At the close of the eighteenth century the slave trade was a thriving and very big business. Prominent families held slaves and interests in the slave business, a vast swathe of people depended on slavery for their livelihoods, and public opinion was undisturbed by it. When Clarkson threw in his lot with a small group of Quakers in opposition to the trade the odds of success were seemingly impossible.
On May 22, 1787 Clarkson and about a dozen others met in the James Phillip Bookstore for the first official meeting of the Committee of the Slave Trade. They devised a strategy to gather intelligence on the trade, expose it’s inhumanity via pamphlets, posters and public lectures, and build momentum for a banning of the British slave trade. Clarkson became their only full time anti slavery campaigner. He travelled tirelessly throughout England seeking to gather intelligence on the slave trade and to draw people’s attention to its cruelty and inhumanity.
The task was incredibly difficult. Few of those involved in the slavery business would talk to him; he received death threats, and at least one attempt on his life; many mocked him. In that first year he noted
I began now to tremble, for the first time, at the arduous task I had undertaken, of attempting to subvert one of the branches of the commerce of the great place which was then before me…. I questioned whether I should even get out of it alive.
Yet the tide of opinion began to turn. Petitions containing thousands of names started to find their way to Parliament. More people joined themselves to the cause, including the potter Josiah Wedgewood, who crafted a relief of a kneeling slave with the words “Am I not a man and a brother?” that became a popular and influential adornment, and parliamentarian William Wilberforce, who championed the cause in Parliament. Hundreds of thousands stopped using sugar, the major slave produced good in England, and slave-free sugar started appearing. The autobiography of freed slave Olauda Equiano became a best seller and many heard him speak.
Within five years of that first meeting at the James Phillip bookstore public opinion had turned against the slave trade. Parliament however would take longer to conquer. William Wilberforce was the spearhead of the parliamentary campaign.
So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the trade’s wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would; I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition
Like Clarkson, Wilberforce met with fierce opposition and derision. Admiral Horatio Nelson for example, condemned “the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies”. He also found the support of colleagues such as the Prime Minister, William Pitt.
Bills against the trade were moved in 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805, all without success, until on February 27, 1807 a bill for the abolition of the slave trade passed the House by a vote of 283 to 16.
The anti slavery activists had assumed that once the shipping of slaves was outlawed slavery would collapse. This assumption proved naive. While no more slaves were shipped, slaves continued to be held on British owned plantations in the West Indies and their children enslaved. This set off continued campaigning. A mass uprising of slaves in 1831 signalled the oppression of slaves was no longer sustainable, and in 1833 the Emancipation Act finally saw the end of British slavery.
It took fifty six years, but who’d have thought that from that meeting of a dozen people in the James Phillip Bookstore on May 22, 1787, armed with nothing but their determination and their voices, would issue such a result?
“Tell me the weight of a snowflake,” a cola-mouse asked a wild dove.
“Nothing more than nothing,” was the answer.
“In that case, I must tell you a marvellous story,” the coal-mouse said.
“I sat on the branch of a fir, close to its trunk, when it began to snow-not heavily, not in a raging blizzard-no, just like a dream, without a sound and without any violence. Since I did not have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. Their number was exactly 3,741,952. When the 3,741,953rd dropped onto the branch, nothing more than nothing, as you say-the branch broke off.”
Having said that, the coal-mouse flew away.
The dove, since Noah’s time an authority on the matter, thought about the story for awhile, and finally said to herself, “Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for peace to come to the world.”
Source: Kurt Kauter, New Fables – Thus Spoke The Carabou
The story of Telemachus is the story of extreme courage in the face of evil. Telemachus was a Christian monk who, in 391CE, went on a pilgrimage to Rome. While there he noticed crowds flocking to the Colosseum to see gladiators do battle. He followed them in, only to witness a sight that repulsed him.
Emperor Honorius was celebrating his triumph over the Goths. Gladiators armed with spears and swords reenacted the battle. After their reenactment the bodies of the dead were dragged from the arena and its bloodied surface covered with a fresh layer of sand.
In came a new series of gladiators. Some were armed with swords and spears, others with nets. The crowd watched with excitement as they sought to outdo each other. When a gladiator was wounded, his opponent would loom over him, waiting for the crowd’s verdict on whether to slay him or let him live. So great was the bloodlust that at times wealthier spectators would climb down to get a better view of the execution.
Telemachus watched with horror as people died, battles raged and the crowds cheered. Prompted into action, this bald headed, robed figure found his way onto the arena floor. He ran toward two gladiators locked in battle, grabbed one of them and pulled him away. He exhorted the two gladiators to abandon their murderous sport. He appealed to the crowd to not to break God’s law by murdering.
The response was anything but favourable. Angry voices drowned out Telemachus’, demanding that the spectacle continue. The gladiators prepared to do battle again, but Telemachus stood between them, holding them apart, urging them to reconsider. Driven by the anger of the crowd and their rage at Telemachus’ interference, the gladiators cut Telemachus to the ground, as the crowd threw missiles at him. Telemachus was killed.
But his death was not in vain. In 405 Emperor Honorius declared gladiatorial battles were to end at the Colosseum. Tradition tells us that it was Telemachus’ brave protest that helped move him to do so.
Source: Reported in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
It has been said that all that is needed for evil to succeed is for good people to stay quiet. And the converse is also true, when good people speak up, evil can be defeated. This was graphically illustrated inside Bulgaria during the dark days of World War 2.
