Against All Odds

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 Gallup polls in those days, but there was one group of businessmen whose living depended on shrewdly gauging public tastes: the proprietors of London‘s debating societies. (Sex was always popular, for instance, with debate topics such as “Whether the fashionable infidelities of married couples are more owing to the depravity of the Gentlemen or the inconstancy of the Ladies?”) After years in which slavery was only rarely a subject, abruptly the abolition of the slave trade was the topic of half of all 14 public debates on record in the city’s daily newspapers in February 1788.


At one, an ad promised that “A NATIVE OF AFRICA, many years a Slave in the West-Indies,” would speak. The anonymous African was probably Olaudah Equiano. Another newspaper reported “a circumstance never before witnessed in a Debating Society. A lady spoke to the subject with that dignity, energy, and information, which astonished every one present…. The question was carried against the Slave Trade.” Other than at religious meetings, these may be, scholars believe, the first occasions that either a black person or a woman gave a public speech in Britain.


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 London appealing for another contribution, at least as big as the last. This may have been history’s first direct-mail fundraising letter.


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 British Isles, people stopped eating the major product harvested by British slaves: sugar. Clarkson was delighted to find a “remedy, which the people were… taking into their own hands…. Rich and poor, churchmen and dissenters…. By the best computation I was able to make from notes taken down in my journey, no fewer than three hundred thousand persons had abandoned the use of sugar.” Almost like “fair trade” food labeling today, advertisements quickly filled the press: “BENJAMIN TRAVERS, Sugar-Refiner, acquaints the Publick that he has now an assortment of Loaves, Lumps, Powder Sugar, and Syrup, ready for sale…produced by the labour of FREEMEN.” Then, as now, the full workings of a globalized economy were largely invisible. The boycott caught people’s imagination because it brought these hidden ties to light. The poet Robert Southey spoke of tea as “the blood-sweetened beverage.”


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 Liverpool, and Clarkson and his colleagues swiftly printed 8,700 copies of the diagram, and it was soon hung on the walls of homes and pubs throughout the country. Part of its brilliance was that it was unanswerable: What could the slave interests do, make a painting of happy slaves on shipboard? Precise, understated, and eloquent in its starkness, it was the first widely reproduced political poster.


The First Political Book Tour


Uprisings of the oppressed have erupted throughout history, but the anti-slavery movement in England was the first sustained mass campaign anywhere on behalf of someone else’s rights. Sometimes Britons even seemed to be organizing against their own self-interest. From Sheffield, famous for making scissors, scythes, knives, razors, and the like, 769 metalworkers petitioned Parliament in 1789. Because their wares were sold to ship captains for use as currency to buy slaves, the Sheffield cutlers wrote, they might be expected to favor the slave trade. But they vigorously opposed it: “Your petitioners…consider the case of the nations of Africa as their own.”


Consider the Africans’ case as their own? Stephen Fuller, London agent for the Jamaican planters and a key figure in the pro-slavery lobby, wrote in bewilderment that the petitions flooding into Parliament were “stating no grievance or injury of any land or sort, affecting the Petitioners themselves.” He was right to be startled. This was something new in human history.


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 Ireland, whose people felt that they, too, knew something about oppression by the British. Equiano’s was the first great political book tour, and never was one better timed.


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 Cambridge” (college towns leaned left even then) and printed 8,000 copies of a pamphlet about how each happy slave family had “a snug little house and garden, and plenty of pigs and poultry.” They sponsored a London musical, The Benevolent Planters, in which two black lovers, separated in Africa, end up living on adjoining plantations in the West Indies and are reunited by their kindly owners. But Britons dependent on the slave economy were worried. Some doggerel made the rounds in Liverpool: If our slave trade had gone, there’s an end to our lives / Beggars all we must be, our children and wives / No ships from our ports, their proud sails e’er would spread / And our streets grown with grass where the cows might be fed.


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 West Indies, where he was wined and dined enthusiastically by the plantation owners. He showered marriage proposals and cases of venereal disease on their daughters and thoroughly imbibed their attitudes. In his maiden speech before fellow members of the House of Lords in their red and ermine robes, he called himself “an attentive observer of the state of the negroes,” who found them well cared for and “in a state of humble happiness.” On another occasion, he warned that Britain‘s abolishing the trade would mean the slaves would be transported by foreigners, “who would not use them with such tenderness and care.”


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 Yorkshire, widely respected for his piety and eloquence. Except for his lifelong opposition to slavery, Wilberforce was Clarkson’s political opposite. Where Clarkson was swept up by the radical currents of the age, Wilberforce feared democratic impulses, labor unions, rising wages, and women’s participation in political life. Nonetheless, the two men were good friends and worked together closely for nearly 50 years.


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 Bristol doctor whom Clarkson had persuaded to keep a journal.


