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 Celestine Edwards, editor of Lux, ¾ figure, standing at table with an issue of Lux. Taken in South Shields.

Courtesy of the National Archives

Challenging Racism and imperialism: Celestine Edwards in Sunderland

Essay by Vanessa Mongey

Celestine Edwards could never stay in one place for too long. Born around 1857 from parents who had survived slavery, he was the youngest of nine children. He grew up in the small mountainous British colony of Dominica in the Caribbean. 

 

Twenty years before Edwards was born, the British Empire finally abolished slavery and paid £20 million (equivalent to £17 billion today) to slave owners to compensate for the loss of their ‘property.’ Learn more. Enslaved people received nothing. In addition, only children under the age of six were freed immediately: others were bound as apprentices to their former enslavers for up to six years. Many protested and walked out of the plantations, forcing Britain to abolish the apprenticeship system on 1 August 1838. Learn more.

Following the abolition of slavery, men of African descent did not gain access to local legislatures. Unemployment was high in the Caribbean. Most unskilled jobs were on the same plantations where formerly enslaved people had been exploited and tortured: many refused to return there and work for low wages. The government built railways, tried to improve sanitation, and expanded the schooling system but these initiatives were often not sufficient.

 

Many West Indians looked for work in England, in French and Spanish colonies and in Central America. Edwards’ family sent him to school in the neighbouring British colony of Antigua. Edwards became a sailor and travelled the world for a few years, eventually settling in Sunderland in 1880 after briefly living in Edinburgh and Newcastle.

From sailor to preacher 

Edwards earned a living as a building worker but his real passion was public speaking. He participated in the temperance movement and became a lay preacher for the Methodist church and for the Christian Evidence Society. He eventually moved to London where he regularly preached in Victoria Park on Sunday afternoons, warning against alcoholic drinks with condemning secularism. In 1892, he launched the paper, Lux, as part of his Christian and anti-imperialist campaign. He also became the general secretary of the Society for the Recognition of the Brotherhood of Man and edited its monthly journal, Fraternity.

 

A fervent Christian, Edwards linked the ravaging legacy of slavery in the Caribbean with imperial expansion in Africa. European empires led a series of military campaigns against African nations and empires in the late 1890s. Until then, their presence had been confined to coastal outposts. European capitalist industrialisation spurred demands for new markets and access to raw materials like palm oil and rubber. Two main arguments drove the Scramble for Africa: the first was a movement to stamp out slavery and the second was a desire to spread Christianity.

Between the late 1880s and the onset of World War II, anti-slavery activism experienced a revival with organizations in Britain, Italy, France, and Switzerland fighting the continued existence of slavery and slave-trading in Africa: slavery became a focal point of humanitarian and imperial interest. This period is often known as ‘Scramble for Africa.’ The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 led to the partition of the African continent by various European powers with little regards to existing political and ethnic lines.

 

A fervent Christian, Edwards often clashed with other Christian missionaries who advocated the evangelisation of Africans. A Black man living in Britain, he often faced racial prejudice and paternalism. Many pseudo-scientific theories justified the invasion of foreign territories by portraying non-white people as either racially and culturally inferior or children who needed to be guided and ‘civilised’ by European values. Learn more.

Lectures in Sunderland and Newcastle

Edwards tirelessly spoke against imperialism and racism. Drawing large crowds all over the country, he mixed religious lectures with discussions of the legacy of slavery in the Caribbean but also warned against British imperialism in Africa, especially in South Africa and Uganda.

 

              "If the British nation stole no more, they have stolen enough. If the British nation has not murdered      enough, no nation on God’s earth has."

 

 Edwards gave public lectures in Sunderland almost every year, speaking at the Assembly Hall on Fawcett Street (now destroyed) and at local churches. In his lecture 'The Negro Race and Social Darwinism' in September 1891, he invoked Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection to advocate for human capacity for development. Africa was the birthplace of humanity, Edwards argued, and the Atlantic Slave Trade followed by imperialism had robbed Africans of the opportunity to fulfil their destiny.

The Sunderland Daily Echo reported that,

 

"Mr Edwards dealt at length with the theory of evolution, and said that Darwin had somehow got the negro race mixed up in his book, and had stated that in his opinion it was somewhere in Africa that the human race first originated from the ape. The lecturer then dealt with the various objections raised against the negro, and caused much amusement by the comparison between negroes and white men. The lecture was listed to with great attention, and was much applauded, Mr Edwards concluded a fine peroration by saying that the time as coming, and coming fast, when public opinion would be turned, and it would be found that given equal opportunity and equal time, that the negro race would show as honourable a record as any race with which the earth was blessed."

