Campaigners can still learn from the Abolition of Slavery: guest post by Max Lawson

Max Lawson, Oxfam’s head of advocacy, reflects on what today’s campaigners on the Robin Hood Tax (or pretty max lawsonmuch anything else) can learn from the anti-slavery movement A global industry, dominated by the UK, providing a third of our GDP. An industry that purchases politicians, and is deeply rooted in the establishment. An industry, formerly revered, now facing public condemnation for impunity and excess. The year- not 2012, but 1780. The industry, not banking but slavery. The campaign, not for a Robin Hood Tax, but to abolish the slave trade. An amazing story of the mother of all campaigns. Like many developing countries today, Britain in the late 18th century was a country waking up. Huge structural and economic changes were upsetting the old order. For the first time, many ordinary people could read and write. Thanks to new printing and transport technology a rash of new newspapers took just 3 days to reach Glasgow from London. News of parliament, politics and the wider world were accessible for the first time. Revolutions in France and America were seeing the birth of human rights. The anti-slavery campaign was at the heart of these changes, a product of this ferment, but also purposefully using these changes to advance its cause. Started by a small group of Quakers (as indeed was Oxfam) in a room above a printing shop in the heart of the City of London, the campaign at its peak submitted 519 petitions from around the country signed by 400,000 people. In cities like Manchester an incredible one in three people signed the petition- ordinary people, often with very tough lives themselves, taking a stand. The abolitionists seem to have invented every modern campaign technique. There were no photographs of the horrors of slavery, so they printed hundreds of copies of the now infamous diagram (below) of the slave ship and its Slaveshipposterhuman cargo and distributed them in public places all over Britain. They had Josiah Wedgewood design a broach with the immortal phrase, ‘Am I not a Man and a Brother?’, which no fashionable lady could be seen without. The campaign crossed classes, from aristocrats to mill workers. They started the first boycott, even before Ireland and Captain Charles Boycott had given us the word. Half a million people gave up sugar in their tea, so as not to partake of ‘that blood-sweetened beverage’. The demand for ‘fair trade’ sugar from India rapidly increased. They had an insider strategy, with Wilberforce their champion in Parliament, complemented by an outsider strategy of unprecedented public outcry.  They were attacked by well-resourced lobbyists who predicted the instant destruction of the British economy with a zeal the British Bankers’ Association would envy. The cast of characters is riveting. Olaudah Equiano, the freed slave, whose book about his experiences was read by tens of thousands as he toured the country.  He was kidnapped and returned to slavery, only to escape. Thomas Clarkson, the leader of the campaign, who travelled tens of thousands of miles on horseback for 50 years collecting evidence of the trade and encouraging support. In cities like Bristol that were dominated by slave money he was almost killed on more than one occasion. Elizabeth Heyrick, whose call for ‘immediate, not gradual abolition’ brought renewed fire and radicalism to the campaign in the final years. They suffered many setbacks and reversals. The task they faced was huge. Slavery and the money made from it underpinned huge parts of the UK economy. Even the Church of England owned a number of slave estates.  Slavery was as normal as eating meat today. The government crackdown on radicalism and Jacobinism that followed the French Revolution and the patriotic fervour of the Napoleonic war set the campaign back ten years. From the first meeting of the committee to the abolition of the slave trade took twenty years. Full abolition took a further thirty. At a time when only one in ten men could vote, actions like petitions and boycotts allowed ordinary people, particularly women, to show support for abolition.  Women were at the forefront of the campaign throughout, and were consistently more radical than the men.  The majority of the slaves in the field were women too, worked to death, and unable to have children due to the brutality of their treatment. This was genocide – of over 2 million slaves shipped to the West Indies, at the time of abolition only 670,000 remained. But this story is not just about indefatigable and remorseless campaigners. It is mainly a story of extraordinary bravery by the slaves themselves who, faced by unimaginable cruelty, rose up against their oppressors.  To punish revolts, slaves were slowly burnt alive from the feet up, a practice not seen since the middle ages.  In the case of Haiti, the victorious rebellion led by Toussaint L’Ouverture (right) created a Vietnam –style war that bankrupted France and led to the deaths of 45,000 of the 89,000 strong British Army in the West Indies, dragged into the archetypal unwinnable war.  In many ways Haiti is still paying for that defiance. Haiti’s revolution more than anything hastened Toussantthe end of slavery, as it hit at the economic heart of the sugar industry, which in size and influence was very similar to that of oil today. The parallels with our main export, investment banking, tax avoidance and harmful financial alchemy are unavoidable.  But political leadership is far less in evidence today. Whereas David Cameron is prepared to break with the EU to defend the financial services industry, William Pitt took a more radical view in favour of abolishing the slave trade: ‘How Sir! Is this enormous evil ever to be eradicated, if every nation is thus prudentially to wait until the concurrence of all the world have been obtained?….There is no nation in Europe that has, on the one hand, plunged so deeply into this guilt as Great Britain, or that is so likely, on the other, to be looked up to as an example’. Has that loss of vision, courage and radicalism also afflicted NGOs? When I first started at Oxfam ten years ago, I was privy to a tense debate between two of my bosses over campaign strategy.  Green about the ears I kept very quiet in the corner as they hammered it out. In the end one said to the other with disdain- ‘the trouble is, X, if this were the campaign against slavery you would have Oxfam campaigning for more comfortable boats’. I think we have come a long way since then, not least in taking on the might of the financial sector in fighting for a Robin Hood Tax. But we must constantly ask ourselves whether we are living up to the radicalism and moral memory of those amazing abolitionists. (This blog was inspired by rereading ‘Bury the Chains’ by Adam Hochschild, which should be essential reading for all those campaigning for social justice.  His book about the systematic pillage of the Congo by Belgium, ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’ is also brilliant.)]]>

