Today, we only have to turn on our TVs or surf the internet to get up-to-date news. A network of journalists makes us aware of what is happening, almost instantly, across the world.
When the campaign to abolish slavery began, around 250 years ago, there were no TV bulletins showing the terrible conditions on slave ships or newspapers reporting on the cruel treatment of chattel slaves on plantations. Newspapers that did exist tended to reflect the views of the ruling classes. Most people could not read them anyway.
This meant that the majority of people who used sugar to sweeten their tea and cakes, had no idea of how it was produced or the human cost. Those that did know tended to be the very people who were profiting from the trade and wanted to ensure things stayed just as they were. These people had the money and power to influence government.
Today, everybody over the age of 18 has the right to show their disapproval of government policy, by voting in elections. 250 years ago, only an elite few could vote. Women had no say in how the country was run and governments saw little need to listen to the people.
Against this background, it is surprising that those opposed to enslavement managed to conduct such a successful campaign. The act to abolish the Transatlantic Slave Trade in 1807, and slavery itself throughout the British Empire in 1833, owed perhaps more to the slave rebellions and revolution in Haiti, than to the campaign in Britain. However, the campaign both raised public awareness and helped sway Parliament to do something about it. It was a long and hard fought struggle.
The abolitionists faced strong opposition from those profiting from the trade, who used political pressure and delaying tactics to maintain the status quo. However, the enthusiasm and organisational skills of the abolitionists saw the first ever campaign, in which people became angry about the treatment and rights of people they did not know and were prepared to support them in their struggle for freedom.
To successfully end slavery, the abolitionists needed to do two things: make people aware of what was going on and put pressure on those with the power to change the law. How did they do this? Well, by introducing many of the ways of campaigning that we take for granted today.
Looks at the different campaign tactics used. A more detailed account of this can be found in Bury the Chains by Adam Hochschild.