Time to honour Suffolk's forgotten hero

ON Christmas Day 1817, Suffolk-born Thomas Cooper and his wife Ann arrived at a Jamaican sugar plantation. The Unitarian minister had been engaged to instruct 400 slaves in the ways of Christianity: perhaps because their owner wanted to improve their spiritual well-being; perhaps because he hoped it would make them more compliant and less likely to rebel.

ON Christmas Day 1817, Suffolk-born Thomas Cooper and his wife Ann arrived at a Jamaican sugar plantation. The Unitarian minister had been engaged to instruct 400 slaves in the ways of Christianity: perhaps because their owner wanted to improve their spiritual well-being; perhaps because he hoped it would make them more compliant and less likely to rebel.

Trading in slaves had been outlawed by the British Government a decade earlier, but slaves were still more than propping up the economy in the West Indies, the United States and other parts of the Americas.

The Coopers, essentially rural folk, cannot have imagined what they would find at the end of their long journey; but the experience of their three-year stay changed their lives and helped give the campaign for the abolition of slavery a crucial second wind.

They were sickened by what they saw, and said so. Cooper would later write: “Liberty seems evidently to be the natural right of every human being.”

You may also want to watch:

One of his accounts tells of three elderly female slaves being flogged because they were late arriving for work in the field - the whipping taking place just outside the window were the Coopers were having their breakfast. How could anyone not feel like protesting?

“The state of morals and religion is as bad as can . . . be imagined, both among Whites and Blacks,” he would contend.

Most Read

Then there was Thomas's own maid-servant, who became pregnant by an overseer - probably raped. Sadly, the baby died. That was viewed as a financial loss for the estate - a potential slave dead - and so money was deducted from the minister's salary!

After they returned to Britain, Thomas Cooper published a vivid and powerful eyewitness account of his findings. This caused a sensation and helped rekindle the fire of those hoping to stamp out slavery once and for all.

Slave-owners, he wrote, “flourish by preying on the blood and sinews of that vast host of miserable beings whom the government allows them to hold in oppression”.

The slave system was “notoriously most unfriendly to the production of life and . . . tends directly to its destruction”.

Vested interests hit back, of course. Both Thomas and his wife were lamblasted. “I am become an object of brutal attack for having presumed to tell unpleasant truth in the ears of the oppressors of the unhappy sons of Africa,” he wrote.

Cooper later gave evidence to Parliament, showing that while the trade might have ended, the lives of slaves in the West Indies were still marked by brutality and depravity.

The Rev Clifford Reed stumbled upon details of Cooper's campaign and believes history ought not to have forgotten him.

The Ipswich Unitarian minister explains: “At that time the abolitionist movement had had one big triumph - they'd got rid of the slave trade - but that had been hard work. The idea was being put about that maybe things were better (for the slaves). Some of the abolitionists were getting old, tired, and it may be that something of the steam was beginning to go out of it, even though most of those people knew perfectly well that the real enemy was slavery itself and not just the slave trade.

“I'm not going to claim too much for Cooper - I'm not going to say he's another Wilberforce - but I do think he was one of those people who helped re-ignite the cause with his revelations. The slave-owners could no longer pretend 'Oh, things have improved now.'

“He did cause a considerable furore in the newspapers and the slave-owners tried to rubbish him. They came down on him and his wife with what you might call character assassination. But Cooper stuck to his guns. He wouldn't shut up and kept on talking about it.

“Then, when the issue of complete abolition came up and Parliament started having hearings about it, Cooper was one of those called to give evidence - and of course he used his account. In that sense he did play - and I don't know exactly how you'd quantify it - a significant part in bringing about the abolition of slavery itself.

“Those who thought the abolition of the slave trade was enough, he proved them wrong. And those who pretended slavery wasn't so bad, he proved them wrong. And for those who knew slavery was the real enemy, he provided new evidence - a new impetus.”

Thomas Cooper's willingness to stand up and be counted - along with that of his wife, who must have been a great supporter of his - is even more creditable in light of his country town heritage.

Husband and wife both hailed from quiet Framlingham. Thomas, born in 1791or 1792, was apprenticed to tailor John Hart when still quite young, but showed academic talents and was induced by the Unitarian minister to prepare for the ministry.

As non-conformists were at that time not allowed in the universities, they had founded their own institutions for learning: the Dissenting Academies. Cooper studied at one in East London and then spent three years ministering in Moretonhampstead in Devon, between Exeter and Dartmoor.

It was then that estate owner Robert Hibbert decided that Christian instruction would benefit both his 400 slaves and himself, and chose Cooper to go out to Jamaica.

Intriguingly, Hibbert was also a Unitarian.

In those days there were slave-owners in all the denominations, just as there were abolitionists in all the denominations, says Clifford Reed.

