Olaudah equiano

Learning from the past

1st July 2021 | Modern slavery

The Rt Revd and Rt Hon Dame Sarah Mullally DBE, Bishop of London

The Clewer Initiative

In this thought-provoking article, the Rt Revd and Rt Hon Dame Sarah Mullally DBE, Bishop of London shares her thoughts on what today’s modern slavery activists can learn from the abolitionists of the 18th Century.

By drawing on the lives of prominent campaigners like Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano and lesser-known abolitionists including Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, Thomas Clarkson, Elizabeth Heyrick and James Ramsey, she identifies five key elements and challenges us to apply these characteristics to our own fight against exploitation.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century in 1787, approximately three quarters of the people on Earth lived under some form of enslavement, serfdom, debt bondage or indentured servitude.[1] It was the year the popular movement against the British slave trade suddenly ignited. Yet sadly, three centuries later, there are more victims of slavery now than at the time when William Wilberforce fought to end the slave trade. In fact, UNICEF estimates there are around 21 million people trafficked for modern day slavery across the globe. This includes about 5.5 million children.

I have had the opportunity to speak to people caught up in slavery and have experienced firsthand the sense of helplessness that vulnerable people, often very young, are enduring. I have also met countless volunteers who serve tirelessly, caring for victims of modern slavery and trying to drive change. These volunteers don’t always get seen but they are making a huge difference to those whose lives they are able to touch.

In some ways, it was the same in the eighteenth century. Although prominent campaigners like Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano are well known, there were many other people, often unsung heroes, who played important roles in that pioneering movement. These unsung heroes of the past can offer us some helpful reminders about our work to combat Modern Day Slavery and can encourage us to persevere in this often unseen and yet eminently valuable work.

First, the reasons that we engage in this work are rooted in deep theological conviction. In the eighteenth century, the fight to end the slave trade was not the latest public hobby horse or a way to win votes in parliament. It was grounded in an understanding of what it means to be human.

Quobna Ottobah Cugoano’s story illustrates this well. Born in Ghana, he was kidnapped at the age of about 13 and sold into slavery for 'a gun, a piece of cloth, and some lead' and shipped off to the West Indies. After several years of enslavement there, his master brought him to England.

In 1787, he published a book, 'Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species'. Although one of the first pieces of writing by a black Briton about slavery, surprisingly few pages of the book are about Cugoano's own experience. It mostly consists of religious and philosophical argument. He writes:

“and so it was when man was first created and made: they were ... pronounced to be in the image of God, and his representative … brother and a sister together, and each the lover and the loved of one another.”

In other words, it was his theological conviction about the worth of every human being, made in the image of God, that drove his desire for change.

Kevin Bales, Professor of Contemporary Slavery at the University of Nottingham, explains in his popular TED talk on modern slavery: “The average price of a human being today, around the world, is about 90 dollars … People have … become like Styrofoam cups. You buy them cheaply, you use them, you crumple them up, and then when you're done with them you just throw them away.”

It is as important today as it ever was in the past to say that we reject this view. Our convictions about slavery find their roots in what we believe about being human. Christians believe that all people are priceless.

Secondly, to defend the cause of the needy, we need help and organisation at local and national level. Thomas Clarkson, another unsung hero of the past, was central in this regard. He helped put together the first, crucial meeting of the interdenominational abolition committee in London in 1787, and as the committee's travelling organiser, he covered, he estimated, 35,000 miles by horseback during the first seven or eight years of his campaign. Because of his efforts, 'whole Coaches full of Seamen' from up and down the country testified about the slave trade before parliament.

Organisations like The Clewer Initiative, the Church of England’s response to modern slavery, follow in his footsteps. The Clewer Initiative exists to mobilise the Church and communities to take action against modern slavery. It aims to bring together different groups to share learning and signpost best practice as well as contribute to policymaking and more effective legislation. It has an important role to play, asking questions at a national level about structural sin, how society, law and order is shaped and how effective best practice can be developed in local communities.

Thirdly, one voice that is sometimes lacking in our discussions is the voice of the victims themselves. Often, even when trying to escape terrible situations, victims remain at high risk of being exploited again and real care is necessary around this. It is so important that the stories of victims are told so that we address the ways our response needs improving from their perspective.

'The History of Mary Prince,' which was published in 1831, told the story of a woman born into slavery in Bermuda who was eventually able to describe what had happened to abolitionist sympathisers. Just as this helped to influence the movement for change back then, my hope is that present day stories might aid our efforts now.

In the Diocese of London, we are working with the managers of various safe houses to enable the real experiences of victims to be heard. One area where we are aware that victims need special support are those who, for various reasons, do not want to enter the National Referral Mechanism – this accounts for about 52 per cent of people identified as at risk.[2] Their experience can be particularly unpredictable and I’m thankful that the safe houses we are liaising with are able to accept people from both within the NRM and outside it.

In England and Wales, victims of modern slavery do not have automatic entitlement to housing, financial support, or any other practical support that would assist them post-abuse and enslavement. After escaping the offender, they often become homeless and extremely vulnerable to further exploitation and abuse. That is why I’m supporting Lord McColl’s Private Members Bill (currently making its way through the House of Lords) to make provision about supporting victims of modern slavery a legal requirement,

Fourthly, with a global crisis as large as this, not only do we need manpower and mobilisation, but also fresh thinking. We need people who can challenge both the status quo and the lengths that we can go to, to bring about change.

In the early 1820s, the national anti-slavery movement's leaders, all men, were very cautious, believing that only by advocating the gradual emancipation of enslaved people could they get a bill through parliament. It was a woman, Elizabeth Heyrick, who contradicted them most forcefully, in an 1824 pamphlet called 'Immediate, not Gradual Abolition', which sold hundreds of thousands of copies. A former schoolteacher from Leicester and a convert to Quakerism, Heyrick believed that a woman was especially qualified 'to plead for the oppressed'. Seventy British women's anti-slavery societies sprang into being. Unlike the men, they usually called for immediate abolition. Fresh thinking changed the strategy and pushed abolitionists to go further, faster.

In London, I have set up a steering group, bringing together some of the leading practitioners and trainers working on the ground in the hope that it might produce this kind of fresh thinking.

Finally, our desire for all people, is that they might know even more than freedom from the evils of human slavery. Our desire is that they would discover the spiritual freedom available in Christ.

James Ramsey was the only navy doctor brave enough to board a slave ship in the Caribbean Sea to treat an epidemic of dysentery that had killed many slaves and crew. He was shocked by the sight of the slave decks covered with faeces and blood. Soon after, he left the sea and became an Anglican minister. Before working with Wilberforce and others in England, he spent more than a decade as a clergyman on the Caribbean island of St Kitts, preaching to enslaved and free people and teaching them the bible in his home.

Let us continue to hold out the hope of freedom in Christ that he offered to all - freedom for all those captive to sin (Psalm 61) that we might serve a risen Saviour. And let us pray for new prophetic eyes to spot the sometimes-hidden signs of injustice in this world, condemn kidnappers (1 Tim 1:10) and encourage and support people to gain their freedom (1 Cor 7:20-24).

This article first appeared in Church Times (25 June 2021) . To find out more about subscribing to the publication, go to https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/subscribe

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/b...

[2] Responding to Modern Slavery and Exploitation in the Homelessness Sector, findings and Recommendations from the first year of The Passage’s Anti-Slavery Project, Dr Julia Tomas

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