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The story of the Quakers Part III | Slavery and abolition

Published:Thursday | April 13, 2017 | 12:00 AMPaul Willaims

To escape persecution in Britain, many Quakers fled to the Caribbean and North America where the movement spread despite initially persecution. Some became wealthy businessmen and influential politicians. Dissention, and fragmentation from within occurred, and branches espousing different ideologies were established all over the United States.

Among the commercial activities of the Quakers was trading, including the shipment of West Africans across the Atlantic to estates in North America and the Caribbean. Some Quakers were holders of enslaved Africans, plantations, and slave ships. They believe slavery was acceptable as long as the well-being of the enslaved was attended to. But, the dehumanising nature of slavery was in stark contradiction to their belief in the equality of all men, and their opposition to religious and political hierarchies.

So, about 1688 some Quarkers began objecting to the institution of slavery. In that year they met with German Mennonites in Germantown, Pennsylvania, to discuss why they were dissociating themselves from slavery. Yet, up to 1705, 70 per cent of American Quakers were holders of enslaved Africans. The number dropped to 10 per cent by 1766. The campaign to dismantle the system grew between 1755 and 1776. The Quarkers became the first organisation in the Western Hemisphere to ban slave-holding.

They created societies to agitate for emancipation, and influenced by the Quakers' stance on slavery, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson convinced the Continental Congress to ban the importation of slaves into the United States as of December 1, 1775. With Franklin's help the Quakers formed the Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. In 1791 a campaign was launch to boycott goods made by enslaved Africans, and between 1780 and 1804 slavery was abolished in the northern states.

Yet, slavery in the south was still legal. This dichotomy created an informal resistance movement called the 'Underground Railroad', which established a network of safe houses and escape routes to Canada and the northern free states. The Quakers worked as 'conductors' on these routes, and hid run-aways into their houses until it was safe for them to move on.

However, some Quakers did not agree with the illegal assistance their colleagues were giving to run-aways. They were against breaking the law. It was a quandary in which they found themselves. They were against slavery, but also opposed breaking the law. This resulted in more fragmentation. The Quakers who were staunchly against the wicked system of servitude continued to assist run-aways, and many were arrested for the role they played in helping them to escape through the Underground Railroad.

On the side of the Atlantic, agitation for the emancipation of enslaved Africans was also strong, and the Quakers were loud in their call for an end to the injustice of which they were a part. The Quaker banker, David Barclay, was to strike one of the first major blows by any Quaker to British slavery in the Caribbean. In 1795, he freed the 32 enslaved Africans on his plantation at Unity Valley in St Ann, Jamaica. Thirty of the emancipated were sent to Pennsylvania via Kingston.

The Quakers played a significant role in the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807, and in 1824 they began a campaign to boycott sugar produced on the plantations in the West Indies. Nine years later, British slavery was outlawed, but full emancipation was to come in 1840, when the Apprenticeship System was slated to end. The system, which began in 1834, was a transition period to prepare the enslaved for freedom. But, Joseph Sturge, a Quaker philanthropist, was not in favour of this system.

He set up a committee of the Ant-slavery Society to campaign for the end of the system. He visited the Caribbean in 1836/37 to investigate what was happening to the apprentices. His report, 'The West Indies in 1837', told of the inhumane treatment of the apprentices, and the gross injustices that they were experiencing. He gave evidence to a committee of the House of Commons, and travelled around Britain garnering support. His work helped to end the Apprenticeship System, and by extension slavery, in 1838.