History of the British
abolitionist movement

Address delivered on November 2, 1992, by
The Right Honourable Lord Archer of Sandwell, QC  

(This is Lord Peter Archer, not to be confused with the disgraced novelist,
the infamous Lord Jeffrey Archer)

People of my generation have an irritating habit of making references which those who have superseded us in the stream of history find unintelligible. After I had suggested the title for this talk, I gathered that a number of younger members of the Society had no idea what I was blathering about. Let me explain, and my contemporaries who knew the story in their childhood, will forgive me.

When William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, was upbraided by the purists for allowing his hymns to be sung to the secular tunes of the period, which were being belted out by irreverent people in music halls, he replied, "Why should the Devil have all the best tunes?"

He saw nothing compromising in using techniques which were being applied to less worthy objectives, and adapting them to a worthwhile cause.

There are sometimes debates in the field of human rights between purists and pragmatists. And now it must be clear that, normally, I am on the side of the pragmatists, unless the means which are suggested in a particular situation diminish the objective itself. I would not suggest, for example, that the Society should resolve its financial constraints by employing slave labour, although there may be those on the staff who would claim that we do so already.

I hope to be forgiven if I devote the first part of this talk to some history. Between 1787, when the pioneers of our Movement formed the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and 1807, when Parliament abolished slave trading in British ships and by British subjects, a new science was invented. In those twenty years, there emerged the science of political lobbying.

A closely-knit group set about employing techniques of persuasion which are now in common use, but were then developed for the first time. They are now used for a variety of purposes, some dubious, but they were invented in the name of a great cause. So they were not even the Devil’s tunes; he whipped them from the Saints in the first place.

They set about persuading members of Parliament to abolish the slave trade in areas which lay within the jurisdiction of the British Parliament. They won one of the most complete and outright victories for a great cause in human history. But as with so many moral victories, when they arrived, they found not that they were looking down on Eldorado, but that they were simply confronted by the next stage of the journey.

"People o’er the hills, and Alps on Alps arise", wrote Pope. In particular the abolition of the slave trade left slavery itself intact. In many British possessions economic activity still depended on slaves. And the children of slaves provided the next generation of slaves.

There was no time for celebratory feasting. They embarked on the next assault. And in 1833 they secured the passage of another Bill by Parliament, to abolish slavery itself in all British possessions. You might have thought that all the champagne which there was no time to drink in 1807 would now be consumed, and a band of brothers and sisters would be wishing one another a happy retirement. But it was not to be.

First until 1833 they were concerned largely with slavery in the British Empire. Should they then proceed to attack slavery in other countries? Some, even among the leaders, believed that what other countries did was not the business of British campaigners. After the 1833 Act, T B Macaulay said that his commitment was now ended. And Sir George Stephen, the historian of the group, said that the Movement should now wind itself up. But for others, human rights were indivisible. Anyone’s slavery diminishes me.

That division within the Movement presented at least a clear and simple issue. Sometimes, issues even of principle were not so clear. In 1840, there was a great political controversy in Britain as to whether import duties on foreign sugar should be maintained. Generally, those in the liberal tradition believed that they should be abolished, so that there would be genuine competition, and people could buy sugar at prices which they could afford. Not surprisingly the West Indian sugar planters wanted the duties maintained so that they could retain their monopoly of the British market.

Where should the Anti-Slavery Movement stand? They lost little sleep about the living standards of the West Indian planters. But the slaves whom they had worked so hard to free were now wage-earners and dependent for their jobs on the sugar plantations. Was the Anti-Slavery Movement to support a campaign which would leave them jobless and regretting that they had ever been freed?

There was a further consideration. Before 1833, the campaigners had been met with the argument that to free the slaves would bring economic ruin to the West Indies. They had replied that it need do no such thing. It was possible to run a prosperous industry with free labour. And where they were campaigning to free slaves in other countries, they were involved in the same debate. If now they supported a measure which would bring economic ruin to the West Indies, it would destroy their credibility.

