Here in London, many people are making a pretty big deal out of an Act passed by Parliament in March 1807 that outlawed the involvement of British ships in the slave trade. Just a block or two from I’m staying, the British Museum has a lot of special events relating to this bicentennial (e.g., this one, on Sunday.) There’s a movie coming out called Amazing Grace, that is based on the life of the abolitionist MP William Wilberforce. I see the British Quakers have put together an interesting little on-line exhibition to mark this bicentennary, featuring some texts and other items from the collections of Friends House Library.
I think it’s excellent to remember this anniversary, and to find ways to reconnect with the strong ethical and religious sense of all those who worked and organized to end the transatlantic slave trade. As far as I understand the long, long global history of that ghastly institution, the enslaved persons in the Americas were about the first slaves in history whose condition of bondage and status as chattel was passed down from parent to child. And in fact, in a cruel irony, as the transatlantic trade in enslaved persons of African origin died out– due to laws being passed against it on both sides of the Atlantic, not just one– the value of the slaves who were already in place, working under horrendous conditions in the US, many Caribbean islands, and some South American nations, merely rose… And there was a strong incentive, until the whole institution of slavery was outlawed, which took many further decades, for slave-“owners” to try to breed their slave-stock as much as much possible, a matter to which many white men in slave-owning communities made a big personal contribution.
If you look at the (US Census Bureau-derived) demographic table in this section of the relevant Wikipedia page, you can see that between 1810 and 1860 the number of enslaved persons in the US rose from 1.2 million to nearly 4.0 million– despite the fact that the importation of additional slaves had been outlawed by Congress in 1808.
Imagine how many enslaved women were raped by white men and boys as part of that “breeding” program. Yes, another proportion of them doubtless bore children from relationships with enslaved men, and I hope that many of those relationships were marked by affection… But whether there was affection or no, the practitioners of the institution of slavery gave almost no recognition to ties of marriage or any other kinds of family ties among the “slaves” whom they owned. As many slave testimonies told, husbands and wives among the enslaved persons could be (and were) as easily separated as parents and children. A man, woman, or child could be “sold down the river” at a moment’s notice; or whole families could be split up when the “property” of a deceased slave-“owner” was divided among his heirs…
I started traveling towards becoming a Quaker some ten-plus years ago, spurred overwhelmingly by my reading of the journal of John Woolman, who was a mid-18th-century Quaker who grew up in a strongly Quaker community near Philadelphia. Woolman pursued many very important ministries of justice and conscience during his life, including by calling attention to the status of the native Americans, and by agitating against Pennsylvania’s raising of a war tax. (This was in the 1750s– quite a long time before the secessionist UDI movement called by its participants the “American Revolution.”)
But one of the most important ministries he pursued was undoubtedly the one against the institution of slavery.
By that point, many, many portions of the white settler community in the US were heavily involved in the institution of slavery… including some portion of just about all the many Christian denominations that had proliferated in the settler communities by then– and yes, that included the Quakers— and also a portion of the Jewish settlers. As far as I know it was only the Mennonites, among the Christians (and perhaps the other Anabaptists?) who had never participated in the owning or trading of enslaved persons. But many, many Quakers certainly had.
Actually, if you go back and read what the founder of Quakerism, George Fox, had written about the institution of slavery in the 1670s, you will see it is far from being any kind of forthright protest against the whole institution. See what he wrote, for example, here:
‘…if you were in the same condition as the Blacks are…now I say, if this should be the condition of you and yours, you would think it hard measure, yea, and very great Bondage and Cruelty. And therefore consider seriously of this, and do you for and to them, as you would willingly have them or any other to do unto you…were you in the like slavish condition.’
There were huge hyper-profits to be made in the business; and some were made by Quaker plantation owners in the southern states or Quaker slave-traders in Rhode Island and other states to the north.
Eighty years after George Fox was writing, John Woolman came along. He saw at first hand the misery and inequity of the institution of slavery. He heard all the allegedly “do-gooding” claims of the slave-holders and slave-traders among the Quakers… that they were “saving these poor souls from the misery of wars in Africa”, etc etc… and he slowly confronted them with his witness, one-by-one, and also in small groups and at impassioned meetings for worship and business.
He was not alone. There were other American Quaker abolitionists who joined him in his campaign. But he was the one who kept an extremely moving journal of all his efforts… And between them, these Quaker men and women made a big difference. They managed to persuade all the Quakers of the US to dissociate themselves from the institution; and it was on the basis of that achievement that many Quakers of later decades then became leaders in the broad national movement against what the Americans have often called the “peculiar institution.”
Too bad that, come the 1860s, it was only through the waging of an extremely fierce and bloody war that slavery was finally ended forever in the country. (More on that, perhaps, later: I really think that war was the biggest test for the pacifism of US Quakers– much more so than the distant war against Hitlerism some 80 years later.) Anyway, I guess the ferocity with which the southern whites fought in that war was a marker of just how very profitable the whole institution had been for them…
Back home in Charlottesville, Virginia,my good friend Bill Anderson– who’s an Anglican peace activist and an African-American— has a couple of times said to me, “Helena, I always have a soft spot for Quakers: Your people freed my family back in the 1830s.” I never know what to say. I feel much more ashamed that back at one point, Quakers in Virginia may well have actually “owned” some of Bill’s ancestors, than I feel happy that they eventually helped to “free” some of them.
I guess I wish the events here in Britain being held to mark the bicentennary of this country’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807 had a little less smug self-satisfaction, and a little more real reflectiveness to them. After all, should we really be doing much celebrating if someone stops beating his wife??
When I say “reflectiveness”, I just want to note that I’ve seen nothing in all the many newspaper articles and other items of commentary on this anniversary which looks at how many of the fine institutions of the “Enlightenment” here in Britain, as in the rest of Europe and also, certainly, in the Americas, were financed with the hyper-profits from the slave trade… And then, absolutely no reflection at all on the degree to which the legacies of the slave trade and other crimes of colonialism still live on in Africa; or, on whether these very rich and settled former slave-trading societies of northern Europe should not take seriously the task of effecting some real form of reparations to those ravaged home-communities of Africa.
… I do just want to put in links to two really excellent resources for anyone studying this subject. One is this book, Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews With Virginia Ex-Slaves, reprinted by the University of Virginia Press from a series of excellent interviews made by (generally) African-American interviewers, with some of the last living ex-slaves in the 1930s. The other is Hugh Thomas’s The Slave Trade, The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870.
But what I really want to say here is this. By the time John Woolman got around to visiting his fellow-Quakers up and down the east coast of America in the 1750s, many of those he visited had succeeded in becoming quite strongly convinced that the institution of slavery was not just acceptable, but also good and ethical. It took Woolman and his friends many years of persistent persuasion to convince them of the error of their ways.
From today’s perspective, the error of their ways seems blindingly obvious!
So what practices are we engaged in today– practices that we may well think are not just acceptable, but beyond that, actively good and ethical– that future generations will look back and say “Unbelievable! How could people back then do such terribly damaging things???”