The historic anti-slavery campaigners pioneered some of the key features of modern approaches to reducing income disparity and abolishing extreme poverty.
Organising committees: In Britain, in 1787, The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed as the national committee. It met frequently and ran a nationwide campaign. Its members had complementary backgrounds. The 9 Quakers brought resources, business skills and networks. Granville Clark (the chair) and Thomas Clarkson (the secretary), both Anglicans, brought their Parliamentary and legal connections and expertise.
Research and evidence gathering: Thomas Clarkson rode 35,000 miles on horseback to collect the evidence that was used in publications, speeches and in Parliament. The powerful pro-slave trade community disputed that anything was wrong and asserted the all-round benefits to all including the slaves. Research and witnesses, such as sailors and ships’ doctors, were essential to prove this was false.
Historic legal test cases: James Somerset was a slave who was brought to Britain and escaped. He appealed to the law when he was recaptured and about to be forced to return to Jamaica. Here the right to “property” (a slave) and the right to liberty clashed. Granville Sharp took up the case and won it – although the judge tried not to make it a precedent. In 1783 Sharp was brought into a “property insurance” case in which the captain of the Zong slave ship jettisoned 133 living slaves in order to claim £30 each for them as lost property. Sharp failed to prove that this was murder, but the case made its moral impact nevertheless.
Logo and posters: the logo was an enchained slave with “Am I not a man and a Brother?” as its strapline. The famous poster was of The Brookes, a slave ship, with a diagram showing the appallingly cramped “accommodation” of slaves.
Merchandise: cameos, seals, snuffboxes, cuff links, medallions and Wedgewood chinaware were all embossed with the logo.
Publications: James Philips, the Quaker printer, organised mass production of the case against the slave trade.
Petitioning and lobbying Parliament: By 1788, just a year after beginning, there were 103 petitions by 60-100,000 people. The movement’s spokesman, William Wilberforce, made many contributions in debates and used his influence to organise votes.
Fundraising: four of the committee were Quaker businessmen and bankers – Joseph Woods, James Philips, George Harrison and Samuel Hoare. They grasped the need for resources and knew where to obtain them. When needed, fundraising letters were circulated successfully.
Boycotting slave-produced goods: in Britain many people (the Anti-Saccharites) refused to buy West Indies plantation sugar. In the USA the Free Produce Committees refused to deal in any slave-produced items.
Civil disobedience: in the 19th century, many Quakers in North America joined with others to help slaves escape, (via the Underground Railroad), although it was against the Fugitive Slave laws of 1793 and 1850. It was a courageous and conscience-driven response based on higher values than the demands of the state.
Public debates: there were many public debates (in which women took part), which aroused great interest.
Political realism and strategy: they made their first political compromise at the beginning. They sought to end the transatlantic slave trade not slavery itself as a first attainable goal, in the light of the political situation. There was competition by colonial powers to control the slave trade, and nervousness abounded from the 1789 French Revolution, which enabled any campaigning to be characterised as “sedition”.
For the times, women played a remarkable role: Women did not have the vote but they were the backbone of the movement in its popular appeal. Leaders like Elizabeth Heyrick, Anne Knight, Mary Prince and Lucretia Mott were outstanding. They led in implementing produce boycotts, and spoke in many public debates. The female anti-slavery societies developed a much more powerful and consistent moral imperative than the male leadership, which equivocated when faced with political resistance and rejection.
“Burn out” and revival: The 1787-1807 campaign hit a low point in 1794-97 when the committee only met six times. 11 bills were lost in Parliament from 1792 onwards. The war with France diverted attention, and Clarkson temporarily dropped out of public life and went to the Lake District. It was the Quaker committee member George Harrison who reignited the movement in 1803.