Against All Odds


[from Mother Jones]


Strangely, in a city where it seems that on every block a blue-and-white glazed plaque commemorates a famous event or resident, none marks this spot. All you can see today, after you leave the Bank station of the London underground, walk a block or two east, and then take a few steps into a courtyard, is a couple of low, nondescript office buildings, an ancient pub, and, on the site itself, 2 George Yard, a glass-and-steel high-rise. Nothing remains of the bookstore and printing shop that once stood here, or recalls the late afternoon in 1787 when a dozen people — a somber-looking crew, one man in clerical black and most of the others not removing their high-crowned blade hats — filed through its doors and sat down to launch one of the most far-reaching citizens’ movements of all time. Cities build monuments to kings and generals, not to people who once gathered in a bookstore. And yet what these particular citizens did was felt across the world — winning the admiration of the first and greatest student of what today we call civil society. What they accomplished, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, was “something absolutely without precedent in history…. If you pore over the histories of all peoples, I doubt that you will find anything more extraordinary.”


To fully grasp how momentous was what began at 2 George Yard, picture the world as it existed in 1787. Well over three-quarters of the people on earth are in bondage of one land or another. In parts of the Americas, slaves far outnumber free people. African slaves are also scattered widely through much of the Islamic world. Slavery is routine in most of Africa itself. In India and other parts of Asia, some people are outright slaves, others in debt bondage that ties them to a particular landlord as harshly as any slave to a Southern plantation owner. In Russia the majority of the population are serfs. Nowhere is slavery more firmly rooted than in Britain‘s overseas empire, where some half-million slaves are being systematically worked to an early death growing West Indian sugar. Caribbean slave-plantation fortunes underlie many a powerful dynasty, from the ancestors of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to the family of the fabulously wealthy William Beckford, lord mayor of London, who hired Mozart to give his son piano lessons. One of the most prosperous sugar plantations on Barbados is owned by the Church of England. Furthermore, Britain‘s ships dominate the slave trade, delivering tens of thousands of chained captives each year to French, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese colonies as well as to its own.


If you had proposed, in the London of early 1787, to change all of this, nine out often people would have laughed you off as a crackpot. The 10th 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. One in ten listeners might agree that the world would be better off if we traveled instead by foot, bicycle, electric train, or trolley, but are you suggesting a political movement to ban cars? Come on, be serious! Looking back, however, what is even more surprising than slavery’s scope is how swiftly it died. By the end of the 19th century, slavery was, at least on paper, outlawed almost everywhere. Every American schoolchild learns about the Underground Railroad and the Emancipation Proclamation. But our self-centered textbooks often skip over the fact that in the superpower of the time slavery ended a full quarter-century earlier. For more than two decades before the Civil War, the holiday celebrated most fervently by free blacks in the American North was not July 4 (when they were at risk of attack from drunken white mobs) but August 1, Emancipation Day in the British Empire.


Jettisoning “Cargo”


On March 18, 1783, the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser carried a short letter to the editor about a case being heard in a London courtroom. The item caught the eye of a former slave living in England, Olaudah Equiano. Horrified, he ran immediately to see an Englishman he knew, Granville Sharp, an eccentric pamphleteer and known opponent of slavery. Sharp recorded in his diary that Equiano “called on me, with an account of one hundred and thirty Negroes being thrown alive into the sea.”


Months earlier, under Captain Luke Collingwood, the ship Zong had sailed from Africa for Jamaica with some 440 slaves, many of whom had already been on board for weeks. Head winds, spells of calm, and bad navigation (Collingwood mistook Jamaica for another island and sailed right past it) stretched the transatlantic voyage to twice the usual length. Packed tightly into a vessel of only 107 tons, slaves began to sicken. Collingwood was worried, for a competent captain was expected to deliver his cargo in reasonable health, and, of course, dead or dying slaves brought no profits. There was a way out, however. If Collingwood could claim that slaves had died for reasons totally beyond his control, insurance — at £30 per slave — would cover the loss.


Collingwood ordered his officers to throw the sickest slaves into the ocean. If ever questioned, he told them, they were to say that due to the unfavorable winds, the ship’s water supply was running out. If water had been running out, these murders would be accepted under the principle of “jettison” in maritime law: A captain had a right to throw some cargo — in this case, slaves — overboard to save the remainder. In all, 133 slaves were “jettisoned” in several batches; the last group started to fight back and 26 of them were tossed over the side with their arms still shackled.


When the Zong’s owners later filed an insurance claim for the value of the dead slaves, it equaled more than half a million dollars in today’s money, and the insurance company disputed the claim. The moment Equiano showed him the newspaper article, Granville Sharp leaped into action. He hired lawyers, went to court, and personally interviewed at least one member of the ship’s crew and a passenger. But the shocking thing about the Zong case — as much to Equiano and Sharp then as to us now — is that after more than a hundred human beings had been flung to their deaths, this was not a homicide trial. It was a civil insurance dispute.