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15 Responses to “Campaigners can still learn from the Abolition of Slavery: guest post by Max Lawson”
  1. Jose

    Great story!
    Just a point of clarifcation, when you say the revolution in “America”, which Country of America do you mean? the Bolivar revolution in Venzuela, Athaualpa revolution in Peru? the independence in the US?
    Great book to read too!

  2. Kalyani

    Thanks Max,for writing this. it reminds us of the trade that also extended to east Asia and east Africa, the rubber and coffee/tea industries and the thousands that were shipped out from India. When slavery was finally abolished, the trade conveniently took on ‘voluntary’ bonded labour from the subcontinent, targeting those trapped in the worst forms of poverty and landlessness.

  3. Lisa

    This post is really interesting to me as I have followed the Robin Hood tax quite closely and have felt uncomfortable with it. I feel like fighting for the RHT is very much like fighting for more comfortable boats.
    We aren’t trying to stop the system that oppresses people and allows the rich to get richer while the poor get poorer. Rather we are just asking for a tiny bit of their riches in order to make the poorer’s lives a tiny bit more comfortable. I feel like we should be supporting, advocating for, new system – cooperatives or local farming or what have you – rather than trying to find ways to make the current system a little less awful.
    I support Oxfam very much and feel like I must be missing something in this campaign as I am unable to get behind it. Should I be reading something more about this? Am I missing something?

  4. I am very much with Lisa on this one. I would refer to the post of “Aid on the Edge”: do the wrong thing righter.
    I would not dare to compare abolition of slavery with the Robin Hood tax. Slavery is a principled issue. The Robin Hood Tax is a means for a ragbag of unrelated goals, where the logic from means to goals is not always proven. Try to abolish child labour and you can compare. Even action to introduce a real carbon tax: a principled approach to tax pollution would be comparable. Humane meat: yes. But the Robin Hood Tax? you must be joking.

  5. Ken Smith

    Great Post but I think the poor old Church of England doesn’t get as much credit as it deserves in the Abolition movement. You mention Clarkson and Wilberforce but not their Anglicanism
    Or in the founding of Oxfam for that matter with Canon Milford and the first meeting in University Church.
    Do the Quakers have a better PR agency ? or is the Church Of England too establishment now to get a mention

  6. Paul Spray

    Back in 1991, I wrote a paper arguing that a campaign to abolish the international debt trade would have a good chance of success – like slavery, debt was morally obnoxious, opposed on the ground, and not essential to business. I feel old!
    See pages 20-28 in :

  7. Max

    Thanks for all the comments and messages about this blog- I am glad people liked it.
    I wanted to respond to Lisa and Sam about the Robin Hood Tax.
    Of course you are both right on many levels the fight against slavery is far more profound than the fight for Financial Transaction Tax.
    I do think the comparison stands up in one main way- the huge power of the financial services industry and big finance generally in the modern era is very similar to the domination of slavery in the British and global economy of the late 18th century.
    My firm belief is that the rapid deregulation of the financial sector has been the central driver of the brutal inequality that now sees FTSE 100 bosses getting a 50% pay rise in the year when ordinary people are seeing their pay, services and pensions cut to pay for the national debt run up to bail out banks.
    So I would say to Sam that this is in fact a very principled issue- fighting for redistribution of wealth towards the many from the few. Fighting against perncious and unacceptable inequality in our society. Inequality and its ill-effects are the defining issue of our age.
    A Financial Transaction Tax, like debt cancellation, is not enough on its own to rein in big finance- but I would disagree with you that it is a neglible thing, and encourage you to look again. There is no doubt that an FTT would be a major blow to the speculation that has led us into this financial crisis. It could lead to a 70% reduction in some of the most febrile and casino-like markets, that generate the billions in bonuses. In fact Joe Stiglitz has compared the FTT (which he supports)to environmental taxes- a tax on the polluting effect of toxic finance. This is also why the FTT is passionately and completely opposed by the financial sector and political leaders in the UK and US.

