The fellowship to abolish slavery
Gazing back through the darkness of history to the 18th century, we see the horrors of the slave trade – the catching and selling of human beings, their transport across the Atlantic in appalling conditions, and the violence that turned those who arrived at island plantations into beasts of labour, who yet were men and women. We also see a fellowship that gathered to end the evil.
Accepted as a fact of life, slavery was practiced around the world, but it had been outlawed in Britain early in the 12th century at the Council of Westminster led by St. Anselm. (Scroll down) Common law reaffirmed that everyone in Britain was free, and no one could be held as a slave.
The buying and transporting of African people to the Caribbean and the Americas began in the late sixteenth century, and expanded during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Millions were transported and sold as slaves by the British, French, Portuguese, Arabs, Americans, and Brazilians.
In Britain this slave trade was at first almost invisible. There were no televised news reports about the terrible middle passage or about Africans slaving on the plantations, nor did most British people profit from slavery. They did, however, sweeten their tea and desserts with the sugar the plantations produced. In America, in 1700, Samuel Sewall denounced slavery in his pamphlet The Selling of Joseph, but though he had been born in Hampshire, he might as well have put his paper in a bottle and floated it to readers in Britain.
We are inundated by reports from all over the world, and find it hard to remember the last atrocity while facing the latest. In the world of the 18th century, word on slavery was slow to arrive, slower to be heard. There was evil in the world, but only whispers had reached the shires, which were preoccupied with problems of their own.
Those who learned of it and knew it as an evil were few at first. These few formed a fellowship to abolish the slave trade. They were brought together in ways that seem mysterious and inexplicable. Each person brought to the fellowship something only he or she could bring, and without which the whole exhausting, dangerous effort that came close to killing several of them might have failed.
They included a naval commander, a surgeon, a self-taught Classics and law scholar, a painter, a very young and rich MP, a graduate student who would ride 35,000 miles in the cause and be beaten to an inch of his life, a former slave, and a former slave trader. Men and women, they shared a singular, powerful idea, though being human they did not act on this idea all of the time or all at the same time.
Part One of the Fellowship will sketch their stories through 1785. Part Two will tell of their efforts through Parliament’s abolition of the slave trade on February 23, 1807, and the Royal Navy’s role after that.