Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Anti-Slavery in the modern world

When slavery,as then understood, was officially abolished (in 1833 in the British Empire, and in 1865 in North America, at the end of the Civil War), Quakers’ initial focus was on supporting newly freed slaves and also ensuring that abolition really happened.

British Quaker Joseph Sturge visited the West Indies in 1833, and wrote a powerful book about the continuing injustices experienced by former slaves. In 1839 The British & Foreign Anti-Slavery Society was founded. Thomas Clarkson, a key player in the abolition campaign, was its chair and Joseph Sturge played a prominent role. Half the founders of this new Society were Quakers. In 1877, a need for a specifically Quaker initiative was perceived, and Edmund Sturge reconstituted the Friends Anti-Slavery Committee.  It focussed on Zanzibar, on the island of Pemba, establishing the Quaker Industrial Mission there. It was directly responsible for freeing over 1,000 slaves.

In North America, the Friends Freedmen’s Association of Philadelphia (1863-1934) worked for both relief and increasingly the education of those freed from slavery by the American Civil War. The Association managed up to 48 schools in North Carolina and Virginia until 1900. Friends were also involved in the Freedman’s Bureau and Schools (founded 1865), which had established 4,329 schools for ex-slaves by 1871. Then for much of the 20th century, the civil rights movement was the focus of attention.

Later in the 20th century, Quakers were part of a growing awareness of continuing forms of slavery, and, with others, began to campaign against these. Campaigners began to see that there were many contemporary abuses, such as trafficking, that amounted to slavery. 

Quaker Michael Rendell Harris established Anti-Slavery International (ASI) as a modern campaigning NGO in the mid-1980s, by reviving the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Three of its five chairpersons have been Quakers. Meeting Houses are frequently used for public meetings on contemporary slavery, and there is a financial appeal to Quakers annually.

ASI defines slavery today using four criteria.  An enslaved individual is one who is:

  • Forced to work through mental or physical threat;
  • Controlled by an “employer”, under the threat of some form of punishment;
  • Dehumanised, treated as a commodity or bought and sold as “property”;
  • Physically constrained, or has restrictions placed on his/her freedom of movement.

In 2000 Free the Slaves was co-founded in USA by Friend Kevin Bales, initially as a sister organisation to Anti-Slavery International, on whose Council he had served in the 1990s.

ASI and Free the Slaves campaign on issues arising from the four criteria. They do not directly campaign on the associated issues of poverty, discrimination and exploitation: their focus is on slavery itself.

Key areas of concern are:

  • Slavery by descent, which still exists for a few ethnic groups or castes in some parts of W. Africa and India.
  • Trafficking in persons for sexual exploitation, or engagement far away from home in the building, agricultural, fishery or hospitality sectors.
  • Bonded labour, where people work in order to service indebtedness that cannot normally be redeemed, and may be passed down to the bonded labourer’s children.
  • Domestic workers, usually women, often started in childhood. As well as appalling working hours, this may involve every kind of abuse from which the worker cannot escape, including when abroad because her passport has been removed.
  • Ritual slavery (trokosi in West Africa, davadasi in India).The victim is given into the charge of a religious person or institution for them to exploit in order to expiate a sin or gain religious or social merit.
  • Child soldiers forced into military service as a result of capture or being orphaned by war.
  • Children from Asia trafficked to the Gulf Countries as camel jockeys.
  • Sumangali. Young girls agree to live on site and defer their wages in the textile industry in exchange for a lump sum towards their dowry, which is lost if they are summarily dismissed before the completion of the “contract period”.
  • Child begging organised under a beggar master.
  • Prison labour whether as prisoners of war, or as a part of industrialised correctional regimes.
  • Forced marriage, usually contracted by women when too young to give consent.
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