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System change - lessons from the past

System change – lessons from the past

The abolition of the slave trade

From the inception of the slave trade in the early 16th century up to the early 19th century some 11million slaves were transported from West Africa to the Caribbean or the Americas.

The countries involved were Portugal, Spain, France, Holland and Britain. The practice played a major economic role for these countries involving a triangular trade, made up of exports to Africa, (iron goods, weapons and textiles) slaves out to the West Indies and the Americas, sugar tobacco, and spices back to Britain and the other countries involved. The trade was a major source of prosperity to Liverpool, London and Bristol. It provided a powerful stimulus to the shipbuilding and shipping industries

Slave-owning planters, and merchants who dealt in slaves and slave produce, were among the richest people in 18th-century Britain. Profits from these activities helped to endow All Souls College, Oxford, with a splendid library, to build a score of banks, including Barclays, The Tate Gallery and to finance the experiments of James Watt, inventor of the first really efficient steam engine.

Merchant bankers, heavily involved in the slave-based trades, extended vital credit to the early cotton manufacturers of its Lancashire hinterland. In 1772 the trade was described as ‘the foundation of our commerce, the support of our colonies, the life of our navigation, and the first cause of our national industry and riches’. In 1783 William Pitt stated that it provided 80% of Britain’s income from overseas

Abolition was seen as inconceivable. The slave trade was a ‘taken for granted’ pillar of the nation’s commercial life.

The case for abolition was countered by the argument that If Britain abolished it the resultant gap in the trade would be taken up by her competitors, France, Spain and Portugal. (The same argument is used today in opposition to any tightening of regulations relating to such things as hedge funds or derivatives trading).

However, in the second half of the 18th century, intellectual and moral arguments against begin to appear, for example, Montesquieu’s,  L’esprit des Lois (1748); Rousseau’s,  The Social Contract(1762); Adam Smith’s, The Wealth of Nations (1776); and William Paley’s,  Moral Philosophy (1789).

In 1783 public opinion in Britain was shocked by the incident of the voyage of the Zong. This ship was sailing westwards with a cargo of slaves when the ship’s captain feared that he would not have enough water on board to last the voyage. To conserve water for the crew he threw some hundreds of slaves overboard. This came to light when, on arriving back in Britain, he claimed on the ship’s insurance for loss of cargo.

The leaders

Thomas Clarkson Thomas Clarkson's involvement with the abolitionist movement began in 1785, when he won first prize for a Latin essay competition, entitled ‘Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their wills?'The research for his essay opened his eyes to the nature of the slave trade and he was horrified at the way enslaved Africans were treated.

A red haired man who stood over 6 feet tall, he spent his long adult life working to abolish the Transatlantic Slave Trade and slavery itself. Born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire in 1760, the eldest of 3 children of the local headmaster and minister, he studied at the local grammar school and then St John's College, Cambridge.

Clarkson met other people, particularly the leading Quakers, who wanted to stop the slave trade. His essay, published by Quaker publishers in 1786, was read by many people and Clarkson became well-known. In May 1787, Clarkson and 11 other men set up the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade and persuaded William Wilberforce MP for Hull, to speak for them in Parliament. As a result, a Parliamentary investigation into the slave trade was set up. With his brilliant speeches in the House of Commons, it was Wilberforce who came to be most associated with the campaign for the abolition of slavery, but it was Clarkson who provided him with a continuous supply of evidence for the speeches.

During his life, he was to travel 35,000 miles around Britain, observing, finding witnesses, interviewing, making notes and assembling evidence about the evils of the Slave Trade. He went to the major slave trade ports of Bristol, Liverpool and Plymouth in 1787 and 1788, realising as he did so that his task was not only enormous but also dangerous. In Liverpool he had a lucky escape when he was attacked by a gang of sailors who'd been paid to kill him. In Manchester he gave a powerful speech, using many examples from his research to show how cruel the slave trade was. In France, in 1789, he tried to persuade the new French government to abolish the trade and he received more threats and abuse.

In an effort to gather hard facts about the slave trade, Thomas Clarkson visited many ports and went aboard the trading vessels. One of the first African trading ships Clarkson visited was called the ‘Lively'. It was not a slave ship but its cargo had a powerful impact upon Clarkson. The ship was full of beautiful and exotic goods: carved ivory and woven cloth along with produce such as beeswax, palm oil and peppers. Clarkson could see the craftsmanship and skill that would have been required to produce many of the items. The idea that their creators could be enslaved was horrifying. Clarkson bought samples from the ship and started a collection that he added to over the years. The collection included crops and spices and raw materials, along with the intricate goods produced with them, and was kept in a large box.

