Quakers and the Abolition of the Slave Trade: Narrative

Quakers and the Abolition of the Slave Trade

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Matthew 5.6

[Picture] Letter of Olaudah Equiano, to the Quakers, dated October 21st 1785. It expresses Equiano’s love, and exhorts the Quakers to do what they can to combat the evils of the slave trade.

In 1765 a young man of African origin, by the name of Jonathan Strong, presented himself at the medical practice of Dr William Sharp, in London’s Mincing Lane. Having been mercilessly beaten by a Barbadian lawyer named David Lisle, Strong’s injuries were so severe that he was left temporarily blind. After initial treatment Strong was transferred to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, where he took four months to recover.

How Strong found his way to Sharp’s surgery in his hour of need we do not know, but it seems very likely that the aid of strangers, unrecorded by posterity, played its part in that providential encounter. And providential it most surely was, and not only for Strong – for it was at this moment that the struggle to destroy the institution of slavery began to gain real traction in the English-speaking world.

Two years after the assault, Lisle spotted Strong in the street, arranged to kidnap him, and then sold Strong – as he believed he had the right to do – to a slave-trader. This resulted in a lawsuit that went before the most powerful judge in England, Lord Mansfield, and Strong eventually had his freedom recognised. What followed a couple of years later was an even more crucial legal case, that of James Somerset, who had been brought to England from Virginia by one Charles Stewart, a man who considered himself Somerset’s master and owner.

At the time of the Somerset lawsuit there were an estimated 20,000 persons living in England – mainly in London – who were considered and treated as slaves. That is a shocking fact, but it was an almost inevitable consequence of England’s dominance of the Atlantic slave trade, and the increasing use of slaves in the colonies of North America and the Caribbean. Nevertheless, the re-creation of a slave society represented a break with an English legal tradition that had been established for more than five centuries.

In the event, that tradition re-asserted itself: Mansfield ruled that Somerset must go free, and in so doing dealt a lethal blow to the attempt to restore legal slavery in England.

Leading the fight in both the Strong and Somerset cases was William Sharp’s remarkable brother Granville, who had encountered Jonathan Strong at the time of Lisle’s savage attack. Granville’s role in the struggle against slavery is perhaps sometimes over-looked – albeit a memorial tablet to him sits in Westminster Abbey – but he was a dogged and meticulous individual with an acutely developed sense of justice, which permeated his whole life. It was therefore perfectly understandable that when The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed in 1787, Granville Sharp took a place on its main committee – and retained that position for more than twenty years.

The formation of this abolitionist campaigning body is a moment when we can clearly perceive the part played by Quakers in tackling the evil of slavery. Among the body’s twelve founder members, no less than nine were Quakers. (Short profiles of each of these individuals are included at the end of this essay). They are even more obscure figures than Granville Sharp, although one of the non-Quakers, Thomas Clarkson, is still reasonably well-known, and has a secondary school named after him in his native Wisbech, along with a memorial.

[Picture] The 1783 Quaker petition. Source: The Abolition Project.

Obscure or not, the Quakers’ numerical dominance of The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was no accident. As described in the timeline below, Quakers on both sides of the Atlantic had been wrestling with their consciences on the question of slavery since the late seventeenth century, culminating in a petition submitted to parliament in 1783. As such, Quakers were running ahead of the society in which they lived – but they were also showing the way forward.

As Martin Luther King observed in a phrase of poetic lucidity, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. That essentially optimistic view of human history seems to be borne out by the struggle against slavery, which transformed attitudes, lives and customs over the course of a century and a quarter after the cruelly beaten Jonathan Strong presented himself at the Mincing Lane surgery.

But we should not be deceived. What may now appear, on a cursory inspection of the record, to have been the inevitable destruction of an ancient and brutal institution was by no means certain in the years when Clarkson, Sharp and their Quaker collaborators began to agitate for the cause they considered righteous.

Indeed, when the abolitionist campaign began in earnest in 1787, Quakers were seemingly quite out of step with the prevailing view, which saw the Atlantic slave trade – of which the country had won the lion’s share – as fundamental to Britain’s prosperity. The nation’s foremost military hero, Horatio Nelson, never saw anything wrong with the slave trade, and in that attitude he was merely reflecting the views of many political and military leaders (including certain prominent members of the royal court, such as the Duke of Clarence, the future King William IV). In parliament, powerful vested interests closed ranks to thwart any attack on the trade – how could a small body like the Quakers and their allies hope to achieve anything in the face of such potent opposition?

