Against All Odds: the Fight against Slavery

Posted by under Human Rights Education on 23 March 2005

The antislavery movement - it was the first time a large number of people became outraged, and stayed outraged for many years, over someone else's rights. Singapore residents could learn from this movement not to give up their rights!

Slavery was once so pervasive and so widely accepted that even the enlightened Adam Smith could declare in 1763 that slavery "has been universal in the beginnings of society, and the love of dominion and authority over others will probably make it perpetual." And yet, surprisingly, the slave trade did die, and by the end of 1800 slavery itself lost its legal status almost everywhere.

In Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves Adam Hochschild chronicles how a small group of men launched an impossible crusade in the late 1700s and then gradually built up a grassroots campaign nationally that eventually moved the British Parliament to outlaw the slave trade in 1807 and then the British empire's slavery system in 1833.

"Looking back today," Hochschild writes, "what is even more astonishing than the pervasivenesss of slavery in the late 1700s is how swiftly it died....The antislavery movement had achieved its goal in little more than one lifetime."

That movement, he emphasizes, forged a historic landmark of human empathy and activism. "The campaign in England was something never seen before: it was the first time a large number of people became outraged, and stayed outraged for many years, over someone else's rights. And most startlingly of all, the rights of people of another color, on another continent."

Hochschild rightly believes that conscientious people today "have much to learn" from how the British abolitionists overcame the great odds against their cause. "Their passion and optimism are still contagious and still relevant to our times, when, in so many parts of the world, equal rights for all men and women seem so far distant," he writes, and cites a few specific modern parallels of slavery: prison labor in China, children making our shirts and shoes in Indonesia, and Latin American laborers who breathe in pesticides while picking the fruit on our tables.

Or at the very least, as Steven Mufson wrote in a Washington Post review, Bury the Chains "reminds us that people who fancy themselves civilized can have the most uncivilized institutions, that distance can lull a society into living with terrible injustices, and that economic interests can corrupt the moral fabric of a nation."

Sources and Relevant Links:

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. X-3 Against All Odds: the Fight against Slavery March 3, 2005

Anti-Slavery Movement Anti-Slavery Movement

New Internationalist SLAVERY Today An estimated 27 million people are enslaved around the world.1 Forced to work through violence or the threat of it, they are under the complete control of their ‘employers'. They are treated as property and sometimes bought and sold.

Think Centre ILO losing patience with Myanmar's forced labour

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