Be a good ancestor

… was one of the messages held at Southwell’s COP26 Climate March. This chimed with part of a talk we gave recently to the U3A which considered what can be learnt from the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, to help accelerate the response to the climate crisis.

Society can change – slave trade analogy

In the case of the slave trade, which was not really questioned for two and a half centuries, an early protest figure (a Quaker named Benjamin Lay) travelled between Quaker meeting houses in North America and would (temporarily) kidnap the children of slave owners to show them what the parents of slaves felt.  For this and other shock tactics he was seen as an eccentric, and he would wear nothing, nor eat anything made from the loss of animal life or provided by any degree by slave labour.  Only one Quaker meeting house changed its position because of his efforts, but he awakened individual minds.  

The process then follows the Small World theory – or ‘six degrees of separation’ as many of us would understand it. One of the minds he influenced was John Woolman who in turn was friends with Anthony Benezet (both Quakers) who corresponded with a man in the UK called Granville Sharp.  Sharp was well connected, including to the court of George III, and conducted the first sustained campaign against slavery (along with Benezet and John Wesley).  This included introducing three African men, freed slaves, to London society; a process which helped develop a critical mass of awareness amongst those who could effect (and would be most affected by) the end of the slave trade.  

Unfortunately it took a horrendous incident (the drowning of 133 slaves at sea for insurance purposes) to make the movement reach it’s ‘tipping point’ – where the moral cost of the slave trade became a stronger driver than the economic cost.  The incident was used by campaigners to influence William Pitt, the Prime Minister, who in turn influenced a colleague who introduced an Abolitionist Bill virtually every year for 15 years until it was passed (77 years after Lay started his campaigning against the trade). This has many lessons for us:

  • The need for multiple methods, including shock tactics (unfortunately), letter-writing, and the recognition that we all have the ability to raise others’ awareness whether it is about the treatment of animals, climate change or an organisation’s social impact.
  • The time that it can take to change a society’s mindset
  • The need to listen to the ‘eccentrics’, apply critical thinking, develop our own awareness and take individual responsibility 
  • Use personal and work networks to generate both understanding and action.

Note the background picture on the image above is the ‘Southwell Frigate’ on the coast of Africa. The frigate was owned by Michael Becher & Co, and made two slaving voyages. The first, in 1746, delivered 629 enslaved Africans for sale in Jamaica. The second, in 1748, delivered 284 from Angola to Virginia. 

And so that’s the final lesson. Where our immediate thought may be on our individual role and perhaps families, our response to the climate crisis as a town will have its own legacy.


More information about the Southwell Frigate can be found here.

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