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Human Rights Journalism:

Stories of Slavery Compelled

Actions to Abolish It

‘… the new abolitionists quickly discovered that what most moved people to action was eyewitness reporting.’ 

Following a visit to slave auctions in Richmond, Virginia in 1853, British painter Eyre Crowe painted "Slaves Waiting for Sale" (1861). The painting was exhibited at the British Academy in 1861. It is now in the private Heinz Collection in Washington, D.C. 

By Adam Hochschild

The ideal of freeing the millions of people around the world who are in some form of modern-day slavery may seem Utopian or impossible. But when I hear this, I like to mentally roll the clock back more than two centuries, to the year 1787.

Think about our world as it was then: roughly three quarters of the people in it were in slavery or servitude of one kind or another. And, unlike today, it was fully legal. Throughout the Americas, from Quebec to Chile, were millions of slaves of African descent. Most of Africa itself consisted of slave-holding societies—which was why European and American ship captains could so easily find slaves to buy. A booming slave trade also carried captives from the east coast of Africa to the Arab and Islamic world. The great majority of Indians and Chinese were peasants whose debt bondage tied them to a particular landowner as closely as any slave was tied to a plantation in South Carolina. In Russia, most people were serfs.

In 1787, there were scattered voices against slavery but they had little effect until something that began on May 22 of that year. Late that afternoon, 12 very determined men met in a Quaker bookstore and printing shop in London, and formed themselves into a committee with the aim of ending first the slave trade, and then slavery itself, in the British Empire. The result of the chain of events begun that day, later wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, was "absolutely without precedent…. If you pore over the histories of all peoples, I doubt that you will find anything more extraordinary."

Britain then dominated the Atlantic slave trade, and tens of thousands of British jobs depended on the slave economy. London itself was a slave ship port. Roughly half the slaves taken across the Atlantic to the British West Indian sugar islands, to other European colonies, and to the United States were transported in British ships. Starting an anti-slavery movement in Britain in 1787 was as improbable as starting a renewable energy movement today in Saudi Arabia.

Throughout history, of course, slaves and other oppressed people have periodically staged uprisings, sometimes successful, more often not. But what made the movement that grew out of the London meeting so unprecedented was this: It was the first time, ever, that a large number of people in one country became outraged — and stayed outraged for many years — over the plight of other people, of another color, in other parts of the world.

The movement took off immediately, in a way that earlier scattered abolitionist efforts never had. Petitions flooded Parliament, which the following year took the timid first step of regulating conditions on slave ships. Within five years, more than 300,000 Britons were boycotting slave-grown sugar. Slavery became the prime topic of the London debating societies. In a seven-year period, the committee’s firebrand organizer Thomas Clarkson rode 35,000 miles by horseback through England, Scotland and Wales, setting up local anti-slavery committees.

One reason for the movement’s success was that it made use, from the very beginning, of what today we would call human rights journalism. Previous British writing against slavery had been mainly based on Biblical argument. But the new abolitionists quickly discovered that what most moved people to action was eyewitness reporting. From their presses came autobiographical accounts by a repentant slave ship captain, a former slave ship doctor, a freed slave. When the abolitionists compiled into a short volume excerpts of first-person testimony before Parliamentary hearings about life on slave ships and West Indian plantations, it became, to their amazement, the best-selling nonfiction antislavery book of all time. It was still in print in the United States at the start of the Civil War in 1861.

In a bold feat of investigation, abolitionist Zachary Macaulay traveled across the Atlantic in a slave ship in 1795, sleeping in a hammock hung in the slaves’ quarters, jotting down notes in Greek letters to be safe from the prying eyes of crewmen. The movement made use of what we might call the social media of the day: ballads sold on street corners, a logo (a kneeling slave, in chains) that supporters could wear on buttons and jewelry, the first widely-reproduced political poster (you’ve seen it: a top-down diagram of how bodies are packed into a slave ship).

No one was more astonished than the powerful slave owners' lobby, which previously had only concerned itself with sugar tariffs and the like. "The Press teems with pamphlets upon this subject, and my table is covered with them," Stephen Fuller, London agent for the Jamaican planters, reported in despair to his employers. "The stream of popularity runs against us." Fuller was amazed that the petitions pouring into Parliament were "stating no grievance or injury of any kind or sort, affecting the Petitioners themselves."

It took the movement more than 50 years from that first meeting to end slavery in the British Empire. That goal was finally reached in 1838, a full quarter of a century before slavery died in the United States. No more chained slaves cross the Atlantic today, but the spirit born on that long-ago afternoon in 1787 is still with us in the idea that those who suffer "no grievance or injury" still have the obligation to speak up for those who do. And nowhere do we need to apply that more than to the plight of men, women and children who are still in bondage today. 

Adam Hochschild is the author of "Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves." This article is adapted, in part, from that book and from a piece written for the Los Angeles Times.



One reason for the movement’s success was that it made use, from the very beginning, of what today we would call human rights journalism.

Adam Hochschild is pictured here at the ruins of a 1797 hospital for slaves in Jamaica.

Thomas Clarkson

Zachary Macaulay

The spirit born on that long-ago afternoon [in London] in 1787 is still with us in the idea that those who suffer "no grievance or injury" still have the obligation to speak up for those who do.

    Adam Hochschild

This 1789 poster was the world's first widely distributed political poster. It illustrates the packing of slaves on the British slave ship Brookes.

Advertisement for slaves for sale from a British ship, South Carolina, 1760. 40 slaves died on this voyage.

Trap to be hidden in high grass, for catching runaway slaves, Jamaica.

Illustrations of handcuffs, shackles, and thumbscrews purchased by antislavery organizer Thomas Clarkson in Liverpool.

Thomas Clarkson's chest of African produce and manufactured articles. He used these to demonstrate that there were many possibilities for trade between Europe and Africa after the abolition of the slave trade. (From "The Unsung Heroes of Abolition," Adam Hochschild, BBC.

The slave ship Brookes was first drawn and published in an abolitionist broadside by William Elford and the Plymouth chapter of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade in November 1788. (From BBC History of the World.)

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