Human Rights, Justice, Minority Rights

Bury the chains

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world, indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” This quote by Margaret Mead has become a mantra of sorts for me. So much so that a few colleagues had it mounted and framed. It now stands on my desk.

Today marks the 229th anniversary of the first meeting of a small group of people who made a huge positive impact on, I would say definitely changed, the world. In a small printing shop at 2 George Yard in London, England a motley group of men met to discuss how to abolish slavery. Among them were former slave ship captain, John Newton, former slave, Olaudah Equino, popular musician Granville Sharp, lawyer and London dandy, James Stephens and leader of the group, 25 year old Thomas Clarkson.

Clarkson, a few years earlier, while still a Cambridge theology student, wrote the prize winning, yearly Latin essay, Anne liceat invite in servitutem dare? – Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will? Originally, Clarkson wrote the essay in order to win the prize, but his research grabbed ahold of him and wouldn’t let go. He interviewed countless people connected to slavery and the slave trade and read everything he could get his hands on about slavery. After writing the essay he could not get the plight of slaves out of his mind. Slowly he began to talk with others who shared his loathing of slavery and on the 22nd of May 1787, he gathered 11 others to discuss how to bring an end to it.

It took 20 years before the slave trade was abolished in England and nearly 50 years before slavery itself was finally outlawed, but it finally was. And today we can celebrate that!

A few lessons I’ve taken with me from this fantastic chapter in history.

  • It only takes a few people to make a huge impact on even intractable issues. It might be easy from a 21st century perspective to trivialize how deep seated the acceptance of slavery was in the 18th and 19th The fact is for most of history slavery has been an accepted norm for treating other human beings in many societies around the globe. Slavery as an accepted institution was an integral part of the social structure of society and a bedrock of the economy. Yet it fell!
  • In order to achieve great things we need to collaborate. As mentioned above the first abolitionists came from a variety of backgrounds. All played a role, from the lowly former slave to the member of parliament and friend of the Prime Minister. Not everyone will agree on all tactics and strategies, but it is still important to look for ways to support one another to further the cause.
  • Connect the near with the far. In order for people here to be passionate about helping people there it is imperative to make the issue(s) as relevant and near as possible.
  • We need to take a long term perspective. Challenging and complex social ills, ills that have a legal, societal and institutional foundation are not fixed overnight. We need to be prepared to be in it for the long-haul.
  • Religion: for good or evil. Many of those who supported slavery justified its practice with appeals to their religion. At the same time many of the abolitionists were burning believers who were passionate about the equality of all humans and were willing to fight for the freedom of their fellows.
  • While the people at the first meeting were all men, a real change in pace happened when women became more involved in the movement. While we have come a long way in promoting gender equality in some parts of the world we still have a long way to go.
  • Changeologists need to be sensitive to opportune moments. History events are like an ocean. There are waves and storms, ebbs and flows of tides as well as calm seas and fair breezes. Reading the signs and reacting appropriately is an art and a skill and needs to be cultivated and nourished.
  • Bringing about positive change demands sustained effort and comes at a cost. Many of the abolitionists lost prestige, were harassed, beaten and threatened with death. They travelled thousands of kilometers on horseback to spread the message. Also, in that time period, and some time after it, scholars estimate that the British lost about 1.8% of their annual national income. This is significantly more than any country in the world today spends on its foreign aid.

The inspiration for this blog came from a fabulous, inspiring and painful book by Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: The British struggle to Abolish Slavery.

I highly recommend it :-).


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