“This was an example of a slave-owner appointing a pretty inexperienced young man, as he was then, who went out with the job of preaching to the slaves. Heaven knows what Cooper expected. It would be lovely to know.

“He would have known something of the slavery issue, because the abolition of the slave trade had already occurred some years before. He may have thought, as Hibbert himself liked to believe, as did others, that the abolition of the trade had improved the conditions of the slaves in the West Indies - the argument being that, with the salve trade gone, they could no longer replace losses and so they had to treat their slaves better.

“They propagated this myth that slaves were really quite content and happy and well looked after.

“As to whether they believed it, I don't know. I suspect some of them did. Hibbert, although he owned the estate and had been born in Jamaica, he lived in this country. He hadn't been to Jamaica in years; he lived in Bedfordshire!

“It may be he genuinely believed that by sending Cooper out there he could actually improve things. But when Cooper got there, he found that things had not improved at all for the salves: that all the brutality and degradation still went on. What he commented was that not only were the slaves themselves brutalised and degraded, the people who were in charge of them - the managers and the overseers - were utterly brutalised too. Slavery was, in and of itself, evil. And so he did what he could over there.”

The experience, says the Rev Reed, must have also been a terrible challenge to Cooper's faith because he'd been sent by a man of the same denomination and who, by all accounts, was in many ways a very nice and generous man.

“In fairness to him (Hibbert) he had actually reduced the output of his estate by 25%, so not to work them so hard. He wasn't an 'evil' man, but he was a good man involved in an evil trade. But for Cooper it must have been difficult that this man had sent him into a situation of utter horror. He had to deal with that, and it radicalised him in his beliefs.”

Unfortunately for the owners, hopes of turning heathen Africans with their own identities into models of honesty, gentleness and patience - whose compliance would be rewarded with eternal life - went badly wrong.

Many owners claimed the Bible encouraged slavery, says the Rev Reed, but when slaves discovered they were not driven cattle but mortal beings, a powerful desire for liberty and justice quickly grew.

“When they read the Bible they found the story of the Exodus” - the fleeing of Hebrew slaves from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. “Also, in the New Testament, they found Paul saying that within the Church there was no such thing as bond and free: you are all one in Christ Jesus. It was saying 'You are all on the same level'; and so it didn't take long for the slaves to work out that Christianity did not support slavery.”

Thomas Cooper was sent back to England in 1821: possibly because he was causing a fuss; almost certainly because the Christianity he was promoting might, it was feared, encourage the slaves to rebel.

Back in England, his conscience didn't allow him to keep quiet. He wrote his account, first published in the Unitarian journal The Monthly Repository. In 1824 it was given wider publicity by being published as a book, Facts Illustrative of the Condition of the Negro Slaves in Jamaica, by the Anti-Slavery Society.

In 1832 he gave evidence to Parliament as the abolition of slavery in the British Empire grew closer.

Clifford Reed believes Thomas Cooper did missionary work around the country before returning to his hometown of Framlingham in 1854 as minister of the Unitarian congregation. Ann, the woman who stood by his side during his anti-slavery crusade, had sadly died by this time, though he had a second wife, Phoebe.

Cooper was minister in Framlingham until he retired in 1874, and apparently became friends with the rector, who was initially disapproving of his brand of theology! “He doesn't appear to have been a particular firebrand when he came back,” adds the Rev Reed with a smile.

Thomas Cooper died in the autumn of 1880, at the age of 88, and is buried in the town.

Clifford Reed came across the Thomas Cooper story only when he was doing some research work on one of the old families connected with Framlingham Meeting House. He read a reference that one member of this family, Ann Woolnough, had married a Unitarian minister who had gone to Jamaica.

“This interested me, because my wife is Jamaican and I've been to Jamaica several times. So I thought 'I must follow this up.'”

He dug and dug, but material wasn't easy to come by.

He struck lucky with Dr Williams's Library in London, the top research library on English Protestant nonconformity, which held Cooper's writings. “One can go there and read the primary sources. It is powerful. It's horrific the things he describes, and he feels it very strongly.”

Unfortunately, Thomas Cooper's profile is low in the wider world. As far as the Rev Reed knows, there's no memorial to the minister or Ann. Would he like to see a plaque or something similar?

“I think it would be nice. We know he lived in the manse - which is the house next to the Meeting House, though it's not the manse any more - and we have the Meeting House itself; so there are buildings associated with him where such a plaque could go.

“In this particular year, when we are thinking about slavery, the fact that Framlingham produced a man who did play a significant role in the abolition of slavery, I think Framlingham should be proud of someone like that and remember him.”

History isn't just about dead men; it teaches us lessons about how to live now. In the past, people would preach in favour of slavery. Happily, that's all changed. But, as Clifford Reed says, “It does remind us always that we have to keep things under review: that we have to examine what we're doing as a society, and are there evil things happening that we are just accepting and not questioning?”

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter
Comments powered by Disqus