People of Letters


18th - 19th Century

The book trade enjoyed a surge in popularity during the 18th century due to advances in printing technology and a wealthier middle-class reading for leisure.

It is thought that in the late 1700s there were around 10,000 black people living in Britain, many as slaves. By the end of the 18th century, Romantic writers were taking up the abolitionist cause producing literature such as William Cowper’s famous poem ‘The Negro’s Complaint’ (1788). But it was the work of African writers that advanced the eventual abolition of the slave trade in 1807, such as the writer Ignatius Sancho. He wrote to many prominent figures in English society, including Laurence Sterne in 1766, encouraging them to show support for the abolitionist cause.

The cause was also greatly helped by autobiographical accounts of former slaves, such as The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789) a self-published book which had nine editions due to its popularity.

As slavery was not prohibited nationally in America until 1865, these accounts were still of much importance to the abolitionist cause across the Atlantic. The British publisher William Tweedie published, amongst other Anti-Slavery literature, Running a Thousand Miles to Freedom (1860) by Ellen and William Craft. The book detailed their daring escape from slavery and was popular in Great Britain and the United States.