Sharp tried and failed to get the Zong’s owners prosecuted for murder. But he fired off a passionate salvo of outraged letters about the case to everyone he could think of. One letter apparently reached a prominent clergyman, who, the following year, became vice chancellor — the equivalent of an American university’s president — of Cambridge. Disturbed by what he had heard, he put to use one of the most powerful tools at his command: He made the morality of slavery the subject of the annual Cambridge Latin essay contest.


Latin and Greek competitions were a centerpiece of British university life. To win a major one was like winning a Rhodes scholarship or the Heisman trophy today; the honor would be bracketed with your name for a lifetime. One entrant in the Latin contest was a 25-year-old divinity student named Thomas Clarkson. He had no previous interest in slavery whatever, he later wrote, but only “the wish of…obtaining literary honour.” Unexpectedly, however, as he read everything he could find, studied the papers of a slave trader who had recently died, and interviewed officers who had seen slavery firsthand in the Americas, Clarkson found himself overcome: “In the day-time I was uneasy. In the night I had little rest. I sometimes never closed my eye-lids for grief…. I always slept with a candle in my room, that I might rise out of bed and put down such thoughts as might occur to me…conceiving that no arguments…should be lost in so great a cause.”


He won first prize. When it was awarded in June 1785, Clarkson read his essay aloud in Latin to an audience in Cambridge’s elegant Senate House; then, his studies finished, already wearing the black garb of a deacon, he headed off toward London and a promising church career. But he found, to his surprise, that it was slavery itself that “wholly engrossed my thoughts…. Coming in sight of Wades Mill in Hertfordshire, I sat down disconsolate on the turf by the roadside and held my horse. Here a thought came into my mind, that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end.”


“A Fire of Indignation Kindling Within Me”


It was time some person should see these calamities to their end. If there is a single point at which the anti-slavery movement in the British Empire became inevitable, it is the moment Thomas Clarkson got off his horse and sat down beside the road. When he remounted and rode onward to London, it was with the determination, first of all, to publish his essay in English. In the office of one well-known London publisher, he was dismayed that the man was interested only because the essay had won a prize. Clarkson, by contrast, “wished the Essay to find its way…among such as would think and act with me.” He had just left the publisher’s office when, on the street, he ran into a Quaker friend of his family’s. The Quakers were the only religious denomination that had come out against slavery, and the man said Clarkson was just the person he was looking for: Why hadn’t he published that essay of his?


Together, they walked a few blocks to the bookstore and printing shop of James Phillips, in George Yard, in the warren of narrow curving streets of London‘s business district. Bookselling, publishing, and printing usually happened under the same roof in those days (with the printer’s family often living upstairs and perhaps a cow or pig or two in the back yard), and this was the work that Phillips did for Britain’s small Quaker community. Clarkson took an immediate Hoeing to him, and on the spot said Phillips could publish the essay. This was the day Clarkson discovered that he was not alone.


With ferocious determination, he now dedicated himself to finding out everything he could about slavery. Many ships sailed for Africa from the docks along the Thames, and after climbing on board and exploring one, he wrote, “I found soon afterwards a fire of indignation kindling within me.” He systematically visited anyone with firsthand information: merchants, sea captains, army and navy officers. With the instincts of a good reporter, “I made it a rule to put down in writing, after every conversation, what had taken place.”


The key people he would have to work with were clearly the Quakers; they were rock-firm in their convictions, and they had a small but dedicated network around the country. To them, it was clear that Clarkson was a godsend: He was young, brimming with energy, and, above all, he was a member of the all-powerful Church of England. The major reason the Quakers’ anti-slavery efforts had so far accomplished nothing was simply because they were Quakers. People mocked them as oddballs who said “thee” and “thou,” who refused to take off their distinctive black hats except when preaching or praying, and who refused to use the names of the months or the days of the week because these derived from Roman or pagan gods instead of from the Bible. To influence public opinion, the Quakers needed a talented Anglican willing to devote all his energy to the movement, and in Clarkson, at last, they had one.


Together, Clarkson and his Quaker allies carefully planned a broad organization from both faiths. “Went to town on my mare to attend a committee of the Slave Trade now instituted,” wrote one Quaker in his diary. In the late afternoon of May 22, 1787, the group of a dozen men officially assembled for the first time, at James Phillips’ bookstore and printing shop. Probably the printers had gone home for the day, so there would have been no clanking flatbed press, but large sheets of uncut book pages would have been hanging from overhead wooden racks in the ceiling, the ink drying.


The committee targeted the slave trade, rather than slavery itself, because abolishing the first seemed within easier political reach and it also seemed likely to eventually end the second. West Indian slavery was by every measure far deadlier than slavery almost anywhere else. Cultivating sugar by hand, under a broiling sun, was — and still is — one of the hardest forms of labor on earth. Tropical diseases were rampant; the slaves’ diet was much worse than in the American South; they died younger; they had far fewer children. The death rate on the brutal Caribbean plantations was so high that the slave population would have been dropping by up to 3 percent a year if it were not for the steady shipments of new slaves from Africa. Stop the trade, abolitionists were — naively — convinced, and slavery itself would in the long run become impossible.


