Essay on Quakers Role in Helping Abolish Slavery

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Sewanee University of the South
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Research paper
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Quakers are members of a religious group with Christian roots that started in Britain in the mid seventeenth century. The movement is formally known as the Society of Friends. They believe that there is a God-like trait in everyone and that every human being is of exceptional worth. This is the reason why they value all individuals equally, and oppose anyone or anything that is likely to threaten or harm people. Their beliefs spurred them to start the abolition campaign in Britain. The Quakers played a major role in the abolition of slavery and slave trade in Britain and the Americas. The capture, transportation and enslavement of millions of Africans to plantations located in the Americas inspired the first ever human rights campaign in history. It took a lot of commitment and enduring passion from men and women who lobbied, campaigned and fought to bring the slave trade to an end. The Quakers were among these people. According historical records, they were the earliest supporters from Britain of the anti-slavery cause. During the first few years after the movement started in the 1650s, most Quakers would not have cared much about slavery since it was not practiced much in Britain. However, it was very widespread in British colonies in North America and Caribbean. Britain itself was very much involved in the slave trade considering that many British captives shipped captives from western Africa to the New World in order to sell to rich householders and plantation owners. Hence, as early Quakers and other like-minded people sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, they experienced slavery first hand; with some even becoming slave-owners themselves. However, they soon realized that the issue of one human being owning another went against their belief that all people are fundamentally equal.

The Quakers were not doing this all by themselves. In North America and Britain, the main strength of the abolitionist movement was the fortitude of the slaves themselves and the effort they put to free themselves. Nonetheless, Quakers made unique and vital efforts of their own in several ways. For one, they highlighted as a moral issue as far back as the 1670s and 1680s. When William Edmundson and George Fox, two of the earliest Quakers, went to Barbados in 1671, they came face to face with the harsh realities of slave labor. Fox immediately started calling for better treatment while Edmonton was outrightly condemning the practice by 1675.

In 1688, the Quakers made their first ever public protest in Germantown, Pennsylvania. They expressed the view that individuals should not be considered as deserving to be slaves just because they are black. Also, the earliest officially minuted meeting against the slavery and slave trade was organized and attended by Pennsylvanian Quakers. They held an annual general meeting in which they decided to mobilize Quaker merchants to write to their correspondents living abroad informing them not to send more African to be sold as slaves.

While the British Quakers had migrated to Pennsylvania in the 1680s, they still looked to the annual meeting held in London for advice on the way forward as the parent organization. All in all, since they could observe the horrors associated with slavery first hand, the America-based members took the initiative of sending information to London while at the same time urging decisive action against the practice. In 1727, the meeting officially expressed its discontentment with slavery and the slave trade. Further condemnations by the Quakers followed, including a decision made in 1761 to disown any member who failed to comply with the rule of not owning slaves.

The slow manner in which the anti-slavery movement evolved can be seen in the 65-year gap between the first time the Pennsylvanian Quakers denounced slavery and when the British Quakers decided to excommunicate colleagues who owned slaves. It took then an additional 22 years to come up with a campaign strategy that would later lay the foundation for those employed by abolitionists. In 1783, it came to the Quakers attention that a Bill about the slave trade was undergoing an intense debate. In June that year, they forwarded the first ever anti-slave trade petition to Parliament that had been signed by more than 200 hundred members. A few days later, the executive board of the annual meeting known as the Meeting of Suffering formed a 23-membe committee whose duty was to gather and publish information related to slavery and the slave trade. This marked the birth of the first ever anti-slavery organization in Britain. The goal of this organization was to inform the public on the evils associated with the slave trade as well as come up with techniques such as lobbying MPs and posting anti-slavery articles on newspapers. Between 1783 and 1784, it distributed more than 12,000 copies of a public address to members of the British royal family and MPs.

A British abolitionist called Thomas Clarkson was inspired by the work of Anthony Benezet and his fellow Quakers in raising awareness on the evils of slavery. He then quite unexpectedly joined forces with Benezet in expanding the anti-slavery campaign to most parts of Britain. Clarkson once wrote an essay that won a prestigious prize presented by Cambridge University. After winning the prize, he was introduced top figures of the movement. It was evident that the admiration between him and the Quakers was mutual, with a Quaker attorney called Richard Phillips particularly impressed by his determination. Phillips was well versed with how the government worked and knew some of the politicians that the abolitionists would have to convince, while Clarkson possessed the required academic background. Such a blend of talent spurred the two men to opt to work together in finding out how the slave trade worked.

