Building on this blog post, more on globalization, graphic agitation, and public relations.
From “Against All Odds,” by Adam Hochschild, Mother Jones, January/February 2004
“The superbly organized anti-slavery committee also pioneered several techniques used ever since. For example, they periodically printed copies of ‘a Letter to our Friends in the Country, to inform them of the state of the Business’ — the ancestor of many a newsletter, print or electronic, published by activist groups today. They also agreed on a piece of text delivered to every donor in greater London appealing for another contribution, at least as big as the last. This may have been history’s first direct-mail fundraising letter.
When the famous one-legged pottery entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood joined the committee, he had one of his craftsmen make a bas-relief of a kneeling slave, in chains, encircled by the legend ‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother?’ American anti-slavery sympathizer Benjamin Franklin, impressed, declared that the image had an impact ‘equal to that of the best written Pamphlet.’ Clarkson gave out 500 of these medallions on his organizing trips. ‘Of the ladies, several wore them in bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental manner as pins for their hair.’ The equivalent of the lapel buttons we wear for an electoral campaign, this was probably the first widespread use of a logo designed for a political cause. It was the 18th century’s ‘new media.’
Within a few years, another tactic arose from the grassroots. Throughout the length and breadth of the British Isles, people stopped eating the major product harvested by British slaves: sugar. Clarkson was delighted to find a ‘remedy, which the people were... taking into their own hands.... Rich and poor, churchmen and dissenters.... By the best computation I was able to make from notes taken down in my journey, no fewer than three hundred thousand persons had abandoned the use of sugar.’ Almost like ‘fair trade’ food labeling today, advertisements quickly filled the press: ‘BENJAMIN TRAVERS, Sugar-Refiner, acquaints the Publick that he has now an assortment of Loaves, Lumps, Powder Sugar, and Syrup, ready for sale... produced by the labour of FREEMEN.’ Then, as now, the full workings of a globalized economy were largely invisible. The boycott caught people’s imagination because it brought these hidden ties to light. The poet Robert Southey spoke of tea as ‘the blood-sweetened beverage."
Slavery advocates were horrified. One rushed out a counterpamphlet claiming that ‘sugar is not a luxury; but... a necessary of life; and great injury have many persons done to their constitutions by totally abstaining from it.’
The abolitionists pioneered another key organizing tool as well, and you have seen it. Rare is the TV program or illustrated book about slavery that does not show a detailed, diagramlike top-down view of rows of slaves’ bodies packed like sardines into a ship. The ship is a specific one, the Brookes, of Liverpool, and Clarkson and his colleagues swiftly printed 8,700 copies of the diagram, and it was soon hung on the walls of homes and pubs throughout the country. Part of its brilliance was that it was unanswerable: What could the slave interests do, make a painting of happy slaves on shipboard? Precise, understated, and eloquent in its starkness, it was the first widely reproduced political poster....
Meanwhile, something else feeding the country’s growing antislavery fervor was Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, a vivid account of his life in slavery and freedom. At seven shillings a copy, it became a best-seller. For an extraordinary five years, he promoted his book throughout the kingdom, winning a particularly friendly reception in Ireland, whose people felt that they, too, knew something about oppression by the British. Equiano’s was the first great political book tour....
The slave interests’ tactics bore a fascinating resemblance to the way industries under assault try to defend themselves today. When, for instance, there were moves in Parliament to try to regulate the treatment of slaves, the planters hastily drew up a lofty-sounding code of conduct of their own and insisted no government interference was necessary. They considered other P.R. techniques as well. ‘The vulgar are influenced by names and titles,’ suggested one pro-slavery writer in 1789. ‘Instead of SLAVES, let the Negroes be called ASSISTANT-PLANTERS; and we shall not then hear such violent outcries against the slave-trade.’”
If, as the author suggests, so many of these grassroots tactics were pioneered here, what was it that made the tactics suddenly possible? Might it have something to do with the increasing availability of cheap paper and printing? A sea change in popular mood and political will fueled by access to decentralized publishing, and direct action in the fields?
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