In 1792, more than 350,000 people in Britain – including a third of the population of Manchester – signed a petition calling for the abolition of the slave trade. Support for the cause had swept the country – ‘a whole nation crying with one voice,’ as the poet William Wordsworth observed.
Such an outcry of public feeling was unprecedented not only in British history but in human history, and the government of the day, led by William Pitt the Younger, had no choice but to bow to it. That year, after five years of lobbying, a bill was finally passed by the House of Commons, sounding the death-knell of the slave trade.
This bill was actually blocked by the House of Lords – abolition was to take another 15 years. It nevertheless marked a turning-point for a citizen’s movement that laid the framework for modern-day campaigning organizations.
In the late 18th century, horseback was the main mode of transport and quill and ink the main method of communication. But slow communication was only part of the problem facing the abolitionists when they met to launch the movement in a London bookstore in 1787; their main obstacles were the deeply entrenched opinions of most Britons.
Slavery was not just an accepted part of life in the late 1700s, it was routine. Adam Hochschild in his book Bury the Chains says that over three-quarters of the people on earth were in bondage at the time in one way or another. In Britain, the key protagonist in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, slavery had the support of both the Church and the State. Britain’s wealth, economic prosperity and sprawling empire were reliant upon it.
‘If you had proposed,’ says Hochschild, ‘in the London of early 1787, to change all of this, nine out of ten people would have laughed you off as a crackpot. The tenth might have admitted that slavery was unpleasant but said that to end it would wreck the British Empire’s economy. It would be as if, today, you maintained that the automobile must go.’
So how was the tide of public opinion changed so radically in such a short space of time? And what can modern-day campaigners learn from the staggering success of the abolitionists?
Few campaigns succeed without a key driving force – an individual or group of individuals prepared to dedicate their lives to eradicating an injustice. In the case of the anti-slavery movement of the late 1700s that individual was Thomas Clarkson, the very embodiment of a tireless campaigner for the cause.
A Church of England pastor, he became inflamed by the immorality of the slave trade when he penned an essay on the subject for a Cambridge university competition as a young man. Having won the competition, he found that he could not shift the subject from his head. Riding home one evening on horseback, he was overwhelmed by his calling. ‘It was time some person should see these calamities to their end,’ he declared.
He instigated the 1787 meeting that was to become the launchpad for what has been described as one of the ‘most organized citizen’s movements of all time’. Over the course of the campaign he was to clock up 35,000 miles (56,000 kilometres) on horseback as he toured the country gathering support. The campaign which was to take over the rest of his life not only radically shifted public opinion, but, for the first time in history, united people in support of a cause that bettered someone else’s rights rather than their own.
For, unlike previous popular causes, no Briton was adversely affected by the slave trade; indeed the livelihoods of many – from the traders themselves to sailors, carpenters and shipbuilders – depended on it.
And yet, in a short space of time, the British people were united in empathy for the suffering of slaves, their outcry mirroring the response 200 years later to apartheid in South Africa or the 1980s famine in Ethiopia.
At the heart of the abolitionist movement was the Anti-Slavery Committee, led by Clarkson. Its first job was to compile evidence to make the case for the abolition of the slave trade. Today’s Make Poverty History campaigners have the use of global mass media to spread information; Clarkson and his committee had to scour the country for visual aids that would tell the story graphically.
In a shop in Liverpool Clarkson purchased examples of the equipment used to contain and torture slaves, including leg shackles, thumbscrews and surgical instruments used to pry open the mouths of those who went on hunger strike. Key to his armoury was a diagram of the slave ship Brookes, which became one of the most enduring images of the horrors of the slave trade (see above). Showing a top-down view of rows of 482 slaves’ bodies packed like sardines into a ship, it highlighted the conditions of life on board a slave ship. Over the course of the campaign this image was printed over 700 times.
As modern-day campaigners are well aware, personal testimonies play a vital role in shifting public opinion. During the anti-apartheid campaign of the 1980s, the story of Steve Biko became known to people all over the world. A key testimony used by the abolitionists was that of Olaudah Equiano, a former slave whose autobiography detailing the abuse he had suffered became a bestseller.
Equiano spent five years travelling across Britain promoting his book and his anti-slavery message, often at great personal risk. His account opened the eyes of the general public to the lies promoted by the pro-slavery lobby, among them that Africans were grateful to slave traders for the opportunity to escape Africa, and even that the journey to the West Indies was one of the happiest of their lives.
Equiano and the Committee as a whole understood the importance of gaining the support of members of the Government for their cause. Equiano himself was a regular lobbyist and letterwriter, but what helped swing opinion was gaining support from within – in the shape of MP William Wilberforce. Wilberforce became the movement’s key Parliamentary spokesperson and tabled numerous bills to abolish the trade.
Initially support within government remained low. Even in 1791, the evidence produced by the abolitionists and the campaigning work of Wilberforce were not sufficient to push through a bill.
It was the shift in public opinion that finally turned the tide, a shift generated by the introduction of campaigning tactics now commonplace within NGOs.