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 Edinburgh stretched the entire length of the House of Commons floor. Twenty thousand people signed in Manchester — nearly one-third of the city’s population. Petitions from some small towns bore the signatures of almost every literate inhabitant. Altogether, there were 519 petitions from all over England, Scotland, and Wales.


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. Dundas began by declaring himself in favor of abolition, at which those in the gallery must have felt their spirits rise. He then went even further, and declared himself in favor of emancipation of the slaves…but far in the future, he added quickly, and after much preparation and education. Then, to the abolitionists’ dismay, he introduced an amendment that inserted the word “gradually” in Wilberforce’s motion to abolish the slave trade. This signaled the moment that comes in every political crusade, when the other side is forced to adopt the crusaders’ rhetoric: The factory farm labels its produce “natural”; the oil company declares itself environmentalist. Dundas had called himself an abolitionist, but he asked that abolition be postponed.


The tall, slender prime minister, William Pitt, not yet 33 years old, spoke last, at 4 a.m. 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 France to increase its slave trading when it was desperately trying to put down a vast rebellion — the Haitian revolution — in its prime colony? And as for the trade itself, Pitt asked, “How, sir! Is this enormous evil ever to be eradicated, if every nation is thus prudentially to wait till the concurrence of all the world shall have been obtained?”


Finally, Pitt made a grand historical comparison that cleverly made use of the country’s imperial arrogance. Britain, he declared, and British laws and achievements, were the acme of human civilization. But was it fair to call Africa barbarous and uncivilized, and to say that the slave traders were doing no harm by removing people from that continent? For in Britain, too, many centuries earlier, one would have found slavery and human sacrifice. “Why might not some Roman Senator…pointing to British Barbarians, have predicted with equal boldness, ‘There is a people that will never rise to civilization’…?” Legend has it that just as he concluded, the first rays of the rising sun burst through the large window behind the Speaker’s chair.


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, Britain and France went to war — a conflict that lasted, with only two short interruptions, for 22 years, ending only at Waterloo. The fighting brought with it a wave of repression: Every progressive movement, including abolition, was stopped in its tracks. It was not until 1806, after Clarkson, his hair now turning white, had toured the country rallying the faithful again, that the abolitionists found a way of cloaking a partial slave-trade ban in patriotic colors. Despite the war, British-owned slave ships, it turned out, were stealthily but profitably supplying slaves to French colonies. Parliament swiftly forbade this, and with the momentum from that move, the abolitionists were able to get both houses to ban the entire British slave trade in 1807.


They were still confident that this would soon spell the end of slavery itself. However, now that Caribbean planters were no longer able to replace slaves worked to death by buying shiploads of new ones, they eased working conditions and improved the slaves’ diet. By the 1820s, the slave birthrate was rising. In England, the movement came back to life, pushing now for emancipation. Once again, in his 60s, Clarkson headed off around the country, traveling for more than a year all told, visiting his contacts from decades before — or, more often, their children — and helping to start more than 200 local committees. With their eyes again on a very conservative Parliament, he and his colleagues were cautious, advocating freeing the slaves in slow stages.


But this time something different happened. More than 70 “Ladies'” anti-slavery societies sprang up throughout Britain; influenced by a fiery Quaker pamphleteer named Elizabeth Heyrick, they mostly pushed for immediate, not gradual, freedom. One woman activist wrote, “Men may propose only gradually to abolish the worst of crimes, and only mitigate the most cruel bondage, but why should we countenance such enormities…?”


When news of the revived movement crossed the Atlantic, at the end of 1831, it helped ignite the largest slave rebellion ever seen in the British West Indies. More than 20,000 slaves rose up throughout northwestern Jamaica. Planters had long liked to build their grand balconied homes on breezy heights, and, now going up in flames, they acted as signal beacons. As the militia were closing in on one plantation in rebel hands, a slave set fire to the sugar works, shouting, before she was shot, “I know I shall die for it, but my children shall be free!”


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 Britain‘s establishment that the cost of continued slavery was too high. William Taylor, a former Jamaican plantation manager and police magistrate, testified before a parliamentary committee that the revolts “will break out again, and if they do you will not be able to control them…. I cannot understand how you can expect [slaves] to be quiet, who are reading English newspapers.”


After the most massive campaign of petitions and demonstrations yet seen, Parliament finally gave in. Nearly 800,000 slaves throughout the British Empire became free on August 1, 1838. On the sweltering night before, the Baptist church in Falmouth, Jamaica, hung its walls with branches, flowers, and portraits of Clarkson and Wilberforce. A coffin was inscribed “Colonial Slavery, died July 31st, 1838, aged 276 years” and was filled with chains, an iron collar, and a whip. An open grave lay waiting outside. Just after midnight, singing parishioners lowered the coffin into it. Slavery in the largest empire on earth was over.


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.]

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