day; the part of London where you’ll find some of London’s most impressive museums, like the V&A and Natural History museums, aka South Kensington.

Exhibition Interior complete with tree! (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Most of us in the UK will have covered information like this at school. What doesn’t seem to feature in the syllabus, however, is the anti-slavery protest that also took place at the Exhibition. Even as a self-professed history nerd, having done a History degree, and training and working as a professional London tour guide, I only stumbled across this story last year!

The nineteenth-century was not just the Great Exhibition, but also the height of the British Empire, so it is impossible to separate the Exhibition from the context of slavery and imperialism. Exhibits didn’t just feature British industry, but also products from all over the Empire. These objects were often on display out of admiration for their ingenuity, beauty and craftsmanship, but often in quite a racist or insensitive context, demonstrating the purely economic value of the Empire with very little reliable information about the objects’ provenance.

The United States was also in attendance at the Great Exhibition and had a number of exhibits on display (such as cotton bales, representing a chief export of the U.S.), but despite being a country where a system of slavery still existed, they made no reference to the enslaved population who were actually producing this wealth. Instead, entirely un-ironically, they had a sculpture on display by Hiram Powers entitled The Greek Slave. The sculpture, which depicted an enslaved Greek girl about to be sold to a Turkish harem, was much more palatable to white audiences and had been hugely popular in the U.S.. To them, this was the innocent Christian girl, powerless and in need of rescue, about to be taken by the Turkish “heathens”. It was in this context that the Crafts, William Wells Brown, and fellow abolitionists staged their protest.

(Photos: New York Public Library, Public Domain)

For some context about the Crafts, if you haven’t read my blog post about them, they were born in the US, escaped slavery in Georgia and fled to Philadelphia, settled in Boston, but were subsequently forced on the run again, which is when they made their way to the UK in 1850. While in London, they wrote and published their story and toured the country, lecturing about their experience and the horrors of slavery, so they were relatively well-known in the UK and had made friends within the UK abolitionist circuit, such as William Wells Brown and George Thompson.

It was this group who in 1851 decided that they were going to cause a stir at the Great Exhibition, arguably the biggest event of the year and one that was sure to be in the public eye. As William Wells Brown described it, the exhibition was “one great theatre, with thousands of performers, each playing his own part”, a “more various assemblage of the human race, than ever before was gathered under one roof”. Not only was it the opportunity to reach lots of people, but also people from all different backgrounds and nationalities. Brown himself attended the exhibition fifteen times and was “pleased to see such a goodly sprinkling of my own countrymen in the Exhibition – I mean coloured men and women – well-dressed, and moving about with their fairer brethren”.

William Wells Brown (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

On Saturday 21st June 1851, William and Ellen Craft and William Wells Brown entered the Crystal Palace. Each of them walked arm in arm with a white abolitionist of the opposite sex. In a letter afterwards from one of the protest participants William Farmer, he wrote that the “arrangement was purposely made in order that there might be no appearance of patronizing the fugitives, but that it might be shown that we regarded them as our equals, and honored them for their heroic escape from Slavery.”
They had specifically chosen a Saturday as one of the busiest days of the week and also the day most likely to be attended by members of the upper classes and aristocracy. As it happened, those in attendance included the Duke of Wellington, Prince Albert, and even the Queen herself, Victoria.

Farmer, in his letter, is very clear that it was only Americans who were put out by this outrageous display of equality amongst the group: “the New York Broadway bullies” and the “Southern bloodhounds” who “felt themselves thoroughly muzzled; they dared not even to bark, much less to bite”, but I have no doubt that they were not the only white people to be offended by such behaviour.

We have to imagine this small group of at least eight protestors, steadily making their way through the Exhibition, amidst “jealous” and “sneering” looks, which Brown noted from some of the visitors. On reaching the U.S. exhibit and Powers’ Greek Slave, part two of the protest began. They produced an image from Punch Magazine called the Virginian Slave, which had been published earlier that month as a direct commentary on Powers’ statue and the hypocrisy of a democratic nation relying so heavily on slave labour (see below). The parallels between the two are evident, but this time it is a Black woman on the pedestal, the base inscribed with the motto of the United States, “E pluribus unum” (“Out of many, one”), and she is leaning against a post draped with the American flag. There are obviously still issues with this image – the objectification of the female form and the fact that she is very much the helpless victim with no agency of her own – but we can still understand the message that they were trying to convey: that you are clearly only counted amongst the “one” of the motto if you have the right colour skin. Notably, this feature in Punch notably made no mention of the British involvement in the slave trade and the fact that slavery had been legal in the Empire less than twenty years before… Slight irony there.

The Greek Slave (Photo: Karl Thomas Moore, Wikimedia Commons) | The Virginian Slave (Photo: Public Domain)

At this point, the protest was still silent. The small group of abolitionists stood before the statue, holding up the image of the Virginian Slave. You can imagine how powerful that must have been, particularly with Ellen Craft standing not far away. A well-dressed, self-assured Black woman – a direct contrast to the inhumane treatment of the Virginian Slave and the three million enslaved people still in bondage in the United States. What Ellen thought about her role in the protest and how much she contributed to it, we don’t know.

By this point, they had drawn a small crowd. By remaining silent, they had hoped to prompt a reaction or discussion, but, as Farmer wrote, “the gauntlet, which was unmistakably thrown down by our party, the Americans were too wary to take up”, so the protestors began to talk amongst themselves about the evils of slavery. William Wells Brown then took the image of the Virginian Slave and placed it beside Powers’ sculpture. He announced to the crowd, “As an American fugitive slave, I place this ‘Virginia Slave’ by the side of the ‘Greek Slave,’ as its most fitting companion.”

The Greek Slave on display at the Great Exhibition (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

It didn’t take long for fragile white egos to crumble, however. Barely had the protestors begun to move away when the image of the Virginian Slave was snatched down from its display.
I know, the caucacity.
The group returned to confront the man, but “whatever were his feelings, his policy was to keep his lips closed.” I guess he hadn’t been expecting to justify his bigotry.

This small but defiant group of Black and white abolitionists, in amongst tens of thousands, made sure that they were noticed by everyone. They stayed at the Great Exhibition for six or seven hours, visiting every corner and every exhibit of the Crystal Palace. Arm in arm, chatting and “taking ices and other refreshments”, giving no indication they were aware that the eyes of the world were upon them.

It’s the least we can do not to forget such bravery.


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Sources

Primary

  • W. Craft, E. Craft, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, (1860, republished 1999)
  • W. Farmer, ‘Letter to American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’, (26th June 1851)

Secondary

  • ‘Exhibiting Race “under the World’s Huge Glass Case”: William and Ellen Craft and William Wells Brown at the Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace, London, 1851’, L. Merrill in Slavery & Abolition, 33.2, (2012)
  • ‘The Great Exhibition 1851’, Historic UK, (accessed 16/03/2022)

Published by Amber | Rambling London Tours

Hello, my name is Amber. A few things about me. I am a born and bred Londoner so I absolutely adore my home city, but I love travel too, which means I'm always excited about exploring new places as well as taking other travellers (like you) around the places I love. I have been working in tourism on and off since 2014, both in the UK and briefly in Australia, and in 2020 I qualified as a professional Blue Badge Tour Guide for London and the South East of England. I love history, I have a History degree, and I think tourism is the perfect way to make sure I always keep learning, meeting new people, while also giving me a career where the world is my office! Hopefully I will have the pleasure of meeting you too.

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