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Biography of Josiah Wedgwood

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Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) invented industrialized pottery in England. However, he is much better-remembered for his role in the slavery abolition movement, as well as for being the grandfather of the creator of the theory of evolution, Charles Darwin. Wedgwood first created the famous anti-slavery image "Am I Not A Man and A Brother," the iconic image featuring a black man kneeling on one knee with his chained hands raised in front of him.

Wedgwood was born to Thomas and Mary Wedgwood in Burslem, Staffordshire, and followed an elder brother into a pottery apprenticeship. However, he was crippled from childhood by smallpox, which he survived but which left him with a damaged knee. Without full use of the leg, Wedgwood found he could not operate a potter's wheel, and resolved to spend his life designing pottery to be made by others. This brought him into contact with a number of early industrialists and led to him experimenting with the creation of a pottery factory, where unskilled workers could mass-produce pottery using machinery and steam power where, previously, skilled journeymen working with hand tools had dominated the pottery business.

In this career, Wedgwood was highly successful. In his 30s, his customers included the British and Russian royal families. Even as his business flourished, however, he was beset by personal difficulties. His leg condition worsened and ultimately required amputation. Wedgwood turned to Erasmus Darwin to help run his business, and several of the two men's children ultimately married (leading to the birth, later, of early evolutionist Charles Darwin).

Historically, however, it is not Wedgwood's pottery business for which he is best remembered (despite its contributions to the Industrial Revolution), but rather his role in the anti-slavery movement. Wedgwood leveraged his factory assets to produce medallions and other products for the abolition movement, including his famous image "Am I Not A Man and a Brother," in which the emblazoned words appear below a black man kneeling on one knee and holding out his chained hands in front of his face. The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, of which he was an active member, was formed in 1787 predominantly by Quakers (though Wedgwood was a Dissenter by birth, not a Quaker), and played a leading role in forcing the British government first to ban the trans-Atlantic slave trade to its colonies in 1807, and finally to end all slavery in the British Empire completely in 1838. Slavery continued in several other empires, and in the United States, for somewhat longer.

Wedgwood married his cousin Sarah Wedgwood at the height of his career; together, the two had three sons and four daughters (two of whom married Darwins, one of whom died as a child, and three others of whom died childless). He died in 1795 at the age of 65 years old.

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