  8. Lisa

    Thanks for the response Max.
    I get it and I’m not opposed to the tax – just as I wouldn’t be opposed to more comfortable boats.
    I guess I just wish we couldn’t be putting our time and energies into more systemic changes rather than hoping for rampant capitalism to continue so that we can pick up some of the crumbs to make a difference with.
    The FTT can do a great deal to rein in big finance, but even if we do that I think that another financial meltdown is inevitable. The system, in a larger way than just rampant speculation, is the problem.
    Again, thanks for the response! It’s good to hear how others are seeing this as well.

  9. The FTT isn’t about making boats more comfortable it’s about the life and death of the 170 million children who are chronically malnourished, the half million who die every year because the can’t afford ARV drugs, the one billion who go to bed hungry every night. What’s comfortable about that?
    The money generated by FTT needs to be solidly committed to compensate for the 4 trillion dollars in ODA pledges that have never materialized over the past 20 years. It then needs to be harnessed to a robust program to help children in particular as they are wholly dependent on adults for their basic needs.
    The FTT proposals are too timid.
    They ask for one fifth of one per cent of financial transactions. We should be pushing for a solid 1-2%.
    Even at the lower rate, the tax would generate up to 350 billion a year for ODA needs that are going unmet.
    The World Food Program feeds 21 million children school lunch in 80 countries every day. With another 3.2 billion a year, that number could rise to 66 million.
    Case in point.
    So, with sufficient courage, the FTT could transform ODA by providing a consistent flow of funds that are adequate to the needs that go unmet- day after day, as ten million children a year
    die of wholly preventable causes.
    That’s not a very comfortable boat.

  10. Lisa

    I guess my problem is that I want us to be campaigning for changes that mean that the WFP is unnecessary! I don’t want them to be charitably feeding more people. I want Oxfam, and other INGOs, to be fighting for systemic changes that would mean that the women and men in developing countries would have a fair playing field on which to feed themselves – and their children! I want economic justice.
    I think that campaigns like the Grow campaign are fighting for systemic changes – and I am glad that Oxfam is putting a lot of energy there as well.
    I see why people are arguing for the tax – we need more money in order to create change. Yes, definitely. I just think that in order to create real and sustainable change we need to focus on changing the system. No matter how much money we have, if the system doesn’t change them real sustainable change is not possible.

  11. Avinash Kumar

    Thanks Max, for this very insightful and indeed inspiring tale. Indeed all the campaigns currently fighting on behalf of the poor and the marginalised can take heart from the same.
    I would certainly back FTT not as an end in itself but as an entry point to force debates around larger issues of inequality, questioning the systemic and entrenched forms of capitalism as Lisa says. This would necessarily have to link up with many other forms of peoples struggles going on the ground, around equitable rights to resources, a parity in access to quality basic needs. But more importantly what we need to struggle for eventually is a vision which paves the road for everyone to participate on an equal footing in the development process and this would certainly need ‘a paradigm change’, to use an old jargon…

  12. Maria Huff

    The diagram of the slave ship “Brookes” was also a key campaign breakthrough, helping people understand the conditions on board – I believe it was created by the Thomas Clarkson for the campaign. It showed the legal amount of slaves which could be carried in such a ship (in fact there may have been more carried).
    [More on Thomas Clarkson here:

  13. Muthoni Muriu

    Max (and commentators)
    Thank you for a very interesting post and for the equally interesting comments. For me the morale of the story is that it took staying power – 50 years! – to achieve abolition. It seems that when the issue represents a vested interest for entrenched and powerful forces, campaigners need to dig in for the long haul. These campaigners did not lose steam – even after the ten year set back! – and it leads me to question the ‘winnability’ of campaigns that have sustainable and systemic change as their goal and yet are accompained by a timeline of three to five years.
    Take for example the suffragates and their battle for the right to vote. That took fifteen years (1903 – 1918) and another ten to get the right to run for any political office. The Jubilee 2000 coalition ran for ten years -and had some important success – but a lot of the high profile work wiht the international coalition has died down. Could it be that if we had continued this effort for another ten years, we might be having a different conversation about the food security crisis afflicting many developing countries? What about another thirty years to Jubilee 2050 – just as the world population hits 8 billion? Less inequality and as Lisa suggests – a fair playing field where men and women have the ability to feed their families with dignity? Obviously true systemic change takes time so Max…. I am totally with you on the importance of not only challenging, but also regulating, the financial sector. However, since there is ‘passionate and complete oppositon by the financial sector and political leaders in the UK and US’ to the idea of an FTT and considering the history of great campaigns you so elegantly introduced, what should we prepare ourselves for? Ten years and an internationally mandated and enforced Robin Hood Tax or is that twenty years?

  14. Hi.
    We have introduced a brief history of the Abolition of Slavery in the British colonies and Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, on the History page in our website
    We would like to have your opinion and comments, and see if there is anything missing of need adding.
    Thank you