The abolitionists came up with what is believed to be the first widespread use of a logo in the service of a political cause. An image of a kneeling slave, headed with the inscription ‘Am I Not A Man And A Brother?’ was engraved on to medallions, cufflinks and hatpins, and was a precursor to the wristbands and badges that are used today.
The sugar boycott
The Anti-Slavery Committee was also responsible for the first direct-mail fundraising letter, and for the first use of a newsletter to update supporters on campaign news.
Other more familiar tactics were used in ways that had never been witnessed before. Pamphlets were the main means of dispersing information; one pamphlet sold around 70,000 copies in four months. And petitioning broke all previous records: 183 petitions signed by tens of thousands had been sent to Parliament by the end of 1788. The sense of outrage at slavery was not confined to a single class of people; it united the mass of the general public. And when you remember that most of those turning up to sign a petition would not yet have gained the vote, the numbers of supporters were extraordinary.
At the height of the campaign, grassroots supporters began a boycott of sugar, one of the key products produced by slaves. In total around 300,000 people abandoned sugar, with sales dropping by a third. Those sugar manufacturers who offered sugar ‘produced by the labour of freemen’ labelled their products as such, in the same way as fair trade goods are now identified.
The size of the boycott alerted the British Government to the shift in public opinion, leading to a knock-on political shift. In 1792 the Bill was passed to end the slave trade by 1796, by 230 votes to 85. This Bill marked the beginning of the end of the slave trade, but it would be another 15 years before the slave trade was finally abolished, and another 30 years before slavery itself was abolished.
During that time the abolitionists kept up their tireless campaign, and their legacy lives on in the work of the millions of campaigners active in the world today.
Clare Goff is a freelance journalist, currently based in Cambodia.
At the same time as public awareness of slavery was being raised in Britain by campaigning, slave rebellions in the colonies were exerting pressure from the other end. The most famous of these was the successful slave rebellion in the French colony of St Domingue, which began on 22 August 1791. Within two months, the rebels had taken control of a large part of the colony, killed thousands of slave-owning whites and burned or looted more than a thousand plantations. Their takeover of what had been the most profitable European colony of all – producing 30 per cent of the world’s sugar and more than half of its coffee – threatened not only the slave trade itself but also colonial control of the Caribbean.
Despite having just experienced its own revolution in the name of liberty, equality and fraternity, France sent an army to put down the revolt – one ship even prepared to sail under the banner ‘live free or die’ before it was realized that this might be seen as encouraging to the rebels. The French military expedition failed utterly, however – ground down by both the rebel army, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, and the rigours of tropical disease, in August 1793 the local commander in St Domingue decreed the emancipation of slaves. The following February the National Convention in France endorsed the decree and formally freed all the slaves in the French Empire.
Toussaint L’Ouverture’s battles were far from over – from 1793 onwards he had to fight a protracted guerrilla war against British forces trying to take over St Domingue. The British were hoping to stop the spread of slave rebellion to their own Caribbean colonies but instead slave rebellions broke out in Grenada, Jamaica and St Lucia. These were put down, not without trouble, but British forces were eventually expelled from St Domingue in 1798. Of the 89,000 white British soldiers who served in the Caribbean between 1793 and 1801, 45,000 died, 14,000 were discharged due to illness or wounds, and over 3,000 deserted.
St Domingue was invaded again by the French – who had by then reinstated slavery – in 1802. Toussaint L’Ouverture was captured and died in prison but the rebel army still defeated the French and declared the independent Republic of Haiti on 1 January 1804.
1. Tireless campaigner: The 1700s had Thomas Clarkson, a Church of England pastor who dedicated his life to the anti-slavery campaign. His dedication to the cause lives on today in James Aguer of Sudan, winner of the 2006 Anti-Slavery award. Since the late 1980s he has toiled to secure the release of Dinka women and children abducted from their homes and forced into slavery. Working under highly dangerous conditions his efforts have rattled the Sudanese Government, whose militias are often behind the atrocities. He has been arrested over 30 times, imprisoned on many occasions and offered up his own home to house escaped slaves.
2. Petitions: Tens of thousands of ordinary people signed petitions as part of the campaign to abolish the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Slavery continues to affect millions of people around the world and Anti-Slavery International is today using the same technique that led to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 to gain support for the eradication of modern-day slavery. It is calling on people across the globe to sign a Declaration calling for measures of greater understanding of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It is calling both for governments to redress the legacies of the trade, and for action to be taken to eliminate slavery from the world. Sign the petition at www.antislavery.org/2007/actionsign.php
3. Boycotts: In the early 1790s, hundreds of thousands of people boycotted sugar that had been produced by slaves. Today there are many ways we can take a stand using our wallets. Fair trade means that decent working conditions are assured and producers are guaranteed a fair price for their goods. Ethically traded goods are monitored to ensure that core labour standards are met, including that no forced labour or illegal child labour is used. However, they do not guarantee a fair price. The Ethical Trading Initiative, of which Anti-Slavery International is a member, is one scheme that encourages companies to improve conditions of employment.
4. Putting information into the public domain – personal testimonies
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7