The committee now had to ignite its crusade in a country where the overwhelming majority of people considered slavery totally normal. Plantation profits gave a major boost to the British economy, and the livelihood of tens of thousands of seamen, merchants, and shipbuilders depended upon the slave trade. How to even begin the massive job of changing public opinion? More than nine out of ten Englishmen, and all Englishwomen, could not even vote. Without this most basic right, could they be roused to care about the rights of other people, of a different skin color, an ocean away?


In all of human experience, there was no precedent for such a campaign.


“Success to the Trade”


In June of 1787, Thomas Clarkson got on his horse again and set off for the big slave-ship ports of Bristol and Liverpool. He was looking for veterans of the trade who could eventually testify before parliamentary hearings. he would also distribute pamphlets and quietly set up local abolition committees. Amazingly, for many years to come, he would be the movement’s only permanent, full-time organizer.


A sense of foreboding came over Clarkson as he approached Bristol: “The bells of some of the churches were then ringing; the sound…filled me…with a melancholy…. I began now to tremble, for the first time, at the arduous task I had undertaken, of attempting to subvert one of the branches of the commerce of the great place which was then before me…. I questioned whether I should even get out of it alive.” This was not, it turned out, an unreasonable fear.


In the autobiographical history of the movement Clarkson later wrote, the very paper seems to burn with his outrage. When he tracked down information about a massacre of some 300 Africans by British slave traders on the coast of what is today Nigeria, he wrote, “It made…my blood boil…within me.”


More than 6 feet tall, Clarkson had thick red hair and large, intense blue eyes that looked whomever he spoke to directly in the face. As he stalks purposefully through the streets of Bristol, we can sense him fully finding his calling: “I began now to think that the day was not long enough for me to labour in. I regretted often the approach of night, which suspended my work.”


The brutality of the slave trade, Clarkson discovered, wasn’t confined to the mistreatment of the slaves themselves. He found a slave ship in the harbor, just returned from a voyage on which 32 seamen had died — a number larger than many a ship’s entire crew. The treatment of one sailor, a free black man named John Dean, wrote Clarkson, “exceeded all belief…. The captain had fastened him with his belly to the deck, and…poured hot pitch upon his back, and made incisions in it with hot tongs.” Dean had disappeared, but Clarkson found a witness who “had often looked at his scarred and mutilated back.”


Each discovery led to another. If slave vessels were so notoriously brutal, why did sailors continue to sign on? For several weeks, Clarkson haunted Bristol waterfront pubs to see how officers recruited their crews. “The young mariner, if a stranger to the port, and unacquainted with the nature of the Slave-trade, was sure to be picked up.” He would be told that wages were high and women plentiful. “He was plied with liquor…. Seamen also were boarded in these houses, who, when the slave-ships were going out, but at no other time, were encouraged to spend more than they had money to pay for.” The pub keeper then demanded payment, and only “one alternative was given, namely, a slave-vessel, or a gaol.”


Captains and mates refused to talk to Clarkson. But one day in the street, an overheard fragment of conversation made him follow a well-dressed man, a doctor, as it turned out, named James Arnold. He had made two slave voyages, which he described to Clarkson in gruesome detail, and was about to leave on a third. (These ships often carried doctors; healthy slaves fetched higher prices.) Arnold “had been cautioned about falling-in with me,” but spoke boldly nonetheless, explaining that he was “quite pennyless…but if he survived this voyage he would never go another.” Would Arnold be willing “to keep a journal of facts, and to give his evidence, if called upon, on his return”? The answer was yes.


Several times, Clarkson tried to get slave-ship captains prosecuted for murder. None of these attempts succeeded, but word of them got back to London, where the sober Quaker businessmen on the committee were alarmed that instead of quietly investigating, Clarkson was getting too combative. One wrote to him, “I hope the zeal and animation with which thou hast taken up the cause will be accompanied with temper and moderation.”


But Clarkson showed no moderation as he rode on to Liverpool, the world’s largest slave-trade port, which would be sending 81 ships to Africa that year. As he was walking past a ship chandler’s shop, he was shocked to see handcuffs, leg shackles, and thumbscrews in the window. He also noticed a surgical instrument with a screw device, used by doctors in cases of lockjaw. The shopkeeper explained: It was for prying open the mouths of any slaves on shipboard who tried to commit suicide by not eating. Clarkson bought one of each item; from here on, he would display them to the newspaper editor in every town he passed through. He was learning that organizing alone is not enough; you need to wage a media campaign.


At the King’s Arms tavern in Liverpool, where he stayed, men pointed him out in the dining room. “Some gave as a toast, Success to the Trade, and then laughed immoderately, and watched me when I took my glass to see if I would drink it.” Before long, he began receiving anonymous death threats. One day, looking back from the end of a pier in a heavy gale, “I noticed eight or nine persons making towards me …. They closed upon me and bore me back.” The group included one of the ship’s officers he was trying to have prosecuted for murder. At this moment, his tall, strong build saved him from harm — and possibly from death if, like most Britons of his day, he did not know how to swim. “It instantly struck me that they had a design to throw me over the pier-head…. There was not a moment to lose…. I darted forward. One of them, against whom I pushed myself, fell down…. And I escaped, not without blows, amidst their imprecations and abuse.”



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