Bulgaria was allied to Germany, with a formal agreement made in 1941. This agreement allowed for German military bases inside Bulgaria, while handing back to Bulgaria lands that had been in dispute between the two countries. Members of the Bulgarian government who wished to implement Hitler’s “final solution” against the Jews planned to begin the first phase by sending all the Jews from the returned lands to Germany’s concentration camps.
When a member of Parliament, Peshev, heard of the plan he gathered other representatives and marched into the office of the Minister for the Interior, demanding an explanation. Peshev and the others pressured him to rescind the order, which he did.
However, not all regions received the telegram in time. In Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city, Jewish people were rounded up during the early morning, with most held in the local school hall, awaiting deportation by train to Germany. Here Metropolitan Kyrill, the head of the local church acted immediately. He sent a telegram of protest to the king, threatening to lie across the tracks in front of the first train to leave with Jews. He then went to the school where he was barred entry by the police. Announcing that he no longer felt himself bound by the laws of the government and would act according to his conscience as a minister of Christ, Kyrill climbed the fence promising the Jews gathered there “Wherever you go, I’ll go.”
Some time after the order not to deport the Jews arrived at Plovdin and they got to return to their homes. Meanwhile, local MP Peshev was expelled from the vice presidency of the Parliament and censured.
Foiled at their first effort, the Gestapo pressured the king into an order that Jews be expelled from cities into the Bulgarian countryside. They hoped this would stir up anti-Semitism in the country and allow the deportations to go ahead. It was at this point that Metropolitan Stefan, head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church came into his own. He convened a meeting of his church’s Synod which unanimously condemned the order to move Jews into the countryside.
The government made plans to go ahead with the deportation anyway, scheduling it for a day of national celebration, in the hope that the deportation would go unnoticed among the day’s festivities. Stefan would have none of this. As head of the national church it was his job to officiate during the celebrations. Standing on the steps of the cathedral, a large crowd lay before him and the members of the government, including the Prime Minister, sat behind him. He threw away his prepared speech, strongly condemned the persecution of the Jews and called on the government to resist the influence of the Nazis. The Prime Minister rose after Stefan to denounce him and called on him to stop interfering in political matters.
The deportation to country areas proceeded, but Stefan was unbowed. In the face of threats to arrest him he offered to christen all Jews who wished to, a measure that would mean they could not be deported to Germany. The Minister for the Interior responded by refusing to recognise all christening certificates issued after January 1, 1943, and ordering the closure of the churches of Sofia. Stefan informed the government that his Churches would ignore the order and sent a circular to all his parish priests explaining the fate awaiting Jews in Germany. Fearing a public backlash the government backed down. The churches remained open until the end of the war and the Jews were allowed to remain in Bulgaria. Tens of thousands of lives were saved, all because people of good conscience refused to be silent in the face of evil.
Source: reported in Christianity Today magazine, Oct 4, 1999. Vol 43, No. 11.
Joe Slovo and Ruth First were leaders in the African National Congress, and murdered by a parcel bomb during South Africa’s apartheid era. It was sent by the South African police force. Since apartheid ended, their daughter, Gillian, has travelled extensively across South Africa, seeking to help in her country’s healing and restoration. In the process she has come across many of the children of White South Africans who had been active in the oppression on non-whites. One woman, a journalist of similar age to Gillian remarked to her: “I know it must have been hard for you to be your parent’s daughter. I know that there are many costs to be paid by the child of heroes. But imagine how it feels to be me: to have to look at my parents, and to ask of them – how could you? How could you have witnessed all this and said nothing. How could you have let it happen?”
Source: reported in Gillian Slovo, “Making history: South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission”, opendemocracy.com, 5 – 12 – 2002
Is it possible for a small group of people to make a difference to the practises of multinational corporations? In at least some cases it is, as was proven by a group of sociology students from Eastern College in the USA. Set an assignment in which they were asked how a small group of Christians could bring about significant social change these students focussed upon the practises of the Gulf and Western Corporation in the impoverished country of Haiti. Their proposal was so audacious one of the students said “why don’t we do it?”. Why not take this beyond a college paper and actually put their proposal into action?
Their method was simple. Along with their professor, Tony Campolo, each student purchased a share in Gulf and Western and showed up to the annual general meeting. As shareholders they were entitled to have a say in the running of the company, and one by one stood up, read passages from the bible that condemned injustice, then asked why Gulf and Western was treating the people of Haiti unjustly. They wanted the company to address the issue of low wages for the sugar workers, to do something about the fact that they’d made the country more and more dependent on a single crop, and to provide education and medical services for the people.
The purpose was to shame the directors into action, and they were effective. The directors of Gulf and Western invited the students to meet to talk the issues over. Eighteen months later Gulf and Western released a plan to act in a socially responsible way in the Dominican Republic. They would partner with Mt. Sinai Medical Center to create health services in Dominican Republic communities, would set aside substantial amounts of quality land to produce food for the Dominican people, and would institute a variety of educational programs that included working with Eastern University to develop a new university that would train teachers, lawyers, nurses, and engineers. Over the next five years Gulf and Western spent half a billion dollars following through on their plans. And the lives of thousands were dramatically improved.
Source: Reported in Tony Campolo You Can Make a Difference and Let Me Tell You a Story.