Yet the abolitionists could hope, because they were campaigning at a time of an immense and profound transformation in what we might call public opinion. That transformation can be seen, for example, in the leaflets and periodicals of the time, in the debates held in parliament, and in the numerous and very large petitions that were submitted to parliament on the issue of slavery.

In this story the enslaved were the principal protagonists, freeing themselves in countless acts of resistance large and small. But the unprecedented change in the opinions of free persons was a critical facilitator of their liberation. It was all very well for individuals to express moral outrage about slavery – that had happened for many years, and the institution was impervious to such criticism. Even the various condemnations uttered by Popes had had negligible effect. But a widespread and deeply held antipathy towards the idea of enslaving others – that was a political force of nature that no-one and no vested interest could ever withstand.

The interesting question, of course, is why the British population revised its opinions so drastically about slavery in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – with the 1780s probably the period when the change was most rapid. What seems to have happened is that the population was forced to think through the facts about slavery, and meditate on the nature of the slave’s experience, in a way it had not done before. That happened because individuals such as James Ramsay and John Newton published first-hand witness accounts of the slave trade; it happened because for the first time the voice of the person who had experienced slavery was clearly heard – notably through the remarkable autobiography of Olaudah Equiano and later with that of Mary Prince; it happened because the scandal of the Zong (1781), when a slave trader slaughtered more than a hundred Africans in order to claim insurance on his loss, shouted to the very heavens; it happened because individuals such as Thomas Clarkson went to inordinate lengths to lay before the public the brutal, inescapable facts concerning the slave trade; and ultimately, it happened because in the nation’s principal forum for debate the arguments of William Wilberforce and his allies, with their truthfulness and moral force, range out like a bell.

In sum, ordinary literate individuals could no longer plausibly claim that they did not know about the slave trade and that they did not understand its true nature. For any open-minded individual, ignorance was no longer a refuge. That was so, because of organisation, and that is why the Quaker thread to this story is important, vital we might even say. Year after year, the Quakers liaised with one another the length and breadth of the country and with their counterparts across the ocean, held public meetings, circulated pamphlets, and argued and disputed with their opponents. Slavery would, one supposes, have been abolished even if the Quakers had done nothing, but only, one suspects, if someone else had done these things.

Thus, remarkably, within twenty years of the formal start of the abolitionist campaign, it had achieved its ambitious objective, and a generation later the institution of slavery was outlawed throughout the British Empire. On the high seas, the British accomplished a remarkable U-turn, morally and in policy terms – sending the ships of the Royal Navy to the coast of Africa to thwart the trade their merchants had earlier practised with such energy and lack of self-criticism. From the 1820s onwards the Navy’s ships regularly intercepted slaving vessels and liberated the captives.

By then, the epicentre of the struggle against slavery had moved across the North Atlantic to the United States. There, the numerous cotton plantations of the South, worked by slave labour, were proving to be hugely profitable – with the terrible consequence that the American slave owners and their foes eventually turned to devastating violence to resolve their disagreements.

That the struggle against slavery forms a part of any rounded account of Quaker history cannot be disputed. When we survey it, there are several features of that struggle that are remarkable: in particular the relatively early recognition by Quaker bodies that slavery was incompatible with their faith, and the strong representation of Quakers among the ranks of the abolitionists – quite disproportionately so, given that Quakers have never been more than about one per cent of the British population.

Why did many Quakers have the moral insight to oppose slavery at an early stage? If we seek to understand the nature of Quakerism, that question is, surely, too important to ignore; although the risk of giving a superficial or tendentious answer can hardly be ignored. Part of the answer seems to lie in the status of Quakers, as dissenters and outsiders.

Dissenters are, on the whole, more naturally disposed to see the moral inadequacies of the society in which they live, particularly if they themselves are persecuted or disadvantaged – as Quakers were for many decades. Indeed, other religious dissenters in the eighteenth century, such as Methodists and Unitarians, were also critical of slavery.

But it is clear we must look to other causes as well, if we are to understand the roots of Quaker opposition to slavery. That opposition was driven by certain values that have long drawn people to Quakerism: the emphasis on equality, opposition to violence (and slavery, after all, is an inherently and profoundly violent institution) and the veneration of liberty of conscience which seems to flow naturally out of the Quaker method of worship.

Those values mean something when they are knitted together with action. Quakers such as Antoine Bénézet, Elizabeth Heyrick and others succeeded in unifying personal faith with their actions. That is surely why they were sensitive to the moral outrage of slavery, and why the record of their deeds deserves to be honoured.

Richard Benzie
Canterbury – 2019