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A Sudden Change of Heart: Lessons from the Abolitionist Movement

Social values, it's commonly understood, move at glacial speed.

Yes and no: sometimes they can change astonishingly fast, a fact that many people overlook or downplay. A powerful case in point is the massive and relatively swift shift in attitudes and policy towards slavery in Britain during the Victorian era.


(Picture credit: "Slavery Series #1" by Nigerian artist, Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy, University of Florida, Online Image. 15 September 2000.)

As the popular historian Niall Ferguson puts it in his highly readable Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British Empire and the Lessons for Global Power,

It is not easy to explain so profound a change in the ethics of a people. It used to be argued that slavery was abolished simply because it had ceased to be profitable, but all the evidence points the other way: in fact, it was abolished despite the fact that it was still profitable. What we need to understand, then, is a collective change of heart. Like all such great changes, it had small beginnings.

Small beginnings were necessary because overturning an ancient, almost universal practice was a seemingly impossible challenge. While considered barbaric today, slavery was accepted for most of human history as a necessary, if unsavory, part of the natural order of things. The Bible nor Christian tradition explicitly opposed it (although religious activists would later use the teachings of Jesus to support their cause), and slavery was easily rationalized by logic of the times which favoured a proto-social darwinian explanation for why people should be oppressed, for why the British Empire and white folks were at the top of the social hierarchy. Accidents of birth were justified in this way. (By the by, much of today's right wing economic policy is still highly influenced by these assumptions, however implicitly, when it comes to the "have nots".) So given this widespread social mindset and the fact that powerful entrenched economic interests supported the trade, it's truly amazing how quickly and decisively this practice was overturned.

The Story of the Abolition Movement in Two New Books

So how did this happen? Through the efforts of a small but committed group of anti-slavery activists in the late 1700s. Remarkably diverse and equally as colourful, the champions of the abolition movement included religious leaders across dominations -- Quakers, Evangelicals, to Unitarians -- people like Granville Sharp and Zachary Macaulay who lead the Clapham Sect. We also had ex-slaver John Newton, enlightenment thinker Edmund Burke, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the industrialist and pottery king Josiah Wedgwood leading the charge.

Two new books recount this important story: Bury the Chains: The First International Human Rights Movement by Adam Hochschild; and Though The Heavens May Fall: The Landmark Trial That Led To The End Of Human Slavery by Steven Wise.

While I have read neither of these books (yet-- can't wait!) they are being reviewed well and extensively in many periodicals with a good review in The Economist (Feb 3rd, 2005), the back pages of which seem to be the best part of the publication these days. For Hochschild's book also see The Nation and

The abolitionist movement is so interesting, so relevant today, because this was the birth of the modern NGO movement. They invented a new kind of politics, the politics of the pressure group, and marshaled an impressive groundswell of support which profoundly influenced legislators in Britain and did an end-run around the economic powers-that-be. This was one of "the first great extra Parliamentary agitations" says Ferguson.

These activists were particularly skillful in using the media and employing powerful images and icons to dramatize the horror and inhumanity of slavery. For instance, during an enquiry into the slave trade by the Privy Council in 1788, it was a diagram of a slave ship, the Brookes, showing slaves tightly packed and chained in rows, that started shifting people's perceptions. "For many people, this was perhaps the first time that the reality of the slave trade had impinged upon them: with their own eyes, they could see its cruelty," wrote The Economist reviewer.


(Image used in the Privy Council enquiry 1788)

To get some dates out there, the slave trade was banned in 1807 and eventually made illegal in 1833 within the British Empire. Britain cajoled and strong armed its trading partners -- Spain, Portugal and a reluctant France -- into accepting the prohibitions. Of course, this didn't end the lucrative trade; it continued on for years with about 1.9 million more slaves crossing the Atlantic to the United States and Latin America, especially Brazil where business was booming. The Royal Navy vigorously enforced the ban and did their best to disrupt the trade, an indicator of just how systematically and seriously the British Empire took this new law. Though, conveniently enough, there were some political and economic advantages to this moral crusade as well, as Britian's critics would point out. For instance, after they outlawed the trade, they "liberated" the main slave-port in Sierra Leone in 1808 and renamed it Freetown. This was the first precedent in international law for trumping a country's sovereignty on the basis of a higher humanitarian cause. Once "liberated", the territory soon became a protectorate of the Empire until Sierra Leone's independence in 1961. Sound familiar? In a perverse way the road to Bagdad started in Africa.

