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What unsung heroes teach us about fighting slavery

25 June 2021

Sarah Mullally points to lesser-known abolitionists and their methods as encouragement for today


Thomas Clarkson, an English abolitionist (1760-1846)

Thomas Clarkson, an English abolitionist (1760-1846)

IN 1787, approximately three-quarters of the people on earth lived under some form of enslavement, serfdom, debt bondage, or indentured servitude. It was the year that 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 that there are about 21 million people trafficked for modern-day slavery. This includes about 5.5 million children.

Although the names of Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano are well known, there were many others who played important parts in that pioneering movement for abolition. These unsung heroes of the past can offer us some helpful reminders about our efforts 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 18th century, the fight to end the slave trade was not the latest public hobby horse, nor 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, 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 British person about slavery, surprisingly few pages of the book are about Cugoano’s own experience. It consists mostly 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, which drove his desire for change.

Kevin Bales, Professor of Contemporary Slavery at the University of Nottingham, explains in his TED talk on modern slavery: “The average price of a human being today, around the world, is about $90. . . 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 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.


SECOND, 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 to put together the first and crucial meeting of the interdenominational abolition committee in London, in 1787. As the committee’s travelling organiser, he estimated that he covered 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 such as the Clewer Initiative, the Church of England’s response to modern slavery, follow in his footsteps (News, 20 October 2017). It exists to mobilise the Church and communities to take action against modern slavery. It seeks to bring together different groups to share learning and to signpost best practice, as well as to contribute to policymaking and more effective legislation. It has an important part to play, asking questions at a national level about structural sin, how society and law and order are shaped, and how effective best practice can be developed in local communities.

Clewer InitiativeAn outdoor exhibition on modern slavery, outside Lincoln Cathedral, last year

Third, one voice that is sometimes lacking in our discussions is that 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 over this. It is important that victims’ stories are told, so that we address the ways in which our response needs improving from their perspective.

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. Among victims who need special support are those who, for various reasons, do not want to enter the National Referral Mechanism (NRM); this accounts for about 52 per cent of people identified as at risk. Their experience can be particularly unpredictable, and I am thankful that the safe houses with which we are liaising 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 after abuse and enslavement. After escaping the offender, they often become homeless and extremely vulnerable to further exploitation and abuse. That is why I am supporting Lord McColl’s Private Member’s Bill (currently making its way through the House of Lords) to make provision about supporting victims of modern slavery a legal requirement.


FOURTH, with a global crisis as large as this, we need not only 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, 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 anti-slavery societies of British women 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.

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 Timothy 1.10), and encourage and support people to gain their freedom (1 Corinthians 7.20-24).


The Rt Revd Sarah Mullally is the Bishop of London.


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