top of page
  • Writer's pictureJill Ball

Social Reformers

I've decided to write about the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, but researching this article I'm beginning to wonder if I am more opposed to the slavery than the bible is.

We will look at this question, with reference to the life of a prominent British abolitionist, Olaudah Equiano.

Also I want to show respect to the Society of Friends, the Quakers, who pioneered equal rights for women, prison reform, abolition of slavery and Social Justice. This small Christian group has significantly influenced our world today.

You are the salt of the earth. Matthew 15 v 13a

Britain was heavily involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and many white British families grew rich because of it. One man, Edward Colston, bequeathed much of his ill-gotten wealth to the city of Bristol.

Is it right to ignore our history?

Do we want to honour men like this with public statues?

In 2020 Colston's statue was pulled down and dumped in the harbour.

It has been retrieved and cleaned up. It is probably destined for a museum, hopefully with a list of the man's crimes against humanity. Oppression, kidnapping & brutality were all part of this slave trade. Although one human being buying, selling and owning another human being is abhorrent to me and to most of world today.

However, slavery has been common practice throughout much of human history:

Saint Patrick was a slave in Ireland.

Saint Aidan ransomed slaves to give them their freedom in Anglo-Saxon Northumberland.

The Roman Empire was founded on slavery and Moses writes laws about the treatment of slaves.

By the eighteenth century the Atlantic the trade routes were established and accepted in Britain, the triangular trade.

One of my ancestors, Captain Rogers, helped liberate some people being taken forcibly to the Americas, but maybe there were others in my family who benefitted financially from it. I don't know.

This abhorrent trade in human beings has ongoing consequences for West Africa, the Americas and Europe.

The racist attitudes that allowed the slave trade to flourish have also had consequences down the years.

So, an excellent, international footballer who plays for Manchester United, Marcus Rashford MBE, can receive 70 pieces of racist hate mail after his team lost the Europa League Final a few days ago.

This is a young man who deserves respect for campaigning for free school meals and literacy.

When Al Sharpton spoke at the memorial service for George Floyd he spoke of hope and recognised that it was a different time and season: unlike during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's, this time the protests were worldwide and there were more whites marching for justice.

The best way to fight oppression is for representatives from the oppressed and the oppressor to speak with a unified voice. Where better than in the church, where we are one family?

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Galatians 3 v 26 - 28

The debt the UK government paid to compensate the slave owners for freeing their slaves was only paid back in 2015. Slaves were given their freedom, but no compensation. Inevitably freed slaves were often the poorest and least well-educated in society.

At school I learnt about the British abolitionists, but only about one man, William Wilberforce. I don't wish to be disrespectful of his memory, but there were many more who fought against this injustice, that I had never heard of before I researched this article. Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, Granville Sharpe, Ignatius Sancho, Hannah More, Selina Hastings and Olaudah Equiano to name a few.

In this article we will consider the life of one of these campaigners:

Olaudah Equiano

a portrait of Equiano printed in 1789
Frontispiece of his autobiography

Olaudah Equiano was the youngest child of an elder in an Igbo village in the Kingdom of Benin, modern Nigeria, in about 1745. His father had seven children who survived into adulthood and many slaves, who were well treated. When he was eleven he and his sister were kidnapped from their home and he was traded from owner to owner until he reached the coast after several months. This was the first time he had seen the sea or white people.

Olaudah had been separated from his sister after one night. Although they saw each other briefly during this journey to the coast. He never discovered her fate. At the coast he saw white people for the first time and he was sold to them and taken on board a slave ship.

and I became now persuaded that I had gotten right into the world of horrific spirits, and they had been going to kill me, Their complexions differing so much from ours, their long hair, the language they spoke (which changed into very different from any I had ever heard) united to verify me in this perception.

a diagram showing slaves crammed into a slave ship
plan of a slave ship after regulation of the trade

Conditions were appalling that Olaudah witnessed men throwing themselves overboard. He describes the stench and the beatings in his autobiography. He was mainly kept on deck as he was so young, and named Michael.

He was taken to Barbados and on to the Colony of Virginia, where he was sold on to a plantation owner, who called him Jacob. A lieutenant in the Royal Navy, Michael Henry Pascal, who renamed him Gustavus Vassa, bought him.

Equiano resisted this latest name change, preferring to be called Jacob. After many cuffs he accepted it, but reverted to Oluadah Equiano for his writings.