But there was a consideration which concerned them even more. If they created a free market in sugar, it would admit foreign sugar which had itself been produced by slave labour in areas over which the British Parliament had no jurisdiction. British purchasers would be encouraging slavery. Yet to oppose the campaign for making the British public free to buy cheap sugar would lose them the support of the very groups in Britain who had been their natural allies. And the Anti-Slavery Movement was divided, not about ends, but about means; not about hymns, but about tunes.

There was yet a further reason why, after 1833, it could not be said that they lived happily ever after. Although they had campaigned throughout the country, their purpose was to persuade people who, in turn, would persuade or pressurize their MPs. And those who could persuade MPs were themselves a very small group in the population. So the campaign for hearts and minds was directed at a very limited number of hearts, and perhaps even fewer minds. The MPs, we must remember, were members of the old, unreformed, House of Commons. So although there were Anti-Slavery groups in various localities, the leadership lay firmly within a small group in London, and specifically in Clapham.

In 1832, the year before slavery was abolished, the great Reform Act was passed. There was now a different House of Commons. Members were much more responsive to much larger numbers of electors. Future campaigns would need to be addressed to a wider public. Local groups needed to be more active, more flexible, more responsive to local conditions, and correspondingly less dependent on central leadership. And these people in the sticks wanted to chip in their two-penn’orth on questions of policy.

A gap had opened even before 1833 between the leadership and those whom Stephen called "the Young England Abolitionists". These even formed a separate organisation, the Agency Anti-Slavery Society, directing their activities much more in the direction of forming mass opinion.

They had little time for the political skills of the old guard. The 1807 and 1833 Acts were products of private conversations over a meal, of deals and compromises, and of recognizing what options were available. The Clapham evangelists were men of principle, but they practised the art of the possible. The Young England Abolitionists saw the issue as a moral crusade, part of the eternal struggle of Good against Evil. They would settle for nothing less than the immediate and total abolition of slavery everywhere.

In the campaign for the 1833 Act, Buxton, who was leading the fight in Parliament in succession to Wilberforce, grasped that they could achieve their objective only if the slave owners were compensated. Otherwise, a majority in Parliament would believe abolition to amount to a confiscation of private property. He managed to persuade the British Government to put up the money, 15m. He took it and ran. The British taxpayer was compensating the slave owners for their wickedness. Furthermore, there was a demand that when they were freed, the slaves should continue as unpaid apprentices for the remainder of their lives. Buxton negotiated a compromise. All slaves above the age of six would serve as apprentices, on an unpaid basis, for three quarters of the working day, over a period of six years. It was the best deal he could negotiate, and he took it.

Without those compromises, there would have been no 1833 Act. But the radical wing of the Movement accused him of selling out. Two years ago, I managed to obtain a copy of Charles Buxton’s biography of his father (not an easy quest these days). He quotes Buxton’s notes of a conversation with Sturge, the leader of the Young England Group:

After Sturge acknowledged the purity of my motives, he added: "But it cannot be denied that you acted against the wish of many of the delegates, and if you had stood firm the planters would have got no compensation". "Perhaps so", said I, "they no compensation, and we no extinction of slavery".

There was yet a third occasion for discord in the Movement. And it remains with us. When they began to look abroad, it was clear that there was so much slavery in the world, and the problem so vast, that unless they selected specific goals, their energies and resources would be dissipated. Yet understandably, some emphasised one goal, some another. Some spent their time supporting the Anti-Slavery movement in Africa. But that Movement itself was split, and the splits were reflected among the British who became involved. Buxton was interested in Africa, and formed the African Civilization Society. Others formed the British Indian Society. Sturge was chiefly concerned to ensure that, now that slavery was no longer lawful in the West Indies, the law was observed (a problem of which those in this room could quote examples).

The very magnitude of the tasks led to a fragmentation from which the Anti-Slavery Movement has never recovered. It coalesced again in this Society, but at the price that it renounced the advantages of an active mass membership. The membership here today, if I may say so respectfully, while it appears formidable in this hall, consists of a well-informed and creative minority.