Lessons and Questions for the Future

Needless to say, this story is a timely and inspiring case study for worldchangers, raising some important lessons and larger questions. First, the lessons:

This is a good reminder that big things can be triggered by a minority of dedicated and savvy people. As anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." Amen to that.

Related to this and my opening observation, highly entrenched beliefs can shift quite dramatically and seemingly overnight. While this meme has been made popular by Gladwell's The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference, social scientists are just beginning to understand how this might work and we're far from having any predictive models, that's for sure. Understanding changing social values is still a messy, complicated art. Recounting true historical stories like these, however, is a useful device to overcome the parochialism of the present. They are undeniable evidence that non-linear dynamics punctuate our lives more than it would seem, which is a trick I use frequently to readjust people's perceptions in my trainings and futures projects. Almost always people are grateful and often delighted by the new outlook.

Looking back in time also helps us be more strategic about the future because it helps us to see what's emerging next. Stories like these point out that these "sudden" changes are perhaps not so sudden after all. That in many cases they are part of a longer cycle of continuity, the dicernable products of the grooves of history. This is important because we quickly lose perspective; with the rapid pace of change, we're all becoming blasé about witnessing history. The extraordinary quickly becomes "normal". At the same time, and perhaps of more concern, our memories are increasingly short term. Our lessons of history are quickly forgotten, too culturally narrow, or were never learned because of disinterest and ignorance.

For instance, 1833 wasn't that long ago in the grand scheme of things, yet the accomplishments of this movement are ancient news. And just in our lifetimes, we've seen seismic shifts in social values regarding women, race and sexuality in the Western democracies and beyond. Also recall that the end of Apartheid in South Africa was barely imaginable just years before it happened. Margaret Thatcher epitomized this belief with her quip that "anyone who thinks the ANC will be running South Africa is living in cloud cukoo land." Rather it was her reality that was trapped in cukoo land. As recounted by Adam Kahane in Solving Tough Problems, there was an old joke floating around in the late 1980s in South Africa. It went something like this: to solve their problems there were two possible options for the country, one practical and the other miraculous. The practical option was for everyone to get down on their hands and knees and pray for a better future. The miraculous option was that a peaceful outcome would actually emerge. To everyone's surprise, it was the miracle that happened.

We rarely stop to acknowledge and appreciate these past miracles. I do, though. Ever once and a while I reflect on how lucky that I'm a woman today, and not alive at any other time in history. I reflect on my wonderful, diverse and free group of friends, many of whom, like my African-American buddies, were once slaves. 1867, when black suffrage was granted in the US, wasn't that long ago. (See a chronology here of the abolitionist movement.) No doubt this collective reticence is because we still have a long way to go in improving the lot of humankind. The apartheid syndrome is still write large in many places, both physically and psychologically. Paradoxes and contradictions persist, but I would argue that these are often symptomatic of a phase transition rather than a sign of regression or lack of progress. Which raises another disclaimer: our ideas about "progress" should be neither predetermined nor linear. Fears in the United States about women losing their reproductive rights during this Administration, for instance, shouldn't be dismissed as hyperbolic.

Rather, the lessons here are heuristic: that reality is stranger than fiction; that the biggest constraint in seeing and shaping how the future may unfold is our imaginations. And our imaginations are not tabula rasa;they come with cultural baggage and a cognitive apparatus that struggles with complexity and multiplicity. We have to invent better tools to overcome these constraints, and rethink incomplete or faulty frameworks that reinforce a more simplistic view of how things work. (A great, if abstract example: our thinking about probabilities -- one of the most important inventions in modern times -- is overly influenced by "normal distribution curves" which we all learned in statistics class. These systematically discount discontinuous change, whereas most of life is governed by "power laws". See this blog entry for a fuller explanation. In summing up paleontological neuroscience's verdict on our brain's evolutionary status, Ronald Wright said "we’re running 21st century software on hardware that was last upgraded 50,000 years ago." (See "A Short History of Progress", a recent Massey Lecture.)

