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Stephen Isaacson

Key advocacy                        Two articles in Fraser's Magazine and a published speech delivered in Camberwell 
Life                                         1798 - 1849
Matriculation year               1816
Places connected                 Barbados; British Guiana

Born in Suffolk, Stephen attended Christ's before being ordained as a priest in 1824. He worked for six years as a rector in British Guiana, during which time he became an outspoken defender of West Indian slave owners, before returning to England, where he became a curate.

Connection to enslavement

Stephen married Maria Killekelly in British Guiana in November 1826.¹ Maria was the daughter of Bryan Bernard Killekelly, a Barbados merchant.¹ ²  Stephen claimed compensation for three enslaved people in Barbados in 1836, 'in right of' his wife, for a total of £60 4s 0d.³

Public advocacy

Stephen became a public advocate for West Indian slave owners during the public debates about emancipation during the late 1820s and 1830s.⁴


The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography suggests that Isaacson was influential in securing the periodical, the Christian Remembrancer as 'an outlet for anti-abolitionist opinion'.⁴


Most notably, however, he wrote a pair of articles in Fraser's Magazine in 1830-31, and made a public speech in August 1832 at Mansion House Chapel, Camberwell, which was published as a text shortly afterwards.⁴ Indicative quotations from each instance of public advocacy are given below.


'The Colonists versus the Anti-Slavery Society (No. 1)', Fraser's Magazine


Isaacson wrote two articles for the magazine, entitled respectively 'The Colonists versus the Anti-Slavery Society (No. 1)' and 'The Colonists versus the Anti-Slavery Society. Chap. II'. published under the pen name 'A Late Resident'.⁵ ⁶ ⁷


In the first article, Isaacson argues that 'an immense population are at present in the enjoyment of far greater temporal comforts than the British peasant', wherein 'poverty and crime are scarcely known amongst them - at least crimes of a deep dye - but this body are termed slaves'.⁶ He advances his paternalistic line of argument, suggesting that in the West Indies, enslaved people were in fact 'vassals', afforded greater protection than they would be in Africa, because of the supposed role of the law in shaping how an enslaved person could be treated.


The effectiveness of propaganda produced by the advocates of emancipation is apparent in how defensively Isaacson argues: he suggests that the British public has erred in even identifying slavery by that name. The British, he claims 'are accustomed to apply the epithet of slavery to the least restraint of free will, and to overlook the many ties of mutual dependence which unite every community'. Enslavement, he seems to argue, is not so bad as the British public imagines. Indeed, he even posits that various English labourers perform an 'infinitely greater degree of labour', yet are 'far worse recompensed' than enslaved people in the West Indies.

Throughout the article, public campaigners for emancipation are denounced as 'demagogues' and 'itinerant quacks', guided by 'active malignity' in how they depict slavery to the British public.

'The Colonists versus the Anti-Slavery Society. Chap. II', Fraser's Magazine

In his second article, Isaacson redoubles his arguments.⁷ Having asserted that the 'law of England prevails through Jamaica and the Leeward Islands', he lauds the 'comparative security afforded to the slave - the power by which he obtains an inalienable right to property - and the personal protection from cruelty or imposition, which he can claim at the hands of the local magistrate against his master'.


Clearly conscious of growing public awareness of how inhumanely enslaved people were treated, Isaacson repeats his criticism of the 'inveterate malice of the Aldermanbury junta' [i.e., the Anti-Slavery Society]. Allegations of 'inhuman treatment and unmitigated severity' against enslaved people were false, Isaacson argues, existing only in the 'distempered imagination of the libellous faction, with whom the charge originated'. He even provides a table, claiming to show that enslaved people were treated less harshly than soldiers or sailors for equivalent offences.


Recounting the story of one private of the Foot Guards, sentenced to 500 lashes for falling asleep at his post in London, Isaacson taunts the parliamentary supporters of emancipation, declaring 'it is not necessary … to cross the Atlantic for the purpose of discovering occasions for exercising your humanity'. Attempting to paint his opponents as hypocritical and selective in their sympathies, Isaacson writes contemptuously that 'not one doting driveller is found to express pity for the free British sufferer'.


His tone becomes more accusatory over the course of the article. Having dismissed its advocacy for enslaved people as misguided and superfluous, Isaacson writes: 'What then [does] the Anti-Slavery Society aim at? Clearly the destruction of the Colonies!'


Isaacson later returns to a preferred theme from his first article, arguing that enslaved people were 'accumulating property to an extent unknown among the lower classes of this community'. He embellishes this claim with abandon: enslaved people 'are known, not infrequently, to lend large sums of money to the whites upon interest'. Isaacson assures the reader that he, as the author, 'can, from personal observation, vouch for the authenticity of every particular'.

