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Inventions and abolition

Other notable oppositionists with links to the Royal Society include the curious story of Granville Sharp and Henry Smeathman.

The Royal Society’s archives contain two rather odd papers on inventions, neither of which seem to have been realised. The first is a design for a diving bell by Granville Sharpe (1735-1813) who is far better-known as an author and tireless anti-slavery campaigner. The second, a novel idea for a dirigible airship is by the naturalist Henry Smeathman (1742-1786) whose reputation rests on African exploration and on his pioneering paper on the termite colonies of West Africa.

Neither of these papers was published by the Royal Society and in fact both look quite lethal. Sharp’s scheme shows an upturned boat with a single passenger. The boat is held in a wooden frame and a weighted rope is passed through its keel. By operating a pulley system, the diver supposedly can raise and lower the improvised diving bell. Smeathman’s balloon, with its passengers again carried by a boat in place of the conventional basket, has the control systems in place that would qualify it to be called a dirigible, but his drawings concentrate as much on decorative features of the craft (a patriotic lion and unicorn) as the practicalities of flight.

Eccentric inventions aside, Sharp and Smeathman are linked by another, quite different scheme. They participated in the setting up of the Sierra Leone settlement, the story of which featured in Simon Schama’s book Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution. Smeathman’s experience in Sierra Leone led him to identify the area as having potential to relocate freed slaves and the black poor in London with a degree of self-government. Sharp was one of the scheme’s backers. In 1787 a settlement was founded, called the Province of Freedom and Granville Town established (named in honour of Granville Sharp). Colonists were a mixture of the "black poor", some winning their freedom after siding with the British during the American Revolution. The colony was decimated, largely by disease. Later settlers would create the more successful Freetown.

John Matthews, visiting the Freetown with a Royal Navy vessel after the colony’s foundation, remarked on the contrast to his experience of slavery: "the free man, elated by his liberty, walks with dignity and conscious pride, and looks with an eye of confidence all around".

A voyage to the river Sierra Leone, on the coast of Africa, By John Matthews (1789)

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