The end of slavery

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?

The Pan

A little girl noticed that every time her mother cooked a roast she chopped a piece off the end of the roast before putting it in the oven.  Intrigued, she asked her mother why she did this.

“Well to be honest, I do it because that’s the way my mother always does it” came the reply. “I’m sure she must have some good reason for it.”

At the next family gathering, the child decided to satisfy her curiosity. “Grandma, why do you always chop the end off the roast before cooking it?”

“Well to be honest, I do it because that’s the way my mother always does it” came the reply. “I’m sure she must have some good reason for it.”

A week or so later the little girl was visiting her 90 year old great grandmother. She explained that mummy and grandma always chop the end off the roast before cooking it, but couldn’t remember why. Did she know?

“Struth!” said Great-grandma. “Imagine the two of them doing that! Why, I only cut the piece off because my pan was too small!”

Pleasantville

Do you ever wish we could get back to the wholesomeness and stability of the past, to a world where things are simpler and easier? That’s just the issue explored in the superb 1998 film Pleasantville. The central characters of the movie are teenage twins David and Jennifer, each struggling their their own way with the pressures of modern life and a family that has been through divorce. Jennifer becomes the ultimate party girl, sleeping around and acting on her every whimsy. David becomes depressed and retreats from the world into his room, where he spends as much time as he can watching his favourite TV show, an old 1950’s black and white sitcom, Pleasantville. Pleasantville seems to offer everything David could want – simplicity, intact families, stability, clear community values.

Then one day something weird happens. David and Jennifer are fighting over the remote control for the TV and break it. Mysteriously a TV repairman show sup at that time and gives them an unusual looking replacement remote. No sooner have they hit the button than they are both transported back in time into Pleasantville, the world of David’s favourite sitcom. They find themselves trapped in this world where everything is neat, simple and occurs in black and white. David and Jennifer are part of a traditional family, where mum stays home to do the cooking and cleaning and their clean cut Dad heads off to work, returning each evening with “Honey, I’m home.”

David realised that they have become part of the episodes he knows word by word from TV and decides to play along. There is something appealing about this simple world. Jennifer is horrified. There’s no way she’ll be going along with the rules. David tells her she’ll destroy these people’s way of life, but she doesn’t care. And the funny thing is that she does destroy their way of life, but in many ways she changes it for the better.

You see, the reason everything is so pleasant in Pleasantville is that nobody asserts their individuality. Everybody conforms to the desires of the mainstream. Jennifer’s Pleasantville mum represses her sexuality, the Pleasantville store owner represses his dreams of becoming an artist, the high school kids go through the motions of winning every basketball game but never know how to cope with failure.

Inspired by Jennifer’s chaotic ways people in Pleasantville start discovering their individuality. Jennifer’s mum explores her sexuality and then one day doesn’t have dinner ready and waiting for her husband when he walks in the door. The local storeowner starts painting. The high school kids start breaking out of their rigid conformity and become addicted to sexual pleasure, at least initially. And as all this happens those who begin to assert their individuality turn into colour.

The reaction from the powerbrokers is swift. Initially confused by all these changes they soon become convinced society will fall apart. They organise meetings, enact laws against “coloureds”, apply guilt trips to those who have changed. A darker, uglier undercurrent of abuse and violence emerges as some who resent the changes retaliate. But nothing can stop the change.

The movie raises a whole lot of issues. By the end we’ve discovered that the new full colour version of the world is more chaotic and dangerous than the black and white version. Readjusting to new roles, discovering morality and living with change is difficult. The men have lost the power and convenience of a world oriented around their needs. Yet people are living in colour. They seem happier and more fulfilled.

The movie raises a number of confronting challenges about change.

  1. The world of today is more complex, chaotic and dangerous than the world of the past, but it is also one where people are liberated rather than repressed – chaotic but colourful versus ordered but black and white.
  2. When we respect people’s individuality (ie their dreams and desires) we run the risk that they will pursue options and agendas with which we are uncomfortable.
  3. A black and white world is one which centres around the dreams and hopes of one group by repressing the dreams and hopes of others. In the town of Pleasantville the last to change are the adult men. After all, they are the ones who hold power in this world, with wives and children fitting in with their needs.
  4. Change can produce an ugly backlash. Feeling that they possess the moral high ground people can be harsh in judgement, vindictive in spirit, and assume they have the right to enforce their views on others.