Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Adam Curle

1916 - 2006

Adam Curle was a British academic and Quaker peace activist. Over a period of almost forty years, he undertook international mediation of conflicts in India/Pakistan, Nigeria/Biafra, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Bosnia and Croatia. In 2000, he was the recipient of the Gandhi Foundation International Peace Award.

Curle was educated at Charterhouse School and Oxford University.  He served in the British Army during the Second World War, and afterwards helped to rehabilitate ex-servicemen and prisoners of war.  His academic work blended psychology and anthropology and in 1950 became the first lecturer in social psychology at Oxford University.  He became a Quaker in 1959 while serving as a Professor of Education at the University of Ghana. He set up the Harvard Center for Studies in Education and Development in 1962 and in 1973 became the first professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, retiring in 1978.  Towards the end of his life, he described himself as “a semi-lapsed Quaker and follower of the Dalai Lama.”

Curle defined peace, not simply as the absence of conflict but as “active association, planned co-operation, an intelligent effort to forestall or remove potential conflicts.” He also believed that "violence lies not so much in action as in a state of mind: it is ultimately the violence of the heart rather than of the body which damages us."

Curle’s experience of international mediation began with the India/Pakistan conflict of 1964.

In Biafra between 1967 and 1970 he was one of three people who, under Quaker auspices, attempted to set up negotiations between Nigeria’s General Gowon and the Biafra rebel leaders.  Despite significant danger, the three were able to move between the two sides and give a picture unblurred by prejudice.  Although they were never successful in establishing a ceasefire, Curle believes their efforts eventually influenced post-war arrangements, and significantly reduced reprisals.

Between 1978 and 1980, Curle worked in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe during the struggle for independence. He met with representatives of the Rhodesian government, with Robert Mugabe, leader of Zanu PF (in exile in Mozambique),  with Joshua Nkomo of ZAPU( in exile in Zambia), and with the ‘frontline states’ of Botswana, Tanzania and South Africa. Finally, he worked in London on the Lancaster House agreements that led to the creation of an independent Zimbabwe.  Through all this he and others were able to “keep alive hope of a peaceful resolution.”

In Ireland in the 1990s, Curle helped to arrange quiet meetings in remote places between respected leaders of paramilitary groups on both sides, to discuss common issues such as housing, jobs and social services.  Sadly, this initiative was brought to an end when one protestant leader was shot by his own people when the meetings were discovered.

In the light of his experiences, Curle began to move beyond a belief in third-party mediation as a ‘be-all and end-all.’   He knew that, despite successes in bringing wars to an end in Biafra and Zimbabwe, mediation had failed to prevent the subsequent growth of tyranny and corruption in those countries. All too often, when one conflict was solved, another related one popped up somewhere else.

During the war in the Balkans (1991-95) he was instrumental in mobilising local people who wished to resist civil war and build peaceful communities.  He helped to found the Osijek Centre for Peace, Non-violence and Human Rights in Croatia, whose work continues today.  This experience led him to pioneer the concept of ‘peace building from below.’

He explained his ideas through the image of the ‘Hydra’, a metaphor for our interconnectedness through globalisation.

The Hydra, like other creatures has now evolved attitudes and attributes to survive in its hostile, murky environment.  These, shared amongst its nine heads, are:  rage, ferocity, greed, cruelty, hatred, lust for power, pitilessness, distrust and illusion.

He countered this image with the more positive aspects of our interconnectedness. In Curle’s view, settlements made by people at the top didn’t work:  what was needed was a small number of ordinary people with potential to be change agents.  As he saw it, his “very humble” role was simply to help them shake off mental shackles and realise their own potential.

Print this article

Further Reading and Credits

External links

Further reading

  • Curle, Adam (1999).  To Tame the Hydra: Undermining the Culture of Violence. Charlbury, UK: Jon Carpenter Publishing.

Photograph of Adam Curle reproduced by kind permission from the copyright holders The University of Bradford Archive