It can be difficult to connect with situations outside of our immediate experience; more so to those in the past. But over the past six weeks, nine eloquent people have shared with four audiences their insights into one of the modern era’s most persistent yet poorly understood evils – that of slavery – and in doing so, have brought that connection within the grasp of everyone present.
When slavery first comes to my mind it’s often in the form of mental images of grotesque, overtly cruel masters issuing beatings to people wearing chains. A caricature based half on truth, half conjecture. However, disturbing as those images are, what’s more disturbing is that the perpetrators of this most extreme form of human exploitation were, and are, no less respectable than you or I. For much of modern history, until a frighteningly few generations ago, slave-owning was quite normal and acceptable within polite society; and the fact that it isn’t generally acceptable today simply means that the slavery that occurs does so in secret, or wrapped in layer upon layer of convenient complicity.
As I watched and listened to our contributors during our series ‘Abolishing Slavery – Then and Now’, it’s this question of complicity to which I kept returning. What was it that makes it possible for people within any available moral framework to agree that one person’s life should be circumscribed by another’s whims? That their origins, family and culture should be erased, to be replaced with the structures of control imposed by their ‘owner’? What in particular, enabled the Quaker movement to ignore this vicious crime for generations, even sanctioning participation in slave-owning until finally outlawing it within the Society in 1776? What, two centuries after the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire, makes it possible for people to be trafficked, trapped and exploited within households and commonplace industries right under our noses in this country today?
We have much to acknowledge in our history that has been forgotten, perhaps wilfully. As Professor Marcus Rediker narrated in the fourth of our events, Quakers both in the UK and the American colonies of the mid-eighteenth century fought with one of their own – Benjamin Lay – for decades, barring and disowning him as a revolutionary troublemaker because of his tireless campaigning against slave-owning. Alone in society and amongst Friends, he and his wife Mary were perhaps the first abolitionists. Without their efforts there would have been no Clarkson, no Wilberforce; perhaps no abolition at all.
It was to Thomas Clarkson we turned in our second event, on 1st October, when Mike Casey and Arthur Pritchard, the duo known as Plain Quakers, dramatized his life and work in the abolition cause. Inspired by his research for his prize-winning Cambridge University essay on the slave-trade, he devoted his life to forensically uncovering the truth of the treatment of slaves, risking life and limb from hostile opposition in the process; and using his findings to galvanise public support for abolition.
But abolition was not all down to members of the slave-owning societies. Sometimes slaves themselves were instrumental in winning their own freedom. Our series was kicked off in style by a performance of ‘Meet the Crafts’: the dramatic retelling of William and Ellen Craft’s escape from slavery in Georgia in 1848, which was made possible because Ellen’s mixed heritage meant her light skin enabled her to disguise herself as William’s master. Joe Williams and Leah Francis of Heritage Corner Leeds breathed life into these largely forgotten heroes of their time: ordinary people facing the most difficult of circumstances yet proving the great courage and dignity of the human spirit.
That courage is no less needed today than at any time. 40 million people are bound in one or other form of modern slavery: from indentured labour to sexual exploitation; from forced marriage to organ harvesting. Here in the UK, exploitation of migrant labour by gangmasters operating in agriculture, the ‘beauty’ industry and car valeting. In 2016, nearly 4,000 potential victims were alerted to the UK’s National Referral Mechanism – an increase of 17% on the previous year. But because of slavery’s hidden nature, the actual numbers are likely to be far higher – estimates place the real figure around 13,000.
On 15th October we heard one person’s harrowing story of domestic servitude and narrow escape. We heard from Andrew Clark how Anti-Slavery International are highlighting and tackling modern slavery in all its forms. Cristina Talens of the Wilberforce Institute explained the scenarios she encounters when trying to help businesses identify and monitor how their activities and supply chains rely upon modern slavery. Sheila Mosley of Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network drew the connection between the absence of safe and legal routes for asylum seekers to Europe and their vulnerability to enslavement during the trafficking process.
It left me shocked and saddened but not surprised. Just as slavery in many forms is a constant blight on all societies, so are the worst facets of human nature. But just as legalised slavery was abolished, so can our society work to abolish the slavery of our time. If this seems too big a problem for individuals to deal with, we can take heart from the fact that numerous competent organisations are committed to bringing about change. So the question is not ‘what on earth we can do about slavery?’; it is ‘what will it take to make us act?’
Some organisations addressing modern slavery through campaigns and victim support:
Government guidance and data on modern slavery:
Quaker organisations concerned with slavery or related issues:
Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network – http://www.qarn.org.uk/homepage/about/
Quaker Peace and Social Witness – https://www.quaker.org.uk/our-work/social-justice/migration
About Marcus Rediker’s book:
To view or pick up information and resources about modern slavery, get in touch with the Friend in Residence to arrange a time to drop in.