The partnership between Phillips and Clarkson resulted in the creation of the Committee for Effecting the Abolition of Slave Trade in 1787. Together with a lawyer called Granville Sharp and a movement member known as Phillip Samson, they joined forces with nine other Quakers to form the committee. Although Sharp has not been given the historical recognition that he deserves, he was quite an important figure. He played a crucial role in organizing the legal actions put in place demanding for the emancipation of the so-called African servants, as they were often referred to, in Britain. It was him who took the case of the Zong slave ship massacre before Judge George Mansfield.

Phillips and Clarkson were aware of the need for a member of parliament as one of the supporters of the movement. This was because the oath taken in parliament had some religious restrictions enshrined in it that effectively prevented people of certain faiths from getting into Parliament for a long time. This is where the 26-year-old MP for Hull called William Wilberforce came into play. He has been toying with the idea of advancing one of two causes: championing anti-slavery or minimizing vice in Britain. After consulting with William Pitt the Younger, who was then the British Prime Minister, Wilberforce decided to go with abolition of slave trade. He was introduced to Clarkson and eventually agreed to be the anti-slavery movements parliamentary figurehead.

With Phillips assistance, Clarkson managed to get access to custom statistics and house records that detailed the number of sailors taking part in slavery voyages. This marked the start of his now famous investigative tour of Britain, collecting evidence from sailors and slave ship captain who had travelled to Africa to capture and then transport slaves to plantations in the Caribbean. Armed with such proof, Clarkson was able to think of both the economic and moral arguments for the slave trade to be put to an end. If he failed to appeal to audience mutual sense of humanity on the horrors that slaves went through, he could at least underline the hidden costs to Britain. An example of such costs was the deaths of British sailors who contracted diseases like dysentery on slavery voyages.

Armed with the findings of his research, Clarkson made another tour of the country, presenting to the public the case for abolition of slavery. For instance, he displayed the chains and shackles that captured Africans were forced to wear while marching to the ports and while inside the slave ships. He also narrated about the journeys of British sailors to and from Africa as well as their deaths from diseases such as dysentery. He urged people to offer support to the abolitionist movement by creating local anti-slavery groups whose role would be to raise awareness in their respective areas. They would also sign petitions that would be forwarded to parliament and raise funds to support the movements work. The first ever petition was gotten from a local group from Bridgewater in Somerset, prompting Clarkson to travel to the area in order to meet its members and learn something from their experiences. It turned out that petitions were rather popular with the public despite the fact that women could not take part in petition signing since at the time they were not allowed to vote. for instance, a petition from Manchester advocating for the slave trade to be regulated contained signatures amounting to over a fifth of the citys total population.

The anti-slavery movement adopted tools and strategies that any modern campaigner, activist or ordinary person would be familiar with. It also came up with an identifiable logo in the form of a Wedgwood-designed medallion bearing the words Am I not a man and a brother? It was placed various items such as snuffboxes, womens jewelry, purses and hairpins. The logo turned out to be an inclusive logo that men, women and generally individuals from different social classes could buy as a way of showing off their solidarity with the movement. The application of strong imagery was crucial to garnering support for the anti-slavery movement together with highlighting the unpleasant conditions that slaves were subjected to. Perhaps the most iconic image was the Brookes print that was designed by a Quaker called James Phillips. It was a diagram that portrayed the ghastly conditions that more than four hundred slaves endured while aboard a slave ship called Brookes. A print of the image was included in a book by Clarkson titled Cries of Africa to the inhabitants of Europe. By 1789, almost a thousand copies of the image had been distributed, with local groups using it to support the cause and raise further awareness. Boycott was another notable strategy used by local groups in the campaign. For example, Clarkson incited abolitionists not to buy sugar cultivated in plantations and then manufactured using slave labor. According to his own estimates, more than 400,000 people in Britain declined to consume sugar from the plantations by 1792.

The anti-slavery movement went on enthusiastically until it achieved some relative success. In 1807, the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed that British people from taking part in the trade with Africans. All in all, this milestone did not distract the abolitionists from the bigger goal of emancipating enslaved Africans, something that was not addressed by the Act. Wilberforce encouraged the movement to campaign for the introduction of measures that would improve conditions of those working in the plantations, as well as plans to gradually emancipate slaves. The committee underwent some evolution, and in 1823, altered its name to the London Society for Mitigating and Gradually Abolishing the State of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions. The idea was that the new name would mirror its new position. By 1824, the group had more than 200 local groups that carried out the campaign. From 1828 up to 1830, the British Parliament has gotten more than 5,000 petitions from these groups calling for t...

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