This year - 2007 - marks the bicentenary of Parliament's abolition of the British slave trade. By this Act, dated 25 March 1807 , it became illegal for Britons to engage in the African slave trade. It is worth quoting the opening sentences of the Act:
The African Slave Trade [is] forthwith abolished and prohibited, and declared to be unlawful . and all manner of dealing and trading in the Purchase, Sale, Barter, or Transfer of Slaves, or of Persons intended to be sold, transferred, used, or dealt with as Slaves, practised or carried on, in, at, to or from any part of the Coast [of Africa].
Despite this piece of hard-fought legislation, and similar enactments by the United States in the following year, the slave trade continued. It was engaged in illicitly by some Britons and Americans, and continued to be actively promoted for several more decades by various European, African, and Latin American states. The Act of 1807 did not abolish slavery which continued to be upheld by law in the British Empire for a further thirty years, and was widespread over most of the world. Only gradually through the nineteenth century were slaves emancipated in the Americas : after a bitter civil war in the United States in the 1860s; in the Spanish colony of Cuba in 1886; and in Brazil in 1888. Meanwhile, the trade in human beings and their enslavement continued to be practised over a large part of the globe, especially in Asia . In the twentieth century, industrial slavery of a most harsh kind was adopted in the gulags of the Soviet Union , and in the concentration camps, which were often extermination camps, of the Third Reich.
Viewed in this wider context of continuing slave trades and slavery, we could ask this question: 'what is being commemorated this year by the British abolition of the slave trade?'. Britain was not the first country to take such legal action; Denmark passed a law in 1792. And the messages are mixed. Is it 'commemoration', the official term? Or is it 'celebration', a term widely heard? Or is it perhaps 'repentance', a view with which we might want to identify while at the same time finding it difficult to feel responsibility for actions carried out more than two centuries ago?
Race, which under girded British slavery and the later Empire, is a vital part of the equation. Many black people, in the various communities in Britain and overseas, feel strongly that 2007 has become an occasion to mark the actions of white humanitarianism. For them abolition was only the beginning of righting a grievous wrong. Ending slavery called for a different kind of struggle. Certainly there were white activists demanding emancipation, but a major role was played by slaves themselves who resisted and rebelled, often, as with Sam Sharpe, the great hero of Jamaica, with Bible in hand.
Understanding actions taken in the past requires an attempt to clothe ourselves in the mental processes, beliefs, actions, and contexts of people in a time past. It is a task that trained historians struggle to engage with, let alone those who have little knowledge of history. The abolitionists who sought to end the British slave trade were overwhelmingly Christians. But there were many other Christians in the late eighteenth century who did not see this as a priority. Indeed, there were leading evangelicals, for example George Whitefield and Selena Hastings, who owned slaves. There were many who claimed to be Christian and yet were indifferent to the suffering of black slaves incarcerated in slave ships or coerced on plantations. Why did devout Christians take so long to see that the brutal business of shipping men, women, and children in murderous conditions to the harsh conditions of New World slavery could in any way be further endured or justified?
Asking questions about why outrages in the past were viewed by contemporaries with indifference or silence surely challenges us to look hard at how we see actions and institutions in our present world. What current injustices do we either ignore or respond to with the occasional thought or reluctant coin? What activities are practised in our own country or in the world that deny the Christian gospel? And how will people in the future, both Christians and non Christians, looking back over the intervening years, view our silence or inaction in the face of world poverty, the exploitation of women and children, the untold deaths from starvation, the sex traffic, global warming, and disregard for the welfare of the weak and needy? What should we be doing, which campaigns should we throw our weight behind, and what lobbies should we join? And to which causes should we give more of our relatively abundant wealth, and to which ends should our comfort be sacrificed?
So if commemoration of abolition carries any message for the present it is not about apology or even reparation for events in a distant past. Apportioning blame to those long dead and calculating modern fiscal indemnities, let alone identifying those who might be the possible donors and the likely recipients, is nigh impossible. The campaigners against the slave trade, who were prepared to stick their heads and reputations above the parapets of respectability, provide both model and example for us in the early twenty-first century. Like Anthony Benezet, Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson, Hannah More, Elizabeth Heyrick, Ottobah Cugoano, Olaudah Equiano, and many other unknown men and women who campaigned for abolition, we need to be informed lobbyists, able to stir hearts and minds. We need to be prepared actively to engage in campaigns at a cost to our personal comfort and public esteem in order to challenge the systems and institutions that perpetrate and uphold modern systems of slavery. Contemporary slavery ensnares vulnerable women in the net of the sex industry, ties children to Third World sweat shops and brick yards, burdens helpless men and women with debts they can never repay. All too often our pursuit of consumption and convenience is paid for by the disadvantages forced on millions of people around the world whose welfare and lives our actions disdain. Action to address this is in all our hands as we buy food and clothing, book cheap air flights, and continue to demand reductions in the cost of motoring and domestic energy.
In this issue
The three articles published in this issue of Anvil address questions that are less likely to be discussed in other publications during this year of remembering Britain 's abolition of the slave trade. The first article, by Margaret Killingray, is on Philemon, that brief letter which is more than likely to spur Christians to ask questions about New Testament slavery. This article is not intended to be academic in the formal sense of a new scholarly analysis of the letter, rather a source for hard-pressed pastors who seek help in framing their thoughts and drafting a sermon that takes proper account of slavery at the time. John Coffey, a well-known historian of seventeenth-century religious ideas, has recently been moving into the next century, and he has written several articles that emphasise the evangelical Christian contribution to the work of initiating and effecting the abolition of the British slave trade. This is important because in our highly secular age there are many historians who continue to fight shy of taking seriously questions of Christian faith and action. John's article provides a broad overview of evangelical views towards the slave trade and abolition. Although there were evangelicals who found justification in Scripture for the enslavement of Africans, it is irrefutable that evangelical Christians were at the forefront of the struggle to bring about the abolition slave trade. The final article is focused on a relatively little-known former slave, the Afro-British writer Ottobah Cugoano. He has been overshadowed by his better known friend and fellow African Olaudah Equiano whose portrait appears on one of the British postage stamps recently issued to mark the bicentenary of abolition. Both men were evangelical Christians and their harsh condemnation of the slave trade was based on bitter and vivid personal experience. Cugoano's Thoughts and Sentiments , published in 1787, is barely known but, as the article makes clear, deserves to be more widely read as it assaults the evils of the slave trade and slavery from a solid biblical base.