In an earlier post, we examined the powerful and touching friendship between Olaudah Equiano and Peter Peckard, Master of Magdalene and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. In this post, we record Peckard’s contribution to the abolitionist debate.
Even before meeting Equiano, Peckard had made the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade a passionate and deeply felt campaign. Indeed, it must have been Peckard’s reputation as an abolitionist which inspired Equiano to write to him to request a meeting. Peckard’s library, now housed in the Old Library at Magdalene College, had an excellent collection of books on the geography and history of the world, including the 40-volume Universal history (1760), of which volumes 36 and 37 dealt with Africa. This became an important source for Peckard in arguing for the potential of legitimate African/European trade relationships, as an alternative to the appalling slave trade. He collected pamphlets on the slave trade by Granville Sharp (an early leading London campaigner), which he had elegantly bound.
Peckard had been nominated to give the University sermon in Great St Mary’s, the University church, on the Feast of King Charles the Martyr, 1784. He seized the opportunity to promote abolition by opening up wider reflections on civil rights and good government to embrace ‘the natural equality of the human race’, and urge that we should therefore ‘honour all men’: ‘Piety, benevolence and loyalty recommended’. He created a stir by abandoning the prescribed prayers in order to pray for ‘our brethren in the West Indies, so outrageously ill-used’. Although this was not the first occasion on which he had preached to the University a diatribe against the slave trade, it was a subversive and electrifying event, long remembered in Cambridge. The young Thomas Clarkson of St John’s College Cambridge was in the congregation, an experience which a few months later inspired him to write his famous essay on the subject.
As vice-chancellor in 1784-85, Peckard took what proved to be an essential step in the movement to abolish the movement of slaves across from Africa to the colonies. He set the topic for a university Latin prize essay questioning the morality of slavery. This essay competition was won by Clarkson, who thereby discovered his vocation (reputedly while taking a break riding back to Cambridge from London) and subsequently, devoting himself to the campaign for abolition.
Clarkson’s ‘Essay’ (1785), and his History of the rise, progress and accomplishment of the abolition of the African slave trade by the British Parliament (2 vols, 1808) are the products of this commitment, Clarkson translated his Latin essay into English and it was published as An essay on the slavery and commerce of the human species, particularly the African (1786, revised & enlarged edition 1788). Horrifying details of the Atlantic slave trade were carefully researched. He founded the Anti-Slave Trade Committee in London in 1787, and recruited a member of his College, William Wilberforce, to head-up the campaign in parliament.
When he came to write his History, Clarkson set forth visually his acknowledgement of Peckard as the man who had inspired him: his ‘hydrographical chart’ represented the abolition movement over time as a river with tributaries: Clarkson placed Peckard at the head of the ‘activist’ stream, with himself second, and Wilberforce way down in ninth place.
Apart from inspiring and setting the Clarkson’s essay topic, Peckard contributed a great series of passionate anti-slave trade sermons, between 1783 and 1795, including many of the most galvanic heard in Cambridge since the Reformation. Some half-dozen of them were published, preaching that God had made ‘of one Blood all the Sons of Men’.
Am I not a man? And a brother? – with all humility addressed to the British Legislature (Cambridge, 1788): this 100-page pamphlet by Peckard was published anonymously, the author believing this would be more effective. After rehearsing the arguments for abolition, he then examined at length – using his extensive reading about Africa – such things as African capacity for music, poetry, medicine, religious understanding and moral exhortation, so that it could be clearly proved that Africans are men, with sensitive capabilities entirely comparable with those of Europeans. He especially praised the writings of Ignatius Sancho and the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, as part of this major investigation.
‘Am I not a man? and a brother?’ became the campaign slogan, displayed on the seal of the Anti-Slavery Society. Peckard may well have invented it; he certainly helped to launch it, while Josiah Wedgwood’s accompanying slave cameo was endlessly featured on mass-produced campaign buttons, medallions and chinaware, and used to decorate brooches, bracelets, and snuff boxes. For more on the medallion, see the Victoria and Albert Museum account.
The campaign for abolition was enthusiastically and energetically supported by the Fellows of Magdalene, especially Professor William Farish (an influential mathematician whose achievements will be discussed in a forthcoming blog post to commemorate the three hundredth anniversary of his arrival at Magdalene as a sizar in 1724), the President Richard Hey and his brother Samuel Hey. The University Senate’s Anti-Slave Trade Petition to Parliament (1788) was organised by Farish, and the wording strongly suggests the hand of Peckard. To coincide with its presentation, Peckard preached in Great St Mary’s a sermon on Justice and mercy recommended, particularly with reference to the Slave Trade. This fierce and fearless sermon was a personal triumph for Peckard, and the Cambridge Chronicle printed poems saluting him; one of the odes was by a Magdalene undergraduate.
Peckard was also Dean of Peterborough from 1792. His final sermon on the Slave Trade was delivered as Dean; National crimes the cause of national punishment: a discourse delivered in the Cathedral Church of Peterborough on the fast-day, Feb 25th 1790. It was a stupendous Jeremiad which must have shaken all who heard it. The idea that support for abolition was necessary for personal salvation and national redemption was a characteristic feature of arguments in the last phase of the movement.
Peckard was increasingly feeling his age, and proud that Clarkson became in a sense his instrument: ‘thus, through him, I look upon myself as in some small degree a Promoter of the glorious attempt to set the Slave at Liberty’ (1788).
Magdalene College awards an annual undergraduate prize named after Peckard for an outstanding essay on the theme of modern day slavery. Recent winners include HSPS students Ms Lily Zhang and Ms Caitlin Rajan, from Homerton College and Trinity Hall respectively. Ms Rajan will be awarded with the Peckard Prize on 12th October 2023.
by Professor Ronald Hyam (Archivist Emeritus)
with assistance from the Pepys Librarian, Dr M E J Hughes