Friday, February 06, 2004

Uprisings of the oppressed have erupted throughout history, but the anti-slavery movement in England was the first sustained mass campaign anywhere on behalf of someone else's rights. Sometimes Britons even seemed to be organizing against their own self-interest. From Sheffield, famous for making scissors, scythes, knives, razors, and the like, 769 metalworkers petitioned Parliament in 1789. Because their wares were sold to ship captains for use as currency to buy slaves, the Sheffield cutlers wrote, they might be expected to favor the slave trade. But they vigorously opposed it: "Your petitioners...consider the case of the nations of Africa as their own."

Consider the Africans' case as their own? Stephen Fuller, London agent for the Jamaican planters and a key figure in the pro-slavery lobby, wrote in bewilderment that the petitions flooding into Parliament were "stating no grievance or injury of any land or sort, affecting the Petitioners themselves." He was right to be startled. This was something new in human history.

In the January/February issue of Mother Jones, Adam Hochschild writes a concise, gripping history of the British anti-slavery movement in the 18th & 19th centuries, & tells us we should be inspired by its success to tackle the problems of the 21st-century world.

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