Partly because of this, imagining "the miraculous option" is intellectually and emotionally hard for most people. In my work as a foresight specialist it's always the positive scenario that is the most difficult for people to see, a pathology that became distinctly worse since September 11th darkened collective perceptions. The amplification of negative messages within the mainstream media doesn't help either. Call it a form of corporate S&M, but decision-makers want to simulate pain these days, they want to rehearse the doom and gloom "what ifs?" and sometimes flatly refuse to develop better future scenarios. As I argue (and eventually persuade) not being prepared for the upside is just as risky; and not finding the courage and leadership to shape a more positive outcome is gravely irresponsible given the challenges the planet faces at present.

The irony is that "miracles" -- and possibly a profound "change of heart" in much of the world around key values-- will likely happen in the near future. While I'm far from a Dr. Pangloss and believe the future could go very wrong, ample signs also abound that we're in the midst of major worldview shift, the long term implications of which may be surprisingly positive. Of course, this shift may not be as clear and decisive as the anti-abolitionist movement, which had fewer parameters to contend with: that is, only one concentrated power base to influence (e.g. British lawmakers), and an empire infrastructure from which easily definable strategies could be deployed to bring about the change.

But this could happen and at least part of this will happen -- and it's likely to be a big deal. Dimly seen, this is a worldview shift as large as the Reformation split between Church and State or when the Feudal society broke apart at the end of the Medieval era. Clues and hints of what might emerge are being described by many people like Paul Hawken when he talks about The Movement with No Name. It's diverse, distributed, moral, and global character sound awfully similar to the early days of the abolition movement.

I also see this more concretely, albeit in fragments, when working with large corporations. These companies sense and measure how value shifts are affecting them, both in terms of attracting employees and customers, because this is how they survive and thrive. While they tend to discount the reality of big value shifts, and while conventional market research obfuscates and misleads at times, enlightened parts of these organizations are starting to wake up to the enormity of what's afoot, whether it's the shifting assumptions about producer-consumer relationships, the impact of new generational attitudes in an Internet age, or the contradictory impulses of post-materialistic behaviours in mature markets and the diversity of attitudes and needs in global emerging markets.

Lastly, a practical on-the-ground lesson of the anti-slavery moment is how effective images were in galvanizing support and getting people "see what they cannot or do not want to see." The modern organizational descendants of these abolitionists, the NGOs and activists of today, known this well. They have become sophisticated past masters at manipulating symbols and iconoclastic images; and on the other side of the ideological fence, advertising wizards and political campaign consultants are not far behind.

But unwittingly these image doctors have now diluted the effect of their instruments and tools. We're now awash in images and are thus becoming increasingly numb to them, or to be more nuanced, we have become adept at filtering them, a new development that image experts haven't fully understood or grappled with yet. And, as we've learned from the history of the environmental movement, images can backfire or create unintended consequences. For instance, the singling out of charismatic species -- like the dolphins, pandas, and eagles -- while great on one level, distorts perceptions in detrimental ways, such as where attention and investment should be focused, often leaving the countless pedestrian yet high leverage interventions underfunded and ignored.

However, some image-based strategies can be high leverage and authentically felt by everyone. I'm reminded of the campaign that made Stewart Brand famous in the 1960s when he demanded that NASA release the aerial pictures taken from space of the planet, something they were slow and reluctant to do after the moon landings. While ubiquitous now and integral to our self-image as a species, until then, no one had seen a picture of the "whole earth." Indeed, it's hard to imagine not having these pictures! By broadcasting images of spaceship earth in its full beauty and fragility, a rare and gleaming blue-green jewel teeming with life and abundance in the midst of a barren and hostile universe, he hoped that these would reframe our consciousness and show us the cause and effect of environmental degradation. While this worked for a while and provided the telos for a whole generation of activists and environmentalists, it's worth asking why these pictures didn't do more. Obviously images can only go so far. Nevertheless, this shouldn't stop us from thinking creatively and exhaustively about new strategies that dramatize at a core emotional level the inhumanity and insanity of certain practices that remain the norm on the planet. Some of the recent "before and after" images about climate change may be in this category, although I'm not sure about this.

