When Granville Sharp found escaped slave Jonathan Strong outside his brother’s surgery for the poor in Cheapside in 1765, it was the spark that started the campaign to end the slave trade. Strong’s face had been beaten to a pulp by a pistol-whipping from his owner. Over the next two years, Sharp and his brothers restored Strong to full health. But then his owner demanded him back…
For Sharp, described by Simon Schama as the patriarch of the movement to abolish the slave trade, his experience with Strong was to begin a lifelong mission. More than that, the work of those early anti-slavery campaigners has the hallmarks of great campaigns that we can still learn from today.
Using the law
In the early days of abolitionism, the legal arguments centred on the rights of slaves from the West Indies and America in Britain. Since slavery was illegal in Britain, was a slave bought from overseas a free man in Britain? Sharp taught himself the law so he could assert the rights of Strong and other slaves who had escaped to London and were being pursued, and in many cases kidnapped back, by their owners. Granville Sharp took the case of a number of slaves to court to establish their legal rights to be free men.
Two boats to campaign on
Granville Sharp and his brothers were accomplished musicians and had a boat on which they conducted concerts. Sharp’s brother William was surgeon to King George III, who along with many of the nobility of the time was a regular attendee at these concerts. Sharp used these connections to persuade others of the importance of abolition. At one point, he accosted the Prime Minster, Lord North, with one of his pamphlets when he came to a concert on the barge.
The other boat was a slave ship called the Zong. In the middle of its voyage across the Atlantic, it became clear that it didn’t have enough drinking water. The crew threw nearly 150 slaves into the sea and claimed on insurance. The anti-slavery campaigners publicised the court case that followed (when the claim was refused) to highlight the brutality of the slave trade. In any campaign, opportunism and the ability to react to events are critical.
The use of the media and merchandise
If these activities from 200 years ago sound familiar, it’s probably because they are. It is hard to find a single activity that modern campaigners use that wasn’t used in some way, shape or form by the anti-slavery movement. Granville Sharp secured extensive newspaper coverage of his legal battle to free slaves – a critical aid in mobilising public opinion against slavery. The abolitionists also had their own version of the campaign wristband in the form of a medallion made by Wedgwood with the legend ‘Am I not a brother and a man?’
Understanding the politics of a campaign
Anybody involved in today’s global campaigns on issues such as climate change, debt relief or world trade will recognise the supreme importance of geo-politics and economic interests, alongside cultivating public opinion and winning legal arguments. They are all crucial to the success of a campaign. But slavery wasn’t just a political issue with America.
The importance of economics and boycotts
The anti-slave trade campaign was intertwined with the British war with France that lasted for so much of the late 1700s and early 1800s. The vote in 1791 was lost in no small part because the anti-abolitionists feared that if Britain stopped trading in slaves, their arch-rivals France would simply take over the trade to their economic advantage. It was only when Britain’s naval and economic power had increased by the early 1800s that the vote was finally won in 1807.
The abolitionists organised their own economic boycott of products. When the vote in parliament in 1791 went against abolition, a movement began that precedes today’s Fairtrade; sugar produced by slaves in the West Indies was boycotted in favour of sugar produced by free men.
Catch campaigners young
Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp and others were inveterate pamphleteers. Clarkson, as a fresh-faced 24 year old divinity student, wrote an essay on slavery that started him on a lifetime of anti-slavery campaigning and to becoming one of the great moral writers of his day.
Anti-slavery - the first global campaign
Moreover, the anti-slavery movement can also justly claim to be the first global campaign. When black slaves in the plantations of east coast America began to hear of the freedom promised to slaves who had fled to London, they began to defect and fight on the British side in the American War of Independence. They saw Britain as their beacon of hope and freedom (deeply ironic considering their white owners were fighting for their own independence from the British government).
The most important campaign of all time?
There is a good argument that the movement to abolish the slave trade was the most important campaign of all time. It led to the abolition of legal slavery across the globe. It was the first recognisable human rights campaign and was driven not by government and politicians, but by concerned citizens. It shows the importance of great teams and coalitions in winning campaigns: Granville Sharp with his meticulous legal zeal and interest in wider political freedoms, Thomas Clarkson with his skill in writing and systematic research, and William Wilberforce with his parliamentary skills and political connections.
As somebody who grew up with a portrait of Granville Sharp on my bedroom wall and who started campaigning and fundraising at the age of fourteen, I feel there is much we can still learn from the numerous individuals, black and white, whose combined efforts abolished the slave trade and slavery.
It can take years or even decades to achieve change. Real-life human stories, like that of freed slave Olaudah Equiano, matter as much as legal arguments. Campaigns cost money. Lasting change requires legal and policy change. But the most important lesson of all is that individuals can make a difference to the world in which they live.
For a few, like Sharp, Clarkson and Wilberforce, like Gandhi, like Baden-Powell, the impact of their work will be global and live on for hundreds of years. For most of us, our impact as campaigners will be much more local to our communities or to the causes we care about. But nobody should ever doubt that individuals can make a difference, for the evidence of history is on our side.