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Overlooked: Darwin's Sisters, Aunts and Cousins
February 26, 2023
by William P. Meyers

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The Darwin and Wedgwood Women Were Anti-Slavery Activists

In doing some research on Charles Darwin, for a historical fiction piece I am working on, I stumbled across some very interesting facts about Darwin's sisters, his wife, and his female cousins. Perhaps I had previously missed this story, I can't imbibe all of popular culture, but I am certain it is not widely known. It should be. It provides important color for women and politics in England in the 19th century. My source is a history book, Darwin's Sacred Cause by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, published in 2009. It is a bit of a tome, so did not become super-popular reading. [Searching, I find it was reviews in the New York Times and elsewhere.] I suppose, too, that people who have toured the museums dedicated to the Darwin and Wedgwood families in England might already be at least somewhat aware of this story.

I will be brief, encouraging readers to borrow the book from their public library, or perhaps purchase one. Charles Darwin, the author of Origin of Species, was the son of Doctor Robert Darwin and Susannah Wedgwood. All four of his grandparents, Doctor Erasmus Darwin, his wife Mary, Josiah Wedgwood, and his wife Sarah, were active in the anti-slavery movement. In particular Josiah Wedgwood, creator of the Wedgwood pottery business, is thought to have been the chief financier of the anti-slavery movement.

Darwin's sisters, who were not being trained for professional lives, were all anti-slavery activists, as was his mother before she died in 1817, when Charles was eight years old. The Wedgwood and Darwin families met frequently, so Charles was also a childhood companion of the Wedgwood girls, daughters of Josiah Wedgwood II and Elizabeth (Bessy) Allen Wedgwood. Josiah II's sister Sarah, who did not inherit the Wedgwood business empire, did receive a significant fortune. Sarah was also a major supporter of the anti-slavery movement. The two youngest daughters, Franny and Emma, were just a bit older than Charles, and so were his main play companions when the families got together.

The anti-slavery movement had been around for decades by the time Charles and Emma were born, in 1809 and 1808 respectively. Much progress had been made in connecting both traditional Christianity and the more modern freethinking community to the anti-slavery cause, but progress in Parliament was slow. Parliament was still dominated by the aristocracy in the House of Lords, and by landed interests, including controllers of pocket boroughs, in the House of Commons. Slaves who grew and processed sugar cane were the main source of income to many wealthy aristocrats and merchants. The Industrial Revolution itself was largely funded by the flow of money from the slave colonies, until it became self-sustaining.

The anti-slavery movement had been around for decades before the Somerset Decision of 1772 declared that slavery did not exist within Great Britain, and that any slave setting foot on British soil became free. This decision was a major precipitating factor for the American Revolution and the events that led up to 1776. Partly in reaction to this, partly because the Caribbean English colony slave plantations were mostly owned by the British elite, Parliament did not follow up by banning slavery throughout the empire. The anti-slavery movement decided to focus on the slave trade. It was only in 1807 that the slave trade was outlawed, and for decades after that the British Navy, among its other duties, did what it could to intercept slave ships. Interestingly, in the United States, when the Constitution was written, Article I, Section 9 was known to allow for the importation of slaves until at least 1808. Importing slaves from outside the U.S. was abolished in 1808, but slaves could still be traded within the United States. Within the British Empire slavery was finally abolished with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

In 1833 Charles Darwin was just 24 years old and his future wife Emma was 25. Abolition did not end the problem. Vague ideas of races, varieties, and subspecies within a given species (debated by scientists) had already been seized upon by slavers, largely American at this point, as a basis for their system. If Africans were not the same species as Europeans, then enslaving them was no sin, according to the racists. Darwin, his wife, and his extended family continued their fight against unfair treatment of people based on their nation or region or origin.

The story of the Wedgwood and Darwin women, within the fight against slavery and other injustices, is doubtless an interesting one. It is only touched upon in Darwin's Sacred Cause, providing context for the great man himself. Best known is Josiah Wedgwood's youngest daughter Sarah Elizabeth, who never married. She was the author of at least one widely-circulated pamphlet, British Slavery Described. She launched the North Staffordshire Ladies Anti-Slavery Society in 1828, when Charles Darwin was 19 and studying to enter the clergy at Cambridge College. Emma was active in the society, which among other things promoted a boycott of sugar sourced in the West Indies (Jamaica and other British sugar colonies).

Hopefully this important story will become better known. While I intend to continue to focus on Charles Darwin himself, it would be a good topic for someone who wants to show how a reform can take multiple generations to achieve. It shows how women in the 18th and 19th century contributed to activist causes, despite the handicaps they faced from gender discrimination.

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