If, early that year , you had stood on a London street corner and insisted that slavery was morally wrong and should be stopped, nine out of ten listeners would have laughed at you off as a crackpot. The tenth might have agreed with you in principle, but assured you that ending slavery was wildly impractical.
It was a country where the great majority of people, from farmhands to bishops, accepted slavery as completely normal. It was also a country where profits from West Indian plantations gave a large boost to the economy, where customs duties on slave-grown sugar were an important source of government revenue, and where the livelihoods of tens of thousands of seamen, merchants, and ship-builders depended on the slave trade. The trade itself had increased to almost unparalleled levels, bringing prosperity to key ports, including London itself. Furthermore, nineteen out of twenty Englishmen, and all Englishwomen, were not even allowed to vote. Without this most basic of rights themselves, could they be roused to care about the rights of other people, of a different skin color, an ocean away?
This world of bondage seemed all the more normal then, because anyone looking back in time would have seen little but other slave systems. The ancient Greeks had slaves; the Incas and Aztecs had slaves; the sacred texts of most majors religions took slavery for granted. Slavery had existed before money or written law. This was the world -our world- just two centuries ago, and to most people then, it was unthinkable that it could be otherwise.
If pressed, some Britons might have conceded that the institution was unpleasant -but where else would sugar for your tea come from? Where would Royal Navy sailors get their rum? The slave trade "was not an amiable trade," as a member of Parliament once commented, "but neither was the trade of a butcher an amiable trade, and yet a mutton chop was, nevertheless, a very good thing."
There were voices advocating an end to slavery, but they were scattered and few.
A latent feeling was in the air, but an intellectual undercurrent disapproving of slavery was something very different from the belief that anything could ever be done about it. The parliamentarian Edmund Burke, for example, opposed slavery but thought that the prospect of ending even just the Atlantic slave trade was "chimerical". Despite the uneasiness some people in late-eighteenth century England clearly had about slavery, to actually abandon it seemed a laughable dream.
When the twelve-man abolition committee first gathered in May 1787, the handful of people in Britain who openly called for an end to slavery or the slave trade were regarded as oddballs, or at best as hopelessly idealistic. The task they had taken on was so monumental as to have seemed to anyone else impossible. How even to begin the massive job of changing public opinion?
The twelve men saw slavery as both outrageous and solvable, and believed that because human beings had a capacity to care about the sufferings of others, exposing the truth would move people to action.
Within a few short years, the issue of slavery had moved to center stage in British political life. There was an abolition committee in every major city or town. More than 300,000 Britons were refusing to eat slave-grown sugar. Parliament was flooded with far more signatures on abolition petitions that it had ever received on any other subject.
There is always something mysterious about human empathy, and when we feel it and when we don't. Its sudden upwelling at this particular moment caught everyone by surprise. Slaves and other subjugated people have rebelled throughout history, but the campaign in England was something never seen before: it was the first time a large number of people became outraged, and stayed outraged for many years, over someone else's rights. And most startling of all, the rights of people of another color, on another continent. No one was more taken aback by this than Stephen Fuller, the London agent for Jamaica's planters, an absentee plantation owner himself and a central figure in the proslavery lobby. As tens of thousands of protesters signed petitions to Parliament, Fuller was amazed that these were « stating no grievance or injury of any kind or sort, affecting the Petitioners themselves. ».
The abolitionists succeeded because they mastered one challenge that sill faces anyone who cares about social and economic justice: drawing connections between the near and the distant. Often we do not know where the things we use come from, or the working conditions of those who made them. The abolitionists' first job was to make Britons understand what lay behind the sugar they ate, the tobacco they smoked, the coffee they drank.
(1) An interview with Adam Hochschild about his book : http://www.motherjones.com/news/qa/2005/01/hochschild.html