The Wedgwood Anti-Slavery Medallion, also known as the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade seal, was created in 1787 by British potter and businessman Josiah Wedgwood. The medallion features a depiction of a Black man in shackles, with raised hands and the inscription “Am I not a man and a brother?” The design was likely a collaboration between Wedgwood and artists Henry Webber and William Hackwood.
The medallion was made in Wedgwood’s Etruria Works as a Jasperware cameo and became a popular symbol of the British abolitionist movement. The medallion was widely distributed in Britain and the United States and helped to advance the cause of abolition. It is considered the most iconic symbol of the anti-slavery movement.
The origin of the medallion can be traced back to July 5, 1787, when the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade decided to create a recognizable emblem for their cause.
The Society approached Wedgwood, who was known for his prominence in the field, to help with the project. On October 16, 1787, Webber presented a design to the Society, which depicted a Black slave in a kneeling position and the inscription “Am I not a man and a brother?” Wedgwood, who was deeply involved in the project, likely had some influence on the final design. The design was then adapted from a print into a sculpture by William Hackwood.
The medallion is often viewed as a symbol of the enslaved man’s supplication and appeal to both Heaven and white society. The kneeling posture and raised hands of the Black man in shackles communicate his Christian faith and his shared language and faith with the white British or American audience.
However, contemporary perspectives on the medallion suggest that while it recognizes the humanity of enslaved individuals, it also perpetuates their subservience and weakness in relation to white society. As Mary Guyatt notes, “the kneeling posture and chains of the slave depict him as submissive and emasculated, appealing not only to Heaven but also to white society.”
The act of supplication establishes a power dynamic in which the slave is the submissive party, a non-threatening object designed to elicit pity in the hearts of those who support the abolitionist cause. Wedgwood himself described the slave as a “pathetic figure” that would “increase its effect somewhat.”
The distribution of the Wedgwood Anti-Slavery Medallions was likely carried out through the networks of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Wedgwood sent parcels of these cameos to Thomas Clarkson and Benjamin Franklin in the United States, and it is believed that he financed the production and distribution costs himself.
According to historical records, cameos of a similar size were commercially sold for three guineas each, which was equivalent to £426 in 2021.
The anti-slavery cameos were incorporated into various fashion accessories, such as snuff boxes, shoe buckles, bracelets, and hair pins, and were widely available in Britain and the United States. The popularity of these items among hundreds of supporters of the abolition movement, many of whom were middle-class women, helped to make the movement fashionable. As a result, these medallions became symbols of the growing anti-slavery sentiment and helped to advance the abolitionist cause.
The Wedgwood Anti-Slavery Medallion was widely recognized as the most prominent and iconic representation of a Black person in all of 18th-century art.
The image of the Black man in shackles, with raised hands and the inscription “Am I not a man and a brother?” not only recognized the humanity of enslaved individuals, but also sparked a conversation about the injustices of slavery and the importance of abolition. Today, the Wedgwood Anti-Slavery Medallion is considered one of the most famous images in the history of art.