Free the Slaves President Kevin Bales is featured in the current issue of The Friend, a weekly British Quaker magazine that has been continuously in print since 1843. (That’s a long time for a magazine. To put it in perspective, Vanity Fair has been around since 1913, but was put on hiatus for five decades before it was revived in 1983.)
In an article titled ‘Towards Freedom,’ Bales urges the Quaker community to take up the cause of the abolition of modern-day slavery. “It’s not a question of laying down other vital Quaker work,” Bales, who is himself a Quaker writes, “but of making sure that within that work we consciously bring bring anti-slavery efforts to the fore.”
Quakers were an instrumental force in the first abolitionist movement. They were the first white community to protest the slave trade, and several Quakers assisted in the underground railroad, safeguarding the passage of former slaves northward to freedom.
Here is the article (via The Friend):
One warm afternoon in May 1787, twelve people sat together in a London printing shop. None were rich or famous, there were no politicians or aristocrats, but nine were of that odd and excluded religious body called Quakers. That afternoon these twelve set out to end the slave trade. It was, by any measure of the time, a fool’s mission. The slave trade was legal, and a major part of Britain’s economy. Slavery was rationalised from pulpits and the Church of England itself owned slave plantations. Politicians were awash with the profits of slavery. Moreover, everyone knew slavery was a natural part of life. In spite of these barriers, these twelve achieved, in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville: ‘… something absolutely without precedent in history… If you pore over the histories of all peoples, I doubt that you will find anything more extraordinary.’
Quakers had taken 100 years to reach this moment, struggling with slaveholding but becoming, by 1750, the first religious body to take a unified stand against slavery. Though actively agitating against slavery, little came of their efforts because they were Quakers, a group known for their laughable ideas. The genius of those meeting that May was to invent a new form of social alliance: the first non-denominational and non-partisan human rights organisation and campaign in history. It was a tool for social change that would be astoundingly successful.
Today non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and campaigns are everywhere; so common that we forget groups like Amnesty International were products of the 1960s. In the 1780s, Friends, convinced that God in every person meant slavery was morally wrong, became the core of this first NGO. Their unity plus close internal communication made them perfect for building a campaign. That campaign was remarkable in the speed of its achievements. In a country where slavery was legal, morally acceptable and economically essential, the campaign ended the legal slave trade in just thirty years.
What’s odd about Quaker anti-slavery leadership is that Friends set the task aside when legal slavery came to an end. A handful of Friends continued, but slavery also continued and evolved. Today there are some 27 million slaves in the world, and population growth and vulnerability in the developing world have brought a collapse in the cost of slaves. For most of history slaves were expensive, averaging £30,000 in today’s money, but since the 1950s the price has dropped to around £90. Today slaves are in every country, exploited in dangerous and demeaning work. Some of that work feeds the products we buy, from shirts to mobile phones. Yet, for all the horrors of modern slavery there is also a unique opportunity that slavery can be brought to an end.
Photo by Kay Charnush. For more on slavery in Brazil, go here.