The Blood-sweetened Beverage
Within two or three months of Clarkson’s return to London, where the committee had been energetically recruiting supporters and distributing books and pamphlets, there appeared a dramatic sign of a sea change in public opinion. There were no
At one, an ad promised that “A NATIVE OF
The most important expression of public feeling came on great, stiff rolls of parchment. By the time Parliament adjourned for the year, petitions asking for abolition or reform of the slave trade had been signed by more than 60,000 people. Petitions were a time-honored means of pressure in a country where voters had no control whatever over the House of Lords, and where fewer than one adult man in ten could vote for the House of Commons. Anti-slave-trade petitions — never seen before — suddenly outnumbered those on all other subjects combined.
The superbly organized anti-slavery committee also pioneered several techniques used ever since. For example, they periodically printed copies of “a Letter to our Friends in the Country, to inform them of the state of the Business” — the ancestor of many a newsletter, print or electronic, published by activist groups today. They also agreed on a piece of text delivered to every donor in greater
When the famous one-legged pottery entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood joined the committee, he had one of his craftsmen make a bas-relief of a kneeling slave, in chains, encircled by the legend “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” American anti-slavery sympathizer Benjamin Franklin, impressed, declared that the image had an impact “equal to that of the best written Pamphlet.” Clarkson gave out 500 of these medallions on his organizing trips. “Of the ladies, several wore them in bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental manner as pins for their hair.” The equivalent of the lapel buttons we wear for an electoral campaign, this was probably the first widespread use of a logo designed for a political cause. It was the 18th century’s “new media.”
Within a few years, another tactic arose from the grassroots. Throughout the length and breadth of the
Slavery advocates were horrified. One rushed out a counterpamphlet claiming that “sugar is not a luxury; but…a necessary of life; and great injury have many persons done to their constitutions by totally abstaining from it.”
The abolitionists pioneered another key organizing tool as well, and you have seen it. Rare is the TV program or illustrated book about slavery that does not show a detailed, diagramlike top-down view of rows of slaves’ bodies packed like sardines into a ship. The ship is a specific one, the Brookes, of
The First Political Book Tour
Uprisings of the oppressed have erupted throughout history, but the anti-slavery movement in
Consider the Africans’ case as their own? Stephen Fuller,
Meanwhile, something else feeding the country’s growing antislavery fervor was Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, a vivid account of his life in slavery and freedom. At seven shillings a copy, it became a best-seller. For an extraordinary five years, he promoted his book throughout the kingdom, winning a particularly friendly reception in
The slave interests were piqued. In the biggest slave port, the editor of the Liverpool General Advertiser bemoaned the “infatuation of our country, running headlong into ruin.” Pro-slavery forces now launched counterattacks. They bought copies of a pro-slavery book for distribution “particularly at
The slave interests’ tactics bore a fascinating resemblance to the way industries under assault try to defend themselves today. When, for instance, there were moves in Parliament to try to regulate the treatment of slaves, the planters hastily drew up a lofty-sounding code of conduct of their own and insisted no government interference was necessary. They considered other P.R. techniques as well. “The vulgar are influenced by names and titles,” suggested one pro-slavery writer in 1789. “Instead of SLAVES, let the Negroes be called ASSISTANT-PLANTERS; and we shall not then hear such violent outcries against the slave-trade.”
The Movement Deflected
In Parliament, slavery’s most colorful spokesman was the Duke of Clarence, one of the many dissolute sons of King George III. As a teenager, he had entered the Royal Navy and gone to the
Parliament was, of course, where the ultimate battle over the slave trade had to be fought. As spokesman in the House of Commons, Clarkson had lined up William Wilberforce, a wealthy, diminutive member of Parliament from
But before Parliament could act, there were lengthy hearings. Witnesses like James Penny, a former captain, made the slaves on the middle passage sound almost like cruise passengers: “If the Weather is sultry, and there appears the least Perspiration upon their Skins, when they come upon Deck, there are Two Men attending with Cloths to rub them perfectly dry, and another to give them a little Cordial…. They are then supplied with Pipes and Tobacco…. They are amused with Instruments of Music peculiar to their own country…and when tired of Music and Dancing, they then go to Games of Chance.”