Those of us who are here can usually achieve a high degree of consensus. And that is an advantage which may well be worth retaining. But no human rights movement can have it both ways. If we are to speak on behalf of a mass membership, we cannot at the same time retain the cohesion which we now enjoy.

Here endeth the history lesson. But since this Society has recently embarked with some success on the arts of mass communication, we are in hope, or at risk (depending on your viewpoint), of harnessing our expertise to a support more widespread than we have known in the past. And it is well that we should recognize the issues before they overtake us.

First, we still need to identify geographical and subject areas on which we should concentrate. It is not a question only of where human suffering is greatest. We need to take account of where political conditions are such that we are most likely to achieve a dividend on our efforts. And that taxes not so much the head as the heart, since according priority to some areas, and some subjects, is necessarily relegating others to the second rank. It is a choice which has to be made if the best is not to become the enemy of the good.

Indeed we have heard examples tonight of the achievements which this Society can legitimately claim within the framework of the United Nations and its agencies. But to overload the agenda of the Sub-Commission on Minorities may be counterproductive, and to insist on discussing one item may kill the prospects of an effective debate on another. To send a researcher to one country may entail renouncing the prospect of discovering some vital information in another.

That sturdy communicator of my youth, C S Lewis, remarked that the strategy of the Devil is "to have them all running around with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood".

There is an even more difficult issue of principle. Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect, together with such supporters as John Wesley, believed not only that slaves should be freed, but that indigenous peoples in places like Africa and India should be taught the benefit of Western civilization and, in particular, the Christian religion in its Western cultural setting. For them, freeing slaves, reading the Bible and wearing trousers were very much interrelated. But that was not the view of all the Anti-Slavery campaigners.

Some believed that the tribes whose members supplied the raw material for the slave trade, once given their freedom, should be left to enjoy it as their hearts dictated.

The problems of imposing Western values on indigenous people, disentangling slavery from its cultural context, divided even my socialist forbears. Characters as diverse as Keir Hardy, George Lansbury, and Lenin, divided as they were on many other things, all believed that indigenous peoples should be free to decide their own destinies. What was necessary is that the Western colonial powers should get out of their lives. And how they treated one another after that, could be left to the future. But J A Hobson and some of the early Fabians saw that nationalism as an antidote to colonialism was not an unmixed blessing. A government which was selfishly nationalistic, particularly if it controlled the major source of raw materials, could impose grave economic burdens on the rest of the world. More particularly for our purpose, national sovereignty could mean simply the power of an oligarchy within an indigenous community to oppress minorities, or sometimes to oppress everyone. And in our generation there are examples enough of that. Rosa Luxemburg commented that nationalism is the upturned glass into which every generation pours its own political content.

How is a people to use the sovereignty which it has newly won? Ghandi used to speak of Swaraj. He explained to his contemporaries that self-rule was inconsistent with being ruled by the British. But he went on to explain that it was not to be equated with no rule at all. Self-rule means ruling ourselves. And that presented a whole range of problems like constitution-drafting, persuading majorities to vote for you without selling out minorities, and all the things which go to political maturity.

It used to be believed that what a sovereign government did to its own subjects was a matter between itself and the subjects. They must resolve their political differences by whatever means lay to hand, but the rest of the world was not entitled to intervene in a family quarrel. It required events this century, not among developing peoples but in Europe, to persuade the international community that there are some ways in which a government can treat its subjects for which our consciences cannot find so simple an alibi.

We have heard tonight of the various United Nations commissions and agencies where the global community can express its consensus, and pass judgment on those who fall below its standards. And it is true that even the most tyrannical governments, indeed sometimes particularly the most tyrannical governments, go to some trouble to avoid international condemnation.

One battle which is already won is the recognition in principle that the sovereignty of a government does not extend to a right to ignore the international consensus. Stephen and Macaulay were wrong about that in 1833. But to recognize it in principle is far from applying it to specific cases, where there is room to wriggle and to lie. And we the peoples cannot leave the job of enforcing standards to governments, however well disposed. They have other fish to fry. They do not go looking for problems. An abuse about which no-one is protesting can be left unremarked, for they prefer a quite life. The initiative, as in 1787, must come from non-governmental organisations.

