Anti-Slavery in Britain
Quakers were involved in the lucrative slave trade as ship owners, captains, iron-masters, merchants and investors, in ports such as London and Bristol. These Quaker businessmen faced the opprobrium of the powerful anti-slavery groundswell within the Quaker movement in the mid-18th Century and gradually had to withdraw either from the trade or from Quakerism.
George Fox encountered slavery on his visit to Barbados in 1671. He advocated that Friends should 'deal mildly and gently' with their slaves, and that 'after certain years of servitude they should make them free'. His Irish companion, William Edmundson was more radical, and by 1675 he had condemned slavery outright. The culmination amongst British Friends came in 1727, when London Yearly Meeting formally minuted its censure of Friends dealing in slaves.
John Woolman visited from Philadelphia in 1772, and re-awakened the issue. In 1783, Quakers established the Friends Committee to promote the Abolition of the Slave Trade. William Dillwyn and John Lloyd wrote the hard-hitting pamphlet 'The case of our fellow creatures, the oppressed Africans', and James Phillips had 12000 copies printed. 300 Quakers signed a petition, and this went to all MPs with a copy of the pamphlet. This was the first organised campaign on the issue, but it made no real impact, as Quakers were too nonconforming to be influential.
In 1787 they reformed the committee by joining with three prominent Anglicans, and made Granville Sharp its President, and Thomas Clarkson its Secretary. It was this 'coalition' that secured access to Parliament, and the Committee became the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. William Wilberforce, a prominent Anglican evangelical, agreed to be their Parliamentary spokesman. This new committee, 9/12 of whom were Quakers, created a moral-political momentum, and an extraordinary pioneering endeavour of organised national political campaigning. Other Quaker committee members were businessman Joseph Woods, and bankers George Harrison and Samuel Hoare.
The committee met in James Phillips’ printing shop and produced the campaigning literature there. Quakers also made excellent use of their national network of 50,000 Members and 150 Correspondents. They delivered what may have been history’s first direct mail fundraising letters. Two thousand people contributed, from 39 counties.
An anti-slavery bill was put before Parliament in 1791 but was defeated. Attention then turned to other methods, and the Saccharist movement was born. This was a boycott against all sugar produced on slave plantations in the West Indies, intended to undermine the economic case for slavery.
The campaign lost momentum in the mid-1790s, but was revived in 1803, and the Act abolishing the slave trade in the British Dominions was eventually passed in 1807.
It is notable that there were no women on the Committee. Although Thomas Clarkson admired the gender equality amongst Friends, William Wilberforce did not. Elizabeth Heyrick, Anne Knight and others protested against the exclusion of women, and in 1825 they founded the Birmingham Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves. They argued that the men had been too slow and cautious, and were too influenced by the arguments of the plantation owners. Across the country about 70 more women’s anti-slavery societies were established. In the 1820s they were demanding immediate emancipation and compensation for the slaves. Elizabeth Fry (and her brother Joseph John Gurney) also lobbied extensively.
Slave-ownership was finally outlawed in the British Empire in 1833. Its after-effects persisted for some while and Quakers continued to campaign against ongoing injustices. Joseph Sturge, a young businessman, visited the West Indies in 1836/37. His book “The West Indies in 1837” made a major impact, with its first-hand evidence of many problems in the ex-slaves’ lives. He purchased property there to help freed slaves to settle independently. He took a prominent role in founding the British & Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in 1839.
Much later, Henry S. Newman (1837-1912) and Theodore Burtt (1863-1944) established an industrial mission on Pemba Island (now part of Tanzania) to show how plantations could be run with free labour, rehabilitating the slaves who had been finally freed in 1897.
Slavery still exists in modern forms, and many Quakers are active as individuals in Anti-Slavery International (formerly the Anti-Slavery Society). Quaker Michael Rendell Harris (1923-2009) served as its Chair for a period in the late twentieth century.