Phillip W. Magness

Historian – 19th century United States

The mystery of John Scoble’s disappearance

William Knibb John Scoble.jpg

Though little noticed today, John Scoble (1799-??) played an early leading role in the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society as its secretary from 1842 to 1852 and as an important British link to the American abolitionist community in its formative years. An eccentric and somewhat irascible fellow, he had a habit of inserting himself into factional disputes within the movement and making enemies along the way. In one notable example he weighed in against the Garrisonian faction in the U.S. over its stance against political abolitionism. Scoble nonetheless campaigned vigorously against slavery for most of his career, traveling on an anti-slavery lecture circuit in North America and the West Indies and playing witness and participant to the famous Antislavery Convention of 1840 in London as well as the North American Convention of Colored Freeman – an important gathering of black abolitionists in Toronto in 1851.

Scoble’s most significant contribution may well have been his role in promoting Canada, where he settled from 1852 onward, as a place of refuge for escaped American slaves. Under the Fugitive Slave Act escaped slaves were subject to recapture even when on free state soil, hence the “Underground Railroad” actually ending in Canada where legal extradition of escaped slaves was significantly harder to obtain and routine enforcement next to impossible.

Yet Scoble’s later life drifts into obscurity, at least to the extent that he is acknowledged today. He successfully ran for parliament in Ontario in 1863 before losing a renomination bid and leaving office in 1867. From that point onward he seems to completely disappear from the historical record – a strange and somewhat unfitting end for an individual who routinely appeared in abolitionist pamphlets and newspapers for some three decades prior.

So where did John Scoble vanish to? It would appear he simply settled into retirement in Ontario and died in mid December 1877 at the age of 79 after spending the last several years of his life out of the public or political realms. The following obituary appeared in the December 28, 1877 issue of the San Francisco Bulletin as part of a telegraph report of news from abroad.

JohnScoble-Obituary copy

So there you have it: John Scoble (1799-1877).

 


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