The abolition movement that pervaded Britain throughout the 1790s became one of the first campaigns in history to incorporate pressure group politics. Initiated by the ‘Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade’, otherwise known as the ‘Abolition Society’, founded in 1787, the organization implemented extremely innovative and pioneering strategies that enabled them to force the government into terminating Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.
So, what were the tactics employed by the Abolition Society?
Utilized by any successful campaigning team in today’s political environment, the collection of data proved to be a vital strategy in the lead up to 1807.
Physical evidence in the form of slave chains, leg-shackles, thumbscrews, branding irons and whips was accumulated by Thomas Clarkson, a founding member of the Abolition Society, who rode 35,000 miles across Britain to visit some of its principal slave port cities such as Bristol, Liverpool and London.
Throughout his travels, Clarkson was also able to amass vast quantities of numerical data that confirmed the brutality of the ‘Middle Passage’, the stage in which millions of Africans were transported in slave ships across the Atlantic to the Americas. Using the information he had received from interviews with over 20,000 sailors, Clarkson was able to accurately calculate the mortality rate aboard slave vessels by the time they had reached the other side of the Atlantic.
This evidence was used by William Wilberforce in his speech to the House of Commons in 1789, where he proposed his ‘12 Resolutions’.
The testimony gathered from slaves who had experienced the horrors of the institution was also compiled and published in books and anti-slavery pamphlets. The individual experiences of men such as Olaudah Equiano, a former slave who was kidnapped from Africa and transported to the Caribbean, undermined the claims of the West India Lobby and galvanised public support.
In his autobiography published in 1789, Equiano confirmed the horrific conditions aboard slave vessels and the unethical and callous manner in which slaves were treated. Equiano wrote that “it was very common for slaves to be branded with the initial letter of their masters name and a load of heavy iron hooks hung around their necks.” He added that he had seen a slave “beaten till some of his bones were broken, for only letting a pot boil over.”
With a combination of this testimony and the evidence gathered by Clarkson, abolitionists were able to present a formidable and compelling argument against the slave trade.
At the core of a new popular campaigning strategy that targeted the general public, was the use of propaganda. The Abolition Society correctly identified that bold images would best capture the attention and the imagination of the British people, as over half of the population was still illiterate.
On posters, pamphlets and newspapers, abolitionists brandished images that played upon the moral conscience of the nation and elicited sympathy. The campaign printed 7,000 copies of a plan of a slave ship known as ‘Brooks’, illustrating the inhumane and cramped conditions endured by Africans aboard a vessel that had sailed from Liverpool to Jamaica in the late eighteenth century.
Brooks slave ship remains arguably the most notable image associated with the abolitionist movement to this day.
The use of branding was also a new and ingenious idea at the time that spurred popular support and helped the movement gather momentum. The abolitionist logo, designed by Josiah Wedgewood in 1787, depicted a knelt and shackled slave seen to be uttering the words “Am I not a man and a brother”.
This emblem was worn on bracelets, medallions and was stamped onto pottery and kitchenware. It was even seen on contemporary tobacco pipes. Here, branding enabled the public to express disapproval of the slave traffic and feel as though they were engaging in the debate. Many viewed the logo as an individual representation of their enlightened view of the world.
In order to demonstrate the extent to which popular opinion was on their side, the abolitionists petitioned across the nation. By the end of the 1780s they had received millions of signatures. The use of petitions, along with organised boycotts of West Indian sugar signalled to those in parliament that the movement was a force to be reckoned with and was to be taken seriously.
Petitions proved that the campaign had successfully mobilised the public which became a key factor in the debates over reform in parliament. William Wilberforce could now lobby those in power with ample evidence and with the knowledge that the nation was behind him.