By Katie Campbell –
As someone who has made my whole career about studying history (and teaching it to others), I have encountered interesting reactions from others when I tell them what I do. Usually the response involves, ‘I always thought history was really boring in school, but now I wish I knew more about it.’ My students usually just say, ‘This is boring. I don’t get it.’ But I think that there is something so vital to understanding history, and I think that people find it a bit boring because it seems like a linear progression of depressing, political events. But it is so much more than that.
History is actually the study of human experience. It is the study of how people have structured their experiences, expressed their experiences, explained their experiences, and remembered their experiences. In this way, it is not simply an endless marching on of events, but an overlapping map of experiences. These experiences occur both simultaneously and in separate moments in time, and yet there is profound connections between them. It is fascinating to witness how people’s experiences can be at one time incredibly unique and unprecedented, and yet somehow universally felt.
As I make this impassioned speech to my students, one brave student will invariably raise her hand and ask, ‘Is this going to be on the test? Do we have to, like, know this?’ And the moment is lost, and I remember that I teach twelve year olds.
Despite their nonchalance, I remain a passionate advocate for the study of history as it illuminates the connections across experiences in such a way that allows us to understand our present more comprehensively.
Understanding the past to make sense of the present motivated me to study the methods and language of the nineteenth century abolitionists, specifically women abolitionists because ‘girl power,’ to see how their strategies could instruct the current abolition movement. What can truly encourage current abolitionists fighting against trafficking, forced labor, and slavery, is in seeing what virtually insurmountable odds that the nineteenth century abolitionists faced.
Slavery is one of the oldest forms of exploitation, and was present in virtually every ancient society in various forms. The way that these ancient societies obtained slaves was through war and conquest. For many societies, war became the justification for enslavement.
Something changed, however, with the introduction of Atlantic slavery, meaning the enslavement of predominantly West African people by Europeans. The old justification for slavery (particularly for Christian Europeans) no longer applied as they were not at war with these African nations. As the slave trade expanded to be one of the most lucrative industries in the Modern Atlantic world, it became more ‘essential’ to Europeans, and therefore needed to be justified because, despite all of the arguments supporting it, it was so obviously wrong. So, a strange ideology emerged. A belief tied to the ‘scientific’ reasoning of the Enlightenment that claimed that African people were somehow inferior to Europeans, which meant that they could be enslaved. This ideology, now known as racism, was in direct contradiction to the reality that we are all made in the image of God and in contradiction to the reality of human experience, which reveals far more similarities than differences.
This belief prompted a denial of connection simply based on the color of skin. And it was this severing of connection, this exclusivity, that led to the dehumanizing of enslaved individuals. We know that racism still affects our current society in maintaining barriers to connection in isolating groups of people from one another socially, politically, and economically.
Orlando Patterson, a leading historian who studied slavery (and its lasting social effects), said that slavery was a system of ‘social death,’ meaning that it represented the forcible removal of a person’s connection to family, community, and the outside world. In essence, enslavement meant the complete loss of personhood.
Because slavers (or traffickers) no longer saw enslaved individuals as people, they then were motivated to build this industry in the sale of people. Old estimates put the number of those forcibly trafficked from West Africa to the Americas between 12 and 15 million. More current estimates place that number between 20 and 24 million.
Now, anyone in business understands the concept of overhead and costs that cut into your profit. If you remove wages from this equation, your profit will naturally increase. With this system of free labor, the wealth of the Americas was built. Many of my country’s founding fathers built their fortunes on the backs of slaves. Similarly, many British leaders who owned plantations in the colonies increased their wealth as a result of slave labor.
These slaveholders were often government leaders (or were highly connected to politicians) and wrote laws (particularly in the Southern United States) to protect and perpetuate the institution of slavery.
The nineteenth century abolitionists’ success was remarkable in light of the virtually insurmountable odds that they faced. Their fight to end slavery and to break down racial barriers placed them on the outskirts of their societies. To many, their beliefs represented a threat to economic stability, they had little support from political leaders, and the reigning ideology of racism contradicting their entire platform.
Take a second to imagine yourself as an abolitionist in this time. Some might call you extreme for your beliefs. There is a great deal standing in the way between you and your goal to see freedom. How would you feel? Frustrated? Overwhelmed?
And yet, they succeeded. In 1807, through the influence of abolitionists, Britain abolished the slave trade, and, in the following year, the United States also abolished the transatlantic slave trade. It would take an additional thirty years for Britain to abolish slavery in its colonies, and almost sixty years until it would be fully abolished in the United States. Yet, this was not accomplished without years and years of petitioning, boycotting, public speaking, and awareness campaigns. And, I believe (because many abolitionists were Christians), they accomplished this through prayer. I also believe that they were successful because God wanted them to be. He is for justice and freedom.
One thing that makes the nineteenth century abolitionists stand out markedly from other movements, even some social justice movements of today, they were astoundingly committed to their task. Those who called by God to fight for freedom must not take their task lightly nor give up easily. And the abolitionists needed to convince the broader population of the immorality and injustice of slavery, which was a task that took incredible determination and time. Among other methods, they focused on addressing two particular ideas:
Both of these tactics apply so readily to our current situation. We who are free are obligated to secure or uphold the freedom of others, and we are called to see people not as ‘victims,’ but as sisters and brothers. Too often we further distance ourselves from people when we label them as ‘victims,’ because in a way, we aren’t giving them back the ownership of their destinies. We’re saying, ‘we’ll take it from here. You don’t have the capacity to change your fate.’ That’s not to diminish the reality of their situations, but in order to really see change and to restore to them their personhood, we must see them as they truly are: our sisters and brothers.
Next week we’ll look at practical steps we can take to join the fight against forced labour and human trafficking today.