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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 March 2007, 11:20 GMT
Keeping it under their hats
Quaker hat

By Stephen Tomkins

Quakers started the British campaign against the slave trade and invented modern campaigning, championing the petition and the consumer boycott, and mastering the use of images and logos. Not that they like to shout about it.

It is perhaps the defining image of the battle to end the slave trade. Not a picture of a shackled slave, or some gruesome punishment, but a cross-section of a ship.

It is a ship packed so full that the mind boggles at the sheer logistics of inhumanity.

The engraving of the Brookes, fully-loaded, slave ship

The use of the engraving of the Liverpool slave ship, the Brookes, is the perfect example of how Quaker mastery of PR kick-started the movement that toppled the slave trade.

"In any honest cause there is no agitator like a Quaker," said the abolitionist George Stephen. But today their contribution has largely been forgotten.

Anyone in full possession of the facts would agree, it is time for that to be put right; few, if any, deserve greater credit for the defeat of slavery and the slave trade than them.

The campaign to abolish the slave trade was an overwhelmingly religious affair. The importance of evangelical Anglicans, like William Wilberforce and John Newton, is well known.

But Quakers were the pioneers of the movement, its brains, and much of the soul too. The more you delve into the story, the more you find Quakers under every shadow.

The Quaker Anthony Benezet published a formative attack on the slave trade in 1772, 17 years before Wilberforce's first abolition motion. Long before Wilberforce first spoke on the issue, the Quakers had formed a campaigning group, petitioned Parliament and distributed tens of thousands of free tracts.

Thomas Clarkson
This print seemed to make an instantaneous impression of horror upon all who saw it
Thomas Clarkson
On the famous ship image

When the first Anglicans got involved - the philanthropist Granville Sharp, the rector James Ramsay and the passionate young ordinand Thomas Clarkson - it was the Quakers who published their literature and brought them together.

Thus the Abolition Committee was formed, the engine of the movement. It consisted of 12 men, nine of them Quakers. The evidence and testimonies that Clarkson dug up for them all round the country were essential to the cause, but equally essential was the PR genius of the Quakers.

They had a century of experience campaigning for their own rights, and channelled this expertise into defending the rights of slaves. As Adam Hochschild has argued in Bury the Chains, the movement forged most of the tools used by campaigners today. They pioneered the mass petition and the consumer boycott, targeting Caribbean sugar.

The committee invented the campaign slogan and logo, commissioning Wedgwood to produce a design of a slave in chains with the words "Am I not a man and a brother?". They got the poet William Cowper to write them a civil rights ballad.

Wedgwood's anti-slavery logo
Josiah Wedgwood designed a much-used logo
And in the greatest PR coup of the movement, the committee's publication of the Brookes diagram, which showed 482 slaves lying shoulder to shoulder, made "an instantaneous impression of horror on all who saw it" according to Clarkson.

The national network of Quaker meeting houses proved vital to mobilising the public and spreading information. Some of the most radical anti-slavery voices were Quakers - such as Elizabeth Heyrick, who argued, exceptionally, that when the slaves were freed it was they and not their owners who should be compensated.

The Quakers were natural enemies of slavery, with their fundamental belief in equality in a hierarchical society where that was still highly controversial. They believed above all else that every person is made in the image of God and carries the divine light, so it is blasphemous to elevate one above another.

They refused to raise their hats to their social betters or to call them "my lord", "my lady" or even "you", insisting on the familiar "thou". Their egalitarianism was still quite scandalous in the 18th Century, but it made slavery uniquely abhorrent to the Quakers.

PIONEERING TECHNIQUES
Sugar and rum boycott
Mass petitions
Logos on range of items
Lobbying MPs
Posters and pamphlets

The problem was that they were a dangerous sect of fanatics, according to the received wisdom, so no-one listened to a word they said. They were excluded from public office.

This is why they needed to work with Anglicans like Wilberforce, who brought both respectability and political power to the movement. It is also why their involvement was not especially celebrated at the time, and why it was easily forgotten afterwards.

The modern Quakers do not plan any major national commemoration of their role in ending the trade, preferring for the most part low-key local services. Their efforts will instead be focused on current campaigns, including their efforts to end the use of child soldiers.

They are not the only unsung heroes of abolition. James Ramsay, for example, had a huge impact, being the first Anglican clergyman to publish revelations of plantation life, and became a martyr to the movement when constant attacks from colonists destroyed his health.

But there can be few people who have done so much in such a good cause as the Quakers, and been so little recognised.

Stephen Tomkins is author of William Wilberforce, a Biography.


Send us your comments using the form below.