Thomas Clarkson noticed how pictures and artefacts were able to influence public opinion, more than mere words alone, and quickly realised that the contents of the chest might reinforce the message of his anti-slavery lectures. He used the contents to demonstrate the skill of Africans and the possibilities that existed for an alternative humane trading system. The 'box' became an important part of his public meetings, providing an early example of a visual aid.

A medallion was designed depicting a kneeling slave and the words ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ These were successfully sold in aid of the campaign. Society ladies had them made in gold and wore them on their gowns.

Despite the growing support around the country for the abolition cause, the first Bill introduced in 1791 was heavily defeated. Clarkson continued his travels, both collecting evidence and speaking out in public meetings, encouraging the setting up of local abolition groups and the boycotting of West Indian-grown sugar. But the constant travelling, long hours and another defeat in Parliament, in 1792, exhausted Clarkson and he withdrew from the fight, and took up farming.

In 1804 Clarkson, again became active in the anti-slavery campaign and in 1807, the slave trade was finally abolished in the British Empire, although slavery was still legal and slaves were not freed. For the rest of his life, Thomas Clarkson continued to campaign against slavery. He travelled to France in 1814 and 1815 to persuade the French to abolish the trade and enlisted the support of Tsar Alexander 1, ruler of Russia, for abolition.

In 1823, a new group was formed, supported by Clarkson and Wilberforce that aimed to abolish slavery. Clarkson, aged 63, went on another national tour, covering 10,000 miles, in order to raise support for the cause. Finally, in 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, which gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom.

£20,000,000 compensation was paid to the slave owners (the amount today would be about £1.2billion) and existing slaves had to work for their former masters for six years, as ‘apprentices’  with no pay.


William Wilberforce was born on 24 August 1759 in Hull, the son of a wealthy merchant. He studied at Cambridge University where he began a lasting friendship with the future prime minister, William Pitt the Younger. In 1780, Wilberforce became Member of Parliament for Hull, later representing Yorkshire. His dissolute lifestyle changed completely when he became an evangelical Christian, and in 1790 joined a leading group known as the Clapham Sect. His Christian faith prompted him to become interested in social reform, particularly the improvement of factory conditions in Britain. He was persuaded by Clarkson to lobby for the abolition of the slave trade and for 18 years he regularly introduced anti-slavery motions in parliament. The campaign was supported by many other members of the Clapham Sect and other abolitionists who raised public awareness of their cause with pamphlets, books, rallies and petitions.

In May 1788 Charles Fox initiated the first parliamentary debate on the issue. He denounced the "disgraceful traffic" which ought not to be regulated but destroyed. He was supported by Edmund Burke. With the support of Wilberforce a bill to regulate conditions on board slave ships was laid before parliament. The legislation was initially rejected by the House of Lords, but after William Pitt threatened to resign as Prime Minister, the bill passed 56 to 5 and received royal assent on 11th July.

Wilberforce marked his own formal entry into the parliamentary campaign on 12 May with a closely reasoned speech of three and a half hours, using its evidence to describe the effects of the trade on Africa and the appalling conditions of the middle passage. He argued that abolition would lead to an improvement in the conditions of slaves already in the West Indies, and sought to answer the economic arguments of his opponents. For him, however, the fundamental issue was one of morality and justice.

The lessons for system change today

The slave trade was supported by very powerful vested interests at every level of society, from the landed gentry who owned vast estates in the New World, through the merchant bankers, the mill owners, the shipping interests, through to the sailors and others at the bottom of society who in one way or another owed their livelihoods to it. It was an extremely long-established practice dating back hundreds of years, not just in Britain but in all the European maritime nations. Opposition to its abolition was fierce, even to the extent of attempts on Thomas Clarkson’s life. Yet in the end it was abolished.

The phrase ‘in the end’ is appropriate. From the start of Clarkson’s campaign to the abolition of the trade it took 24 years of intensive campaigning both at the political level and up and down the country. It required consistent, totally dedicated leadership, both within Parliament and in society at large, by charismatic leaders willing to dedicate their whole lives to the cause. To succeed, the abolitionists needed to rouse the conscience of the mass of the people, and to do so they used communication techniques equal to those of any of today’s PR companies.

To bring about needed change in the operation of the market system so as to ensure its sustainability will require leadership of equal calibre. That leadership needs to be of two kinds: intellectual leadership that will demolish those economic theories that have underpinned the failings of the market, and moral leadership that persuades people that social and economic justice and a sustainable form of capitalism are worth making sacrifices for. It will require patience; significant change may take many years. Yet time is short; the next system failure of the financial system may be catastrophic. And, as in the case of slavery, the support of the mass of the people must be engaged.

Posted by Philip Sadler.

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