We must begin by trying to persuade the government concerned or (remembering that governments are not homogeneous) to strengthen the hand of our friends within the government. But even when the decision is taken in principle, governments do tend to let their attention wander, and they have constantly to be reminded.

It is not usually that governments consist of cruel people (though some do). Most consist of busy people, who will intervene in the last resort only if it becomes more uncomfortable to do nothing than to take action.

The next step is to argue the case in the international fora, and to apply an expanding and detailed body of international law to the problem. What we still lack, as the Chairman pointed out this evening, is a sanction in the last resort for those who break that law.

And for us, it raises some uncomfortable questions. Should we withhold aid from countries with a bad record on human rights. There are two arguments against doing so.

First, it introduces a distinction in respect of human rights obligations between rich and poor countries. It implies that the rich can behave outrageously, while the poor can be called to account. Secondly, human rights are likely to benefit if the economy of a country can be improved. It is where human life is economically cheap that is most likely to be politically cheap. And so, it is said, to withhold aid would be to punish the victims themselves twice over.

But that argument is less persuasive where aid is used not to build up the economy, but to improve the living standards of an oligarchy, and where it does not percolate down to the disadvantaged.

A further argument which has sometimes been used is that it is difficult to construct a method for measuring human rights. I was cheered to see that the United Nations Human Development Report for 1991 was optimistic. It points out that there was no way of calibrating heat until Celsius invented one.

I hope that we can settle on two principles which should be in the mind of those who administer aid. First, there should be a bonus for countries which are genuinely trying to establish a participatory democracy. Where possible, aid should be directed to improvements in the education system, and to the building of democratic institutions. And that might provide economic incentives to abolish slavery.

Secondly, aid should not be given for a project which itself entails an infringement of human rights. A dam or other construction which is to be built with slave labour should not attract an aid project. In 1977, the United Kingdom stopped aid to developing the mining industry in Bolivia because of the conditions in Bolivian mines.

But none of this is simple. Governments of developing countries are understandably touchy about allocating aid to specific projects. Sovereignty, once achieved, dies hard. Secondly, it is not always easy to monitor the destination of aid budgets. When the United States embarked on that policy, for its bilateral aid, it found that it needed to establish a network of field officers to monitor where the aid was going, and they were not always popular in the countries where they operated. Some recent research suggests that there is still no very high correlation between receiving US aid and having a good human rights record. And thirdly, donor countries have other fish to fry. Aid which was withheld from Uganda during the Amin regime was replace by aid from the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia and Libya. No sanctions will be easy until we the peoples have persuaded the governments of the world to establish clearer and readier sanctions. And it is not surprising that governments resist what they see as a potential rod for their own backs.

Yet a further difficulty for a movement like ours is that the research, the thought, and the expertise which we try to supply may themselves obscure the broad principles which mark the difference between light and darkness, and which inspire the best of people to mount a crusade. Nye Bevan once remarked that the difficulty is "to maintain passion in action in the pursuit of qualified objectives".

The outburst of indignation which brings people flocking to join us is too easily crushed beneath the weight of research, and fundraising, and constitutions, and bureaucracy, of an effective NGO. And for every NGO, the problem varies according to the work which it seeks to do. Oxfam is concerned simply to supply resources, and its members can find productive and rewarding outlets for their energies with little need for debate about policies; Amnesty invites its members to become involved with individual prisoners of conscience, and it is possible to form a person-to-person relationship. The Society necessarily devotes its energies to larger groups of people, and individuals are simply examples of general principles.

I seek only to raise the questions. Hopefully there are others better fitted to provide some answers. But I suspect that the supporters of the Society will not be those who thrive on dramatic demonstrations, but those who can support a more extended dedication, over long years of lobbying, letter-writing and campaigning, sometimes throughout long periods without reward, until step by step, we have extended the leaven throughout the world.






  2003 by the Anti-Slavery Society. The text on any page may be reproduced provided that the source is acknowledged.  This does not apply to photos.