Pascal treated his slaves well and Oluadah respected him and saw him as a father figure. Growing up with slavery, he was more appalled at the cruel mistreatment of slaves that he witnessed, than the existence of slavery itself.

Why do you use those instruments of torture? Are they fit to be applied by one rational being to another? Are ye not struck with shame and mortification, to see the partakers of your nature reduced so low?
But above all, are there no dangers attending this mode of treatment? Are you not hourly in dread of an insurrection?
...But by changing your conduct, and treating your slaves as men, every cause of fear would be banished.

During the Seven Year's War with France, Equiano served as a valet onboard ships of the Royal Navy. During some time in the household of his master's cousin, he learnt English, started to learn to read and write and converted to Christianity. He was baptized in London in 1759, at the age of fourteen.

On board the ships there were other young boys, who became friends, and older sailors who taught them literacy. In 1762 he was sold on to a captain, who sold him to Robert King, a Quaker in Barbados. (At this time some Quakers owned slaves, but later they opposed slavery completely.) He was very unhappy about this turn of events, but later saw the providence of God.

Equiano was now twenty and started working the shipping routes. King allowed him to trade for himself and agreed that he could buy his freedom for forty pounds (equivalent to over 5000 pounds today). In 1766 he bought his own freedom. King wanted him to stay as a business partner, but it was too dangerous for him. He was nearly flogged in the docks in Georgia by a slaveowner and had to hide for five days.

So he moved back to England, although he continued to work at sea, travelling as far as Smyrna, or Izmir, in The Ottoman Empire and north towards the pole, until about 1777 when he settled in London.

In 1783 Equiano was the first to tell Granville Sharpe about the Zong massacre of slaves in the slave ship. They had run out of drinking water so the crew threw 130 slaves overboard, planning to get compensation from an insurance company. These events later inspired Turner to paint The Slave Ship.

an oil painting of the drowning slaves and a slave ship at sea
The Slave Ship by Turner 1840

Equiano became a prominent member of The Sons of Africa, the first black political organisation in Britain. He led a delegation to parliament, lobbying to abolish slavery. They were affiliated with The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which was founded in 1787.

Equiano was involved in speaking and writing about abolition and he campaigned for votes for working class men.

He was encouraged and financially supported by abolitionists to write his own story.

'The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African' was published in 1789. I can see why it became a best seller. It is very interesting. The quotes above of Equiano are from this book. It has a clear abolitionist message.

Surely this traffic cannot be good, which spreads like pestilence, and taint what it touches!
O, ye nominal Christians! Might not an African ask you, learned you this from God?

He became a relatively wealthy man and married Susannah Cullen in 1792, aged 47, but sadly Susannah died four years later.

Olaudah Equiano died a year later in 1797, leaving two daughters. He was 52.

Slavery & The Bible

In the British West Indies the slave bible was used to educate the slaves in a form of Christianity which was acceptable to the slave owners. All the difficult passages, such as Galatians 3, which could encourage the slaves to look for justice, equality and change, were excluded. Only 10 % of the Old Testament and 50 % of the New Testament were left.

The slave owners were afraid of the power of the Word of God.

There are many scriptures about not oppressing or cheating workers and about social justice, but not directly against the institution of slavery. Paul seems to not approve of it, but to accept it.

Were you a slave when you were called? Don't let it trouble you - although if you can gain your freedom, do so.
For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord's freed person;
Similarly, the one who is free when called is Christ's slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings.
Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.
1 Corinthians 7 v 21 - 24

He was more concerned about setting people free from the slavery of sin than physical slavery. He sent the runaway slave, Onesimus, back to his master Philemon. However, surely the master must have granted the slave his freedom after this heartfelt plea:

Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever - no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.
He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.
Philemon v 15 - 18

It is truly amazing that God has such grace that even a slave trader, such as John Newton can be forgiven. The bible clearly teaches that even a the sins involved in slavery and oppression can be forgiven.

Let's finish with wise words from Archbishop Desmond Tutu

For Africa...has been traditionally concerned about the wholeness of relationships. That is something we need in this world - a world that is polarised, a world that is fragmented, a world that destroys people. If peace is our goal, there can be no future without forgiveness.

- to hear about new series and guest speakers

- if you would like to contribute original artwork to the online gallery

- if you want make a comment, please sign in

90 views2 comments
bottom of page