Thomas Clarkson, by Carl Frederik von Breda, 1788 - NPG 235 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

On my last day in London I came away with a portrait of one of my
heroes, Thomas Clarkson, one of the most successful community organizers
and social entrepreneurs of all time. In 1787 he was the youngest  among
12 ordinary but determined citizens who met in the backroom of a print
shop in London to plot the end of slavery.  The campaign they launched
that day would, in twenty years end with the abolition of the slave
trade throughout the British Empire.  This in turn produced a domino effect in France, the United States and elsewhere.  While the struggles continue today what they achieved in a generation was remarkable.

To understand the magnitude of their accomplishment, it is important to realize
that at the time human bondage was the status quo.  Well over three quarters of all people in the world were in various kinds
of slavery and serfdom at the end of the 18th century.  Freedom, not slavery was the minority position.  The strategies and tactics adopted during the anti-slave trade campaign are still in use today.  Anyone interested in social change would benefit by studying the campaign innovations they devised or perfected:

  • first campaign in history where people were not protesting their own treatment. Instead they fueled a movement based on outrage at the oppression of Africans sold into slavery
  • they mastered the ability to make people locally care deeply about what was happening somewhere else and to people of a different race and color
  • they created the first consumer boycott on sugar – Slave ships on their return carried sugar and molasses.  A sugar boycott had an economic impact which got the attention of politicians. This was largely supported by women who despite not have the voting franchise themselves flexed their economic muscle. 300,000 people supported the sugar boycott.
  • public opinion was mobilized and  a movement created by pioneering slogans (Am I Not a Man and a Brother?) petitions, book tours, newsletters, public hearings
  • first direct mail fund raising letters
  • first use of a logo for a political cause designed by Josiah Wedgwood (yes that Wedgwood) and appearing on posters, cufflinks, hairpins, books – the forerunner of today's campaign buttons  
  • first political book tour – the best selling biography of an escaped and freed slave,
    Olaudah Equiano 

Clarkson was a tireless, creative organizer consistently working 16 hour days. On one occasion he rode nearly two thousand miles encountering nothing but refusals as people "fled me as they would a wild beast"  He proposed alternative trade products (wood, spices, cloths) to illustrate Africa could be a trading partner in something other than slaves. He attracted philanthropists, academics, scholars, and artists to the cause.

Most important he understood the importance of the transition from campaigning to passing
legislation. He deliberately sought the
support of an establishment political insider, William Wilberforce to secure legislative change.  He spent his modest inheritance, corresponded with 400 people personally, suffered death threats, was constantly exhausted and ostracized by many of his peers.  Yet the movement he built continues to fight slavery and the underlying attitudes that give rise to it.

What a shame, amidst a city of plaques and monuments not one exists on the London street where a mere dozen, believing in the capacity of human beings to care for each other, met to change the world.

NOTE:  For the full story of the crusade to end the slave trade I strongly recommend Adam Hochschild's, Bury The Chains – Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves.  I consider it the bible for grass roots campaigning.  It will stimulate your strategic thinking and inspire majestic thoughts.

Footnotes:                 

  1. Unfairly, the politician William Wilberforce receives most of the credit for ending the slave trade.  Indeed he was the parliamentarian who introduced bill after bill into the House but he was not the strategist or inspired organizer that Clarkson was.  After his death, Wilberforce's sons tried to purge any mention or reference to the role played by Clarkson.  As a result Clarkson was not granted a memorial stone on the floor of Westminister Abbey until 1996 – ironically it was beneath the statue of Wilberforce which had been erected 150 years earlier!  Such has been the 'lot' of most community organizers, Barrack Obama notwithstanding, ever since.
  2. John Newton the composer of the beautiful spiritual hymm, Amazing Grace, is often wrongly assumed to be a leading abolitionist.  In fact he was a slave trader and preacher who joined the abolitionists very late in the campaign and 30 years after his supposed conversion.
  3. Slaves in Haiti (then called St. Dominigue) were the first to successfully rebel against both the French and British.  And have been penalized ever since.  The reason Haiti is so poor today is a direct result of reparations (half a billion dollars in 1825 dollars) forced on them by France for their audacity in becoming the first nation ever formed from a slave revolt. This debt, including interest and adjustments for inflation, remained on the books until after WW2.  The respected Doctor  Paul Farmer indicates that Haiti's economy is still undermined by discriminatory practices by international financial institutions.
  4. The Book of Negroes by Canadian, Laurence Hill accurately covers much of this period from the perspective of one redoubtable, memorable character, Aminata Diallo. Worth a read.

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One Comment

  1. Sean moore

    You keep hitting home-runs with these columns, Al. What a marvellous reach back into history it is to draw these interesting parallels. One of your most interesting observations is this: “The campaign they launched that day would, in twenty years end with the abolition of the slave trade. ” Yes, 20 years. We are so used to looking for short-term results in today’s world, it’s often difficult to imagine the tenacity involved in making real change. Keep up the good work!

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