Quakers still stand up to be counted on issues of conscience, but without attempting to raise our profiles as Quakers, as the article points out. I think that this is a mistake! We are a dwindling band.
Roger Holloway, Lampeter, Wales

"They believed above all else that every person is made in the image of God and carries the divine light, so it is blasphemous to elevate one above another." Why, oh why, can't everybody believe this?
Lucy, Coventry

Behind every major social reform movement in England and in America, you will find Quakers working hard for the rights of the poor, women, African-Americans, the mentally ill, prison-reform, etc. etc. It is the only denomination to receive a Nobel Peace Prize. Quakerism is one of the greatest gifts that England ever gave to the world. Thank you for honoring the work of Friends, whose service begins after the worship ends. Yes, I am a Friend, and I admire the Friends that have gone before me. They inspire me to make my life speak. I only hope that the small work that my Meeting does enriches the lives of those we serve.
Shelia Bumgarner, Charlotte, NC USA

Its not something I know a lot about - but a lot of chocolate manufacturers were Quaker families. Did they purchase their cocoa and sugar from humane sources? Does anyone know any more about this?
Kate B, London

The Quakers also saved a lot of people from starvation in Ireland when the potato famine was at its worst. They had soup kitchens to feed the people when the British government refused to help. The Irish have not forgotten this and always treat Quakers with great respect.
Sheila Robinson, York

While various white groups battle for the glory of championing the abolition of slavery, as usual, the strong efforts made by the slaves themselves have been largely forgotten or deliberately ignored. Black people, more than any other groups, fought for their own freedom via numerous resistants, uprisings, writings, campaigning and so on. It is very wrong to under-estimate this clear fact, while as usual, highlighting the role of others...
Debbie Ariyo , London, UK

I go to my local amnesty international meeting in a quaker house they are a great people. They are of course right and we should rage against slavery and appologise for our part in it. Its important that we dont allow nations like sudan to let this abhorent practice to re-emerge. but then again perhapse thats to religious for some governments.
James Clarke, uk

I am a descendent of Josiah Wedgwood, I am proud of his role in ending slavery - so much so that I have followed in his footsteps and have lent support to efforts to stamp out modern day slavery - such as sex trafficing.
Philip Wedgwood Brand., Tooting, London, England.

The indications are that today, in Blair's Britain, the moral arguments the Quakers made to ban slavery would be ignored on the basis that they go against trade and reduce revenue to the exchequer. You need proof of that? Observe the promotion of gambling.
Ryan, Rome, Italy

How can this be true - we know that religion is the cause of all our ills. /irony.
Leo, West Mids

I have learned something new. I did not know of the Quakers work in setting slaves free. I, as a white man,married to a Jamaican, would have probably been hanged or stoned if we lived at that time, so I guess that many went to the Quakers for sancturary. I think they should, quietly, shout it from the roofs of Friends Meeting Houses and remind the world that "we are all equall in God's eyes".
Steve Gregory, Edmonton, London

How different a religious attitude to that of the Spanish who undertook to convert Indians in the Americas in exchange for hard labour that killed all of them in the West Indies
Chris Hoffmann, Metz France

Slavery had just as much of a negative impact on white people as on black people. There wasnt much differance between working class whites sent into the coal pits or cloth mills or the black slaves working on plantations. We should not have to pay reparations to the descendants of black slaves when our own people were treated just as badly by the state, afterall it was a minority of the rich 'elite' that kept slaves, not the majority of poor British and American citizens.
Carla Smith, Colchester

Judging by the comments in your hys columns recently many people are ignorant of the role christians have played in our long history, dismissing "religion" as irrelevant in modern society. How wrong can they be??? Our present day society would be barbaric if christians had not stood out against the inhuman treatment of people. The efforts of the quakers and others are to be applauded. Looking around now the main problems we face today are poverty and human depravity in terms of sexual deviation and immoral & sadistic behaviour and it is professing christians who are working tirelessly to bring appropriate help and support where it is needed both at home and abroad. It is all very well the government imposing its own moral code which is bereft of any substance. In the end it is professing christians - in the main - who will stand up to be counted when wrongs need to be put right.
Alan, Ryde

Anyone who was involved with campaigning against slavery deserves a sainthood. The abuse they received from the slave owners, traders and transporters was horrendous. The fact that they did not shy away from this abuse and continued to fight deserves all the praise we can offer. I feel that the full story of slavery and the actions and people who brought about it's abolition should be told and taught so that we never forget the lessons of our history.
Heather, Wolverhampton

This is a very ethnocentric view of abolition. Many black people, mostly enslaved, strove for their freedom. Organised protests and disobedience sometimes paid for with their lives. The article is definitely not "in full possession of the facts" when it states that they had the "soul", the "brains" and possibly the "most significant" role in abolition. There have always been well-meaning people in this country and with ingeneous ways of spreading the word, but there is a reason they are unsung. They didn't want to claim the credit, quite possibly. And all Britons are inextricably linked to the perpetration of slavery through having reaped the ill-gotten gains of slavery to Britain which reached into almost every living room, bank balance and public building.
Colin, London

That ship's diagram still has the power to chill the blood - and its enduring impact speaks eloquently of the power of the media in bringing home to us the human cost of such atrocities.
Chandra, London, England

The bigotry that Quakers experienced reminds me of the position of Christians in Blair's Britain in 2007.
donald, glasgow

Did not realise the Quaker involvment was that infulential. Mind you a lot of the other abolitonist are forgoten, such as (Althogh his actions are latter) Admiral Sir William Sidney Smith.
Rick , Sheffield

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