By Dafydd Rees
What the Campaign against Slavery teaches us about effective communications
One positive benefit of the continuing COVID-19 lockdown is the opportunity it offers to read.
The Interest: How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery was published just before Christmas. It is compelling and compulsive.
It is one of the most enthralling stories I’ve had the good fortune to read. So good in fact, I’ve been inspired to share my enthusiasm with you in the hope that this well-researched historical account reaches a much wider audience.
The author Michael Taylor has sought to correct the spin that, in the collective effort to end the awful injustice of slavery, Britain blazed as a beacon of moral righteousness in the early decades of the nineteenth century.
It’s true that in 1807 parliament banned the slave trade. But it took a generation to overcome a powerful array of delaying tactics before, in the 1830’s, hundreds of thousands of slaves across the British empire were finally freed.
A highly organised and well-funded defence of Slavery was mounted in Government and by powerful business interests heavily invested in the sugar trade in the West Indies. The Establishment utilised every spurious economic, moral and indeed religious argument to justify the continuation of Slavery.
For me, the fascination as I read this account was the resonance of the strategy and tactics of those leading the campaign for emancipation. Their use of petitions, boycotts and compelling content chimes down the ages.
There are clear parallels with other historic struggles such as the campaign for votes for women, Anti-Apartheid and indeed the challenge of tackling Climate Change today.
In the early decades of the nineteenth century, a small group of individuals combined persuasion with persistence to fight for the abolition of Slavery. The Anti-Slavery Society exerted discreet influence behind the scenes at Westminster while building an effective grassroots organisation. They also provided the public with compelling stories and reactive arguments. This was not a simple or an easy struggle. Their setbacks and failures are detailed in The Interest as clearly as are their successes.
This is a history with forgotten heroes and heroines.
For me, the Quaker Elizabeth Heyrick from Leicester stands out as a personal favourite for her single-minded determination. In the 1820’s she organised a female-led boycott of slave produced Sugar from the West Indies and also published a pamphlet entitled “Immediate, not Gradual Emancipation” which became an international bestseller.
Thomas Clarkson toured hundreds of towns across Britain for many years with nothing more than a box in his hands. His genius was to communicate to tens of thousands of ordinary people with no direct experience, both the sophistication of African culture and the savagery of Slavery. The box contained African cultural artefacts as well as the shackles and thumbscrews used to control slaves.
Telling human stories which connected with their audience was as critical then as it is today.
Both pro and anti-slavery campaigns principally focused on producing content whether it be in written or in visual form. While liberal publications such as The Edinburgh Review and Westminster Review made the case for ending Slavery, the pro-slavery business lobby established in 1823 its own “Literary Committee” with an annual budget of close to £2m a year in today’s money. Its purpose was to fund authors and artists prepared to make the case that Slavery deserved a future. Their articles and publications were then in turn delivered by hand to every Member of Parliament.
These are just a sample of the contemporary echoes I found so enthralling while pouring over the pages of The Interest. I hope that I’ve convinced you that it’s worth learning more about this fascinating and troubling period in our national history for yourself.