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JC Smith - Anti-Slavery Campaigner

Updated: Jul 29, 2023

“What can I, a free man, do

To make you slave a free man too?”

J C Smith, People’s Journal 26/12/1914 (by kind permission of DC Thomson & Co Ltd)

John Clark Smith was born in Dundee in 1827. He began his career with the textile company Thomas Bell & Sons, working as a factor on the Belmont estate (now site of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design). Eventually, Smith would set up his own insurance company, J C Smith & Co. He continued to be actively involved in the business until his death, aged 87, in 1914.

Outside of his business, religion played an important part in his life. He was an elder of St David’s United Free Church in Dundee and when he later moved across the Tay to Newport, he became a member of the Trinity Free Church. In addition, he was regarded as a gifted writer and had a number of books published. He was the editor of a monthly paper, The Soul Winner, for 38 years and wrote a series of religious articles for the Courier.

His obituary in the Courier states that through his writing he “lent vigorous support to the anti-slavery forces when Harriet Beecher Stowe was pleading the negroes’ cause”. Harriet Beecher Stowe was the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was initially serialised in 1851 in the American anti-slavery newspaper The National Era. It was then published in book form in 1852. Following its enormous success, Harriet embarked on a lecture tour of Britain in 1853. She came to Dundee on 22 April and a Grand Festival, hosted by the Provost, was held in the Steeple Church to honour her. It is likely that Smith would have attended the festival or her lectures.

Smith seems to have been inspired by her success in promoting the anti-slavery cause through fiction. In 1861, he published two stories for children: Isacco the African or The Slave Set Free and The Fisher Boy of the Potomac - A Story of Harper’s Ferry. According to the Dundee Advertiser, “The object of both is to enlist the sympathies of the young on the side of the poor American slaves.”

Advert for Smith’s first two anti-slavery stories, Dundee Advertiser 10/8/1861 (by kind permission of DC Thomson & Co Ltd)

The stories were widely reviewed. The Edinburgh Witness praised both:

“The Fisher Boy is a narrative of the origin, history, and development of slavery. Isacco is a touching picture of an African home, with its happy little ones: the dread which the appearance of a sail on the coast inspires, and the heartless incursions of the manstealers among the helpless and unprotected natives. Both stories are well suited, from their simplicity, to keep alive in youthful minds, a sympathy for the injured African race.”

Dundee’s leading anti-slavery campaigner, Rev George Gilfillan, was also impressed: “Isacco is a simple, true-seeming, unpretending tale, and shews a genuine heart sympathy with the poor African. The Fisher Boy is, I think, better than Isacco: apart from the story, it is full of interesting and instructive matter.”

The stories’ success led to another book, Abolition Abby - A Story of North and South, published in 1863. A Civil War tale, it was “wholly on the side of the Emancipationists” and according to the Dundee Advertiser, was “written with an elegance and a pathos which cannot fail to secure the attention of both old and young.” While approving of its sentiments, the Courier noted that it was “a plain tale, plainly told”.

Title page of Abolition Abby (1863) (courtesy of Dundee Central Library Local History Centre, Leisure and Culture Dundee)

Both Isacco and Abolition Abby were donated by J C Smith to the Dundee Free Library and can now be viewed in the Local History Centre.

But love in every human heart shall be,

And white and black shall live together free:

Man mercy shows to man the world o’er;

And cruel slavery shall live no more.

Revolve, thou, sun, and haste the happy day,

When negro slavery shall pass away;

When days of whips and shackles shall be o’er,

And sales of men and women held no more.

- Extract of a poem from Abolition Abby (1863)

Written by Laura Mowbray


Dundee Advertiser 16/7/1861 & 22/5/1863

Dundee Courier 1/6/1865 & 24/12/1914

People’s Journal 26/12/1914

J C Smith, Isacco the African; or The Slave Set Free (James Blackwood, 1861)

J C Smith, Abolition Abby (James Blackwood, 1863)

J C Smith, Character and its External Signs (James Blackwood, 1865)

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