He makes explicit his unease at the impending meeting of parliament, 'under the auspices of a new ministry', which he fears will initiate 'unconditional emancipation' under the influence of 'the cant and jargon of ignorant enthusiasts', rather than his characterisation of life in the British West Indies. Isaacson was not hyperbolising for its own sake: he clearly regarded himself as part of a broader public battle about enslavement and emancipation, in which the interests of slave owners were mortally threatened by changes in government.


'A Vindication of the West-India Proprietors' - the Mansion House Chapel Speech in Camberwell

The text of Isaacson's speech was published shortly after he delivered it on 8th August, with the title 'A Vindication of the West-India Proprietors'.⁸


In the speech, he emphasised his supposed disinterest - as someone 'totally unconnected with the West India Body' - yet privileged knowledge by virtue of having '[witnessed] the African in a state of slavery', alluding repeatedly to his 'personal knowledge' gained as rector in St Paul's, Demerara.


He makes much of his personal journey and experience, professing to have harboured 'prejudices against the planters' before travelling to the West Indies. He juxtaposes his expectation - that he would find enslaved people 'in a state of physical and moral suffering, degrading to human nature' - with what he claims to have found. Publicised cases of brutality were 'exceptions', he argues, making the extraordinary claim that although he had 'nearly ten thousand [enslaved people] in [his] own parish', he 'never witnessed a case of cruelty, and never had a complaint breathed in [his] ear' by a single enslaved person.


Isaacson then extolls the 'gratifying scene' of worship amongst enslaved people on the sabbath. As in his articles, comparisons with the British public are made: 'no village church in Great Britain', declares Isaacson, 'could have exhibited a more intelligent, a better dressed, or better behaved congregation'. A 'West India sabbath', he suggests, represented the height of dignified religiosity. Isaacson lauds the colonists who, by funding the clergy and schools, had engendered this idyllic state of education and religion.


Isaacson repeats his claim (and the corresponding anecdotal evidence) from his articles in Fraser's Magazine that enslaved people could accumulate a 'considerable sum' of property. He then argues that West Indian slavery was simply a new iteration of (then-extinct) villeinage amongst English peasantry, and that West Indian proprietors, 'nobly contributing their means for the religious instruction and moral advancement' of enslaved people, should be allowed more time to advance civilisation amongst them.

Thereafter, Isaacson returns to his preferred theme: comparing the material condition of enslaved people with that of free people born in England. If 'industrious', Isaacson argues, an enslaved person can 'purchase luxuries never dreamt of by the free peasantry who are deluded into a clamour against the slave-holder'.


He ends his speech with a scathing account of the supporters of emancipation. He argues that their refusal to prioritise 'objects of charity' closer to home signals the rottenness of their intentions: if they focused on 'the alleviation of British suffering' there would be no 'eclat' [i.e., social distinction], no opportunity to style themselves as public heroes, and no opportunity for political patronage and economic advantage (in the promotion of 'free-labour produce').


The Christian Remembrancer lauds Isaacson's speech as an extraordinarily 'manly defence of the West Indian proprietor', underpinned by his 'ocular knowledge of slavery', acquired first-hand.⁹


For all Isaacson's declaration's - above all that had 'no wish to be considered the champion of slavery'⁸ - the significance of his public advocacy is perhaps most damningly articulated in this friendly publication. In Isaacson - the Christian Remembrancer argued - the Anti-Slavery Society had 'seldom met with so great an antagonist, or the West Indian proprietors so powerful an advocate'.⁹


¹ Venn, J.A., ed. (1947) "Isaacson, Stephen". Alumni Cantabrigienses (Part 2). Vol.3, Cambridge University Press - via Internet Archive. ² Legacies of British Slavery database, 'Rev. Stephen Isaacson', [accessed 2nd September 2022]. ³ Legacies of British Slavery database, 'Barbados 2432', [accessed 2nd September 2022]. ⁴ Goodwin, Gordon, and Mari G. Ellis, 'Isaacson, Stephen (1798-1849), writer', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edition (2021), [accessed 2nd September 2022]. ⁵ Taylor, Michael, The Interest : How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery (London: The Bodley Head, 2020), p. 162. ⁶ [Isaacson, Stephen], 'The Colonists versus the Anti-Slavery Society (No. 1)', Fraser's Magazine, 2 (1830), 334-341; the quotations given here are taken from throughout the article, especially at p. 340-341. ⁷ [Isaacson, Stephen], 'The Colonists versus the Anti-Slavery Society. Chap. II', Fraser's Magazine, 3 (1831), 114-126; the quotations given here are taken from throughout the article, especially at p. 114-119 and p. 122. ⁸ Isaacson, S., A Vindication of the West-India Proprietors (London: J. Fraser, 1832), p. 3-8; the quotations given here are taken from throughout these pages, by the order in which they appear. ⁹ Literary Report, 'A Vindication of the West-India Proprietors...', The Christian Remembrancer, 14 (1832), p. 622.

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