Quakers and slavery – keeping it under their hats

Originally published by BBC News on 22 March 2007

Stephen Tomkins – author of William Wilberforce, a Biography.

Quakers started the British campaign against the slave trade and invented modern campaigning, championing the petition and the consumer boycott, and mastering the use of images and logos. Not that they like to shout about it.
It is perhaps the defining image of the battle to end the slave trade. Not a picture of a shackled slave, or some gruesome punishment, but a cross-section of a ship.
It is a ship packed so full that the mind boggles at the sheer logistics of inhumanity.

Engraving of the fully loaded Brookes slave ship
The engraving of the fully loaded Brookes slave ship

The use of the engraving of the Liverpool slave ship, the Brookes, is the perfect example of how Quaker mastery of PR kick-started the movement that toppled the slave trade.

“In any honest cause there is no agitator like a Quaker,” said the abolitionist George Stephen. But today their contribution has largely been forgotten.
Anyone in full possession of the facts would agree, it is time for that to be put right; few, if any, deserve greater credit for the defeat of slavery and the slave trade than them.
The campaign to abolish the slave trade was an overwhelmingly religious affair. The importance of evangelical Anglicans, like William Wilberforce and John Newton, is well known.
But Quakers were the pioneers of the movement, its brains, and much of the soul too. The more you delve into the story, the more you find Quakers under every shadow.
The Quaker Anthony Benezet published a formative attack on the slave trade in 1772, 17 years before Wilberforce’s first abolition motion. Long before Wilberforce first spoke on the issue, the Quakers had formed a campaigning group, petitioned Parliament and distributed tens of thousands of free tracts.

This print seemed to make an instantaneous impression of horror upon all who saw it

When the first Anglicans got involved – the philanthropist Granville Sharp, the rector James Ramsay and the passionate young ordinand Thomas Clarkson – it was the Quakers who published their literature and brought them together.
Thus the Abolition Committee was formed, the engine of the movement. It consisted of 12 men, nine of them Quakers. The evidence and testimonies that Clarkson dug up for them all round the country were essential to the cause, but equally essential was the PR genius of the Quakers.
They had a century of experience campaigning for their own rights, and channelled this expertise into defending the rights of slaves. As Adam Hochschild has argued in Bury the Chains, the movement forged most of the tools used by campaigners today. They pioneered the mass petition and the consumer boycott, targeting Caribbean sugar.
The committee invented the campaign slogan and logo, commissioning Wedgwood to produce a design of a slave in chains with the words “Am I not a man and a brother?”. They got the poet William Cowper to write them a civil rights ballad.

Logo of the Abolition Committee designed by Josiah Wedgewood, showing a chained male slave on one knee holding up his hands in supplication with the words "Am I not a man and a brother?"
Josiah Wedgewood designed a much used logo

And in the greatest PR coup of the movement, the committee’s publication of the Brookes diagram, which showed 482 slaves lying shoulder to shoulder, made “an instantaneous impression of horror on all who saw it” according to Clarkson.
The national network of Quaker meeting houses proved vital to mobilising the public and spreading information. Some of the most radical anti-slavery voices were Quakers – such as Elizabeth Heyrick, who argued, exceptionally, that when the slaves were freed it was they and not their owners who should be compensated.
The Quakers were natural enemies of slavery, with their fundamental belief in equality in a hierarchical society where that was still highly controversial. They believed above all else that every person is made in the image of God and carries the divine light, so it is blasphemous to elevate one above another.
They refused to raise their hats to their social betters or to call them “my lord”, “my lady” or even “you”, insisting on the familiar “thou”. Their egalitarianism was still quite scandalous in the 18th Century, but it made slavery uniquely abhorrent to the Quakers.

Sugar and rum boycott
Mass petitions
Logos on range of items
Lobbying MPs
Posters and pamphlets
The problem was that they were a dangerous sect of fanatics, according to the received wisdom, so no-one listened to a word they said. They were excluded from public office.
This is why they needed to work with Anglicans like Wilberforce, who brought both respectability and political power to the movement. It is also why their involvement was not especially celebrated at the time, and why it was easily forgotten afterwards.
The modern Quakers do not plan any major national commemoration of their role in ending the trade, preferring for the most part low-key local services. Their efforts will instead be focused on current campaigns, including their efforts to end the use of child soldiers.
They are not the only unsung heroes of abolition. James Ramsay, for example, had a huge impact, being the first Anglican clergyman to publish revelations of plantation life, and became a martyr to the movement when constant attacks from colonists destroyed his health.
But there can be few people who have done so much in such a good cause as the Quakers, and been so little recognised.

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