Anti-slavery campaigner revelation

A Cambridge researcher has shed new light on an anti-slavery campaigner and former pupil of Ripon Grammar School whose achievements have, until now, remained in the shadows.

Thursday, 23rd September 2021, 1:50 pm

Joshua Kellard argues it is time for Beilby Porteus’s valuable contribution towards ending the slave trade to be more widely recognised.

Born in York in 1731, the 18th child of returned American colonists, Beilby attended Ripon Grammar School as a boarder from 1744-48, going on to study classics at Christ’s College, Cambridge.

From a family whose wealth derived principally from slavery, Porteus was an early, forceful and energetic opponent of the trade in people, says Mr Kellard.

Thanks to the stature of many of his abolitionist peers, including fellow Cambridge alumni Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, Porteus, though well-known in his day, has been overlooked for too long, he argues.

Mr Kellard, an outreach worker and chronicler of the city and University of Cambridge, says in an article published on Christian Heritage’s Round Church Cambridge website: “Beilby Porteus, well-known in his own day, has been somewhat overshadowed in Cambridge’s hallowed history. But it would be wrong on this account to overlook his achievements.

“He intrigued me, not only because of his name, but also because he is a good example of a man whose actions in later life were profoundly shaped by sensibilities and beliefs which he adopted at an early stage, perhaps even while he was at Ripon,” he explains.

As Bishop of Chester and Bishop of London, says Mr Kellard, Porteus became the highest ranking and most publicly visible Church of England spokesman to lend his support to Wilberforce, Thornton, Sharp and others in the fight which eventually led to the Slave Trade Act of 1807.

“His personal campaign began with a challenge to the Church of England’s role in ignoring the plight of 350 slaves on its Codrington Plantation in Barbados.

“When this plea was ignored, he turned to other means both of seeking the abolition of the trade and of improving the lot of existing slaves, materially and spiritually.”

Mr Kellard saidt: “He also engaged powerfully in the ‘God Debate’ of his own day, having been dismayed by the atheistic influence of Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason.”

In the article, Mr Kellard concludes: “As churchman, abolitionist and apologist, Porteus combined a sharp intellect with unswerving vision informed by concern for the spiritual and physical wellbeing of his fellow human beings.”