Rounding up eyewitnesses willing to speak against the trade was as difficult as finding military or corporate whistleblowers today. For a seaman or ship’s officer to testify critically meant he could never find work on slave ships again. At one point Clarkson rode 1,600 miles in two months, scouring the country for more witnesses. Often, he complained, “when I took out my pen and ink to put down the information, which a person was giving me, he became…embarrassed and frightened.” The most dramatic witness had just returned from a slave voyage: James Arnold, the
The slave interests skillfully used the hearings as a delaying tactic, spreading them out over several years, and outmaneuvering Wilberforce, who was a naive and disorganized legislative strategist. They beat back several of his attempts to get Parliament to abolish the slave trade, but by the spring of 1792, some five years after that first landmark meeting at 2 George Yard, it looked as if public feeling against the trade was too strong to be resisted. “Of the enthusiasm of the nation at this time,” wrote Clarkson, “none can form an opinion but they who witnessed it…. The current ran with such strength and rapidity, that it was impossible to stem it.” Exhausted, he had just finished one of his horseback organizing marathons around the country; Equiano was finding friendly audiences wherever he went; and the sugar boycott was at its peak. William Wordsworth wrote that the anti-slavery fervor of that spring was nothing less “than a whole Nation crying with one voice.”
Clarkson and other activists lobbied members of Parliament with unrelenting intensity. Anti-slavery petitions flooded Parliament as never before. When unrolled, the one from
Four petitions arrived in favor of the trade.
The hearings for now finished, the parliamentary debate ran through the night. And so we must imagine the House of Commons chamber dimly lit by candles in a chandelier and wall brackets; the gowned, bewigged Speaker in his pulpitlike chair; members bowing to him when they leave the floor; the black-cloaked clerks below him; the snuffboxes at the doors; the candlelight glinting on the silver-and-gold ceremonial mace lying upon the central table; and, rising into the gloom, the benches of members, many in boots and spurs. The narrow visitors’ galleries high above them were packed, and newcomers were turned away. Equiano got there in time, however. Clarkson slipped a doorkeeper a handsome 10 guineas to let in 30 abolitionists.
When Henry Dundas, the politically powerful Home Secretary who controlled a large block of Scottish votes, rose to speak, no one knew where he stood.
The tall, slender prime minister, William Pitt, not yet 33 years old, spoke last, at He declared himself “too much exhausted to enter so fully into the subject…as I could wish.” But to read his speech today is to feel shame at the sound-bite political rhetoric of our own time. Pitt spoke for more than an hour, extemporaneously. He began by taking the “gradualists” at their word, that they favored abolition, and then one by one showed how each of their points was a better argument for ending the trade now. Then he demolished the classic arguments of the slave traders. Like arms exporters today, British shipowners claimed that if they ceased carrying slaves, the business would merely go to other countries, especially the great rival, France. But how could anyone expect
Finally, Pitt made a grand historical comparison that cleverly made use of the country’s imperial arrogance.
Pitt’s eloquence was not enough. The gradualist proposal passed, and after more debate the House set 1796, four long years hence, as the year when the slave trade was to end. A far more significant obstacle, however, was the House of Lords, which voted down any abolition at all, gradual or otherwise. The abolitionists were deeply discouraged. Nonetheless, for the first time anywhere in the world, a national legislative body had voted for an end to the slave trade.
“My Children Shall Be Free”
Before the issue could come up again at the next year’s parliamentary session,
They were still confident that this would soon spell the end of slavery itself. However, now that
But this time something different happened. More than 70 “Ladies’” anti-slavery societies sprang up throughout
When news of the revived movement crossed the
By the time troops suppressed the revolt, some 200 slaves and 14 whites were dead. The gallows or firing squads claimed more than 340 additional slaves. However, the rebellion helped convince
After the most massive campaign of petitions and demonstrations yet seen, Parliament finally gave in. Nearly 800,000 slaves throughout the
Of the 12 men who had assembled 51 years earlier in the Quaker bookstore and printing shop at 2 George Yard, Thomas Clarkson was the only one still alive.
Changing the World
Though born in the age of swords, wigs, and stagecoaches, the British anti-slavery movement leaves us an extraordinary legacy. Every day activists use the tools it helped pioneer: consumer boycotts, newsletters, petitions, political posters and buttons, national campaigns with local committees, and much more. But far more important is the boldness of its vision. Look at the problems that confront the world today: global warming; the vast gap between rich and poor nations; the relentless spread of nuclear weapons; the poisoning of the earth’s soil, air, and water; the habit of war. To solve almost any one of these, a realist might say, is surely the work of centuries; to think otherwise is naive. But many a hardheaded realist could — and did — say exactly the same thing to those who first proposed to end slavery. After all, was it not in one form or another woven into the economy of most of the world? Had it not existed for millennia? Was it not older, even, than money and the written word? Surely anyone expecting to change all of that was a dreamer. But the realists turned out to be wrong. “Never doubt,” said Margaret Mead, “that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Copyright C2004 Adam Hochschild.
Adam Hochschild is the author of King Leopold’s Ghost, A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Finding the Trapdoor: Essays, Portraits, Travels, and three other books. This article is based on his monumental history of the British anti-slavery movement which will be published by Houghton Mifflin next fall.
[This piece was first posted at Tomdispatch.com and released onto the Internet with the kind permission of Mother Jones magazine, where it appeared in the Jan./Feb. 2004 issue. Tomdispatch.com is a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]