Denouncing racial oppression as a legacy of slavery, Edwards told a Newcastle audience in 1892:

 

"My ancestors proudly trod the sand of the African continent, from their home and friends were dragged into the slave mart and sold to the planters of the West Indies … The very thought that my race should have been so grievously wronged is almost more than I can bear… Of the condition of the people today I but tarry to say that by diligence, thought and care they have given the lie to many a false prophet who, prior to their Emancipation, sought to convince the world that the black man in all respects unfit for freedom … their position … today is over which I proudly rejoice. To their futureI look with confidence."

Transatlantic solidarity: Celestine Edwards & Ida B. Wells


Edwards spent most of his life defending human rights across the globe. He not only campaigned against the legacy of slavery in the Caribbean, racial prejudice in Britain, and imperialism in Africa, he also turned his attention to racial terror in the United States. He actively supported the U.S. activist Ida B. Wells.

 

Born into slavery in Mississippi, Wells was a civil rights advocate and journalist who led an anti-lynching crusade in the United States. Slavery ended when the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War led the 13th Amendment (1865) which constitutionalized emancipation. The 15th Amendment (1870) granted African American men the right to vote. In practice however, Southern states passed segregation and disenfranchisement laws known as ‘Jim Crow’ laws that barred African Americans from voting and segregated schools, restaurants, and public accommodations. Learn more.

Mob violence, or lynching, targeted hundreds of African Americans in the 1890s (over 4000 people were lynched between 1877 and 1950. Learn more). Wells visited places where people had been killed and interviewed eyewitnesses. In 1892 Edwards arranged for the printing of the British edition of Well’s lectures on lynching and wrote a preface addressing the global history of slavery. In 1893 and 1894, Wells gave two speaking tours across Britain and Edwards accompanied her as she raised awareness about anti-Black violence in the United States.

The Newcastle Leader reported that,

 

"Miss Wells is a young lady with a strong American accent, and who speaks with an educated and forceful style, gave some harrowing instances of the injustice to the members of her race, of their being socially ostracized and frequently lynched in the most barbarous fashion by mobs on mere suspicion, and without any trial whatever. These lynchings are on the increase, and have risen from 52 in 1882 to 169 in 1891, and 159 in 1892. Her object in coming to England, she said, was to arouse public sentiment on this subject. England has often shown America her duty in the past, and she has no doubt that England will do so again."

Wells forged another interesting transatlantic connection while she was in Newcastle in 1894. She interviewed the Quaker Ellen Richardson who had formally purchased the freedoms of anti-slavery advocates Frederick Douglass and Williams Wells Brown fifty or so years earlier. Both men escaped from slavery; both wrote autobiographical narratives; and both toured Britain to drum up support for the abolition of slavery in the United States.

 

With the publication of his memoir Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845 Douglass gained international prominence and embarked on a tour of Britain. Learn more. He visited Tyneside in August 1846 and lodged with Ellen and Anna Richardson. The sisters launched a campaign to raise funds and purchase his freedom. Five years later, Wells Brown a toured Britain and received a warm welcome in Newcastle. The Richardsons also helped to secure his freedom officially. Read William Wells Brown ‘s Three Years in Europe, or Places I have Seen and People I have Met).

 

The initiatives of the Richardson sisters were controversial. On the one hand, many anti-slavery activists refused to give money to enslavers under any circumstances. On the other hand, the Fugitive Slave Act in the United States meant that self-liberated people like Douglass and Wells Brown could be re-enslaved if captured. Aware of this dilemma, Wells interviewed the 85-year-old Richardson at her home and noted that

"Mr Douglass had all along asserted his right to be free, and theoretically he was. Practically he was still liable to be arrested as long as he was in the United States and that was why he was enjoying the freedom of Great Britain at that time. When the good news was told him that he as indeed free, and he was presented with the bill of sale for himself, he was only told that it was through the generosity of English friends. Needless to say, he returned home at once and established Frederick Douglass’ Paper with money that had been given him by the English people for that purpose."

Inter-Ocean, 28 May 1894

The intense pace of public lectures took a toll on Edwards. His health collapsed. Donations were raised so that he could return to his family in the Caribbean. He arrived at the home of his brother in June 1894 and died the following month. He was not even forty years old.

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