Our thanks to all our contributors during the series.
On four Sunday afternoons from mid-September to late October this year, Airton Friends will be hosting a series of moving and informative events exploring the lives both of people experiencing slavery and those who worked towards it abolition, sometimes in spectacular fashion. However, whilst abolition may have been a great historic achievement, it’s work is far from finished, as we will hear from speakers later in the series.
The events begin on September 17th with a performance by Leeds Heritage Corner (http://heritagecornerleeds.wixsite.com/heritage-corner) of Meet the Crafts – a two handed play based on the biographical work Running a Thousand Miles to Freedom by escaped slave William Craft, published in 1860 by William Tweedie of London. This harrowing story charts the flight of William and Ellen from slavery in the southern US, passage across the Atlantic and their reception in this country. 150 years after publication, the written narrative, available online at http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/craft/craft.html, is as gripping as any contemporary adventure, all the more intense through its being the real story of a man and woman struggling for freedom. Meet the Crafts brings this story back to life as well as giving voice to other transatlantic voices of the time.
On October 1st, we explore the life of Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) in a dramatised reading by Arthur Pritchard and Mike Casey of Plain Quakers Theatre Projects (PQTP). In Nine Parts a Quaker – Unfinished Business, the duo ask ‘If slavery was abolished in the nineteenth century, why are more than 20 million people enslaved today?’ The title refers to the fact that Clarkson was a sympathiser to Quaker values but was not himself a Quaker – an apt reminder that movements for change are most effective as coalitions rather than as single interest groups. Follow PQTP on twitter @PlainQuakers.
The third event is part answer to the question posed by Nine Parts a Quaker. Returning to the present day, in Here and Now, we will hear short talks and engage in discussion about contemporary slavery with contributions from someone who has experienced the sharp end of trafficking and domestic servitude; a former chair of Anti-Slavery International Andrew Clark; Cristina Talens of the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation (University of Hull); and Sheila Mosley of Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network. Between them, these four speakers will shed light on the continued persistence of slavery both internationally and within the UK. Abolitionists faced the challenges of their time with courage and determination; facing present reality is the beginning of change – so if you can only make one event in this series, this is the one to attend.
In the final event of the series, on October 29th, we travel back three centuries to explore the life and times of abolitionist Benjamin Lay (1682-1759). Despite his small stature, he worked as a sailor, travelling to Barbados, where he was appalled by slavery. Arriving in Philadelphia – where many of his fellow Quakers owned slaves – he provoked and annoyed them with incessant and sometimes extravagant campaigning, eventually being disowned by the Quaker meeting. Yet his protests inspired subsequent Quaker abolitionists Anthony Benezet and John Woolman, helping to turn the movement wholesale against slavery. This story will be unfolded for us by historian Marcus Rediker of the University of Pittsburgh, with an illustrated talk based on his book The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist (Beacon Press/Verso, 2017).
We warmly invite you to join us at any or all of these events. Each begins at 3.30pm. Entrance will be free and a collection will be taken to cover costs, with the surplus donated to a relevant charity by Airton Friends Meeting.
Keep updated over the next few weeks by visiting this site, including our news page.
Simon Watkins and Laurel Phillipson, 17th July 2017.
The Dales have been familiar to me since childhood as a place of adventurous day trips with my Yorkshire grandparents (based near Barnsley) and escapes with rambling groups whilst at university in York. But although I always thought I would eventually move to Yorkshire, I imagined the move as a sideways step from my home city of Coventry into one of the region’s metropolises – not through any particular love of cities but because that’s what I knew and because statistically speaking, the chances of a ‘Volunteer Resident Friend’ (VRF) position coming up in a small village in the heart of the landscape I’d grown up captivated by is much less likely than finding a job in Leeds or Sheffield.
I’m completely thrilled to be here. Never mind that I’ll miss countless friends, my small suburban garden, the amateur orchestra that until last week I conducted, the choir of Holy Trinity in which I sang Bass, Coventry Quaker Meeting, the community farm at Ryton Organic Gardens from which I collected fresh vegetables every week, etc. Coventry was good to me but I know already that life in Malhamdale will be just as rich.
As the VRF at Airton Barn I will enjoy welcoming visitors from far and wide. One of the attractions of the position was the opportunity to meet new people as they travel through. As well as residential visits the Barn is a great venue suited to a wide range of creative activities including courses, retreats, away days and exhibitions – a programme I hope to continue to facilitate, having been looked after so well by my predecessor Floe for four years. In the short term however I’m taking time to explore the country lanes & fill my lungs with the Dales air as well as getting confused over the names of the neighbours (my apologies if that includes you…)
Drop in at Airton Barn soon!