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How UK’s Anti-Slavery Campaign Led to Transformational Change

Johanna Martinsson's picture

If you are a frequent reader of this blog, you will know that we in CommGAP are interested in learning how to change social norms for better governance and accountability.  In a forthcoming paper, I will take a closer look at the journey of norms in development; how they emerge, become global norms and diffuse to local contexts.  In reviewing global advocacy campaigns that led to transformational and normative change, it’s hard to ignore one of the most successful and important reform movements of the 19th century, namely the UK’s Anti-Slavery Campaign. How did the campaign manage to change such deeply entrenched norms as slave trade and slavery throughout the British Empire in some 50 years? Clearly, it’s a unique case that involved many institutional and environmental factors, and it would be impossible to cover all of them in a single blog post.  However, the campaign would not have succeeded if it wasn’t for a number of critical components that are of great interest to what we are learning about social norms and successful reforms.

Thomas Clarkson, the main figure behind the anti-slavery movement and co-founder of the Society for Abolition of the Slave Trade, learned the inhumane facts about slave trade when researching for an essay contest at Cambridge University, which had the title: “Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?”  From that point on, Clarkson devoted his life to the abolition of slavery. To form a nation-wide movement and change norms about the slave trade, Clarkson collected evidence and travelled throughout the U.K. to promote the cause and to form coalitions.  The efforts resulted in two national petition campaigns, led by William Wilberforce, a parliamentarian and a long-time friend of Clarkson.  The most important coalition Clarkson formed was with the Quakers, which became the foundation for the mass campaign created to abolish slave trade.

A key strategy of the campaign was to shift public opinion, make the public question the legitimacy of slave trade, and bring the issue to the forefront of public discourse.  To this effect, a horrific image from a slave ship packed with slaves was widely distributed and displayed in public places.  Instead of promoting unrest among slaves themselves, the campaign focused on educating and engaging the public through the use of testimonials and reporting of facts.  This had a tremendous impact on the public who had long been far removed from the horrors of slave trade and slavery. They soon became both empathetic and outraged.  When the campaign had the support from the public, they turned to lobbying the Parliament. 

Once slave trade was abolished, the campaign revived and turned to the abolishment of slavery itself, which succeeded in 1830, mainly through petitions and demonstrations.

In thinking about governance reform and transformational change, there are many important lessons that can be drawn from this historic campaign.  Building public support, transforming public opinion, and building broad-based coalitions have been discussed many times before on this blog, as essential for reforms to succeed and sustain.  Clarkson, an abolitionist and an excellent communicator, mastered all three factors: he built coalitions both inside and outside the Parliament; and he engaged and educated the public about the true facts about slavery to shift public opinion and build public support, even before turning to the Parliament.  Nevertheless, some 200 years later, these are factors that still need to be embraced as crucial for any reform process to succeed.

Krznaric, R. (2007). How Change Happens: Interdisciplinary Perspectives for Human Development.

The Economist (2009). Breaking the chains.


Photo Credit: Flickr user Dean Ayers

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And, of course, it was JS Mill's work against slavery that led to Thomas Carlyle labeling economics the dismal science. See Levy's summary, here.

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