An extremely important figure in eighteenth-century British decorative arts, Josiah Wedgwood succeeded in making his porcelain factory one of the greatest companies of Great Britain’s early industrial era. He was also an enlightened philanthropist who devoted the final years of his life to promoting the abolition of slavery.
Meeting in London in 1787, the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade commissioned the design of an official seal. The proposal that was approved featured this image of an African man in chains, surrounded by the catchphrase “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” It was a very clever choice of iconography. At first glance, we think we see a man who has been humiliated reduced to begging upon his knees before a cruel master. However, upon closer inspection, it is actually a true Christian shown in prayer—the noblest of poses in Western art—his gaze serenely turned towards heaven. In this way the slave is a child of God among others, which should have been enough to make his condition of bondage intolerable to any Christian in Enlightenment Europe.
Enthralled with this design, Wedgwood had it reproduced on small medallions and arranged their wide distribution amongst the public. Ways of publicizing a just cause, they were worn as rings, brooches and hair ornaments.
In Britain, the abolition of the slave trade would be voted in only in 1807, twelve years after Wedgwood’s death, while that of slavery would be enacted in the United States only in 1865.