Which brings me finally to some questions the story of the anti-slavery movement raises for me, questions that require an imaginative leap for all the reasons I've argued. Namely, just as slavery justly obsolesced, what practices and beliefs that exist today might be considered barbaric and inconceivable just decades from now? Perhaps our tolerance of absolute poverty. Perhaps the idea of cutting down slow growth trees for making ephemeral pulp and paper products will be considered a ridiculously foolish use of resources. What is your pick for a massive "change of heart" and how do you think it might happen?

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>>what practices and beliefs that exist today might be considered barbaric and inconceivable just decades from now?

The Market. Now hailed as cure-all, or grudgingly admitted to be the least-worst alternative, the market in fact is the most anti-human institution that we all deal with. The ridiculous idea that myriads of deliberately misinformed people, acting for each short-term benefit, ignoring external impacts to others, somehow results in other than misery and catastrophe, must fade and be replaced by... well I advocate ParEcon, but it's gotta be something other than the market.

Posted by: John K. Fitzpatrick on 21 Feb 05

Adam Hochschild's previous book, "King Leopold's Ghost" tells some of the abolitionist story as well and is an excellent read.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 21 Feb 05

Hochschild wrote an article based on the book for Mother Jones last January:

The latest issue has an interview with him:

Posted by: Garry Peterson on 21 Feb 05

It looks like the "Neocon Revolution" as was Nazism in Germany are examples of how its just as easy for "miraculous" social transformation to go bad as well as good. And right now, the Neocons are much better organized to completely swamp the image manipulations of positive social change as they now control most of the media and have much more resources and a guru (Karl Rove) to manage the whole thing.

Posted by: Robert J. Berger on 21 Feb 05

There's a bizarre contradiction here, and I doubt whether Niall Ferguson (a historian of the status quo) addresses it: on the one hand there was a "change of hearts" concerning one obviously excessive symptom (slavery) but at the same time the overarching system of imperialism was not attacked. And that's a crucial mechanism in the ethics-machine of modernity: expose one part of a system as evil, while keeping the other firmly in place, or even legitimizing it.

Even in todays world, there are many such "sudden changes of hearts", with people thinking they're doing something good, without daring to go further, hence reinforcing the structures of which what they're fighting is a mere symptom.

In De la postcolonie, essay sur l'imagination politique, Achille Mbembe makes a great analysis of this mechanism: the hypocrisy of "changes of hearts" is now being used as a political tool by postcolonial elites. These elites took over the ethics of modernity from their former colonial "masters" and now use those to legitimize their own power.

Because let's not forget that the continuation of Belgian (and British) colonialism was legitimized with the argument of abolishing slavery! Leopold went to Congo to abolish slavery. And when the Belgian state took over, they did so to abolish Leopold's slavery. (The never ending cycle of modernistic self-legitimation).

A sudden change of heart is often part of a larger system which it merely reinforces.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 22 Feb 05

I would love to hear postcolonial writers' opinions on those works (not Anglosaxon historians). People such as Spivak, Roy, Bhabha, Bayart or Mbembe.

They have all written extensively about the complicity of NGO's and human rights activists - complicity to Empire, at best, open collaboration with it, at worst. And their complicity is based on exactly that logic of a naive change of hearts.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 22 Feb 05

Just like to say - fascinating article, Nicole Ann. Perhaps Britain's current (and firming) acceptance of global warming can help to change the world in a similar way as those early freedom fighters.

Posted by: Daniel Johnston on 22 Feb 05

don't have anything 'gainst the market per se :D

also this was just on!


Subjugation and Survival

February 4, 2005; Page W3

"Slavery and the Making of America," a four-part series that begins on PBS Wednesday from 9-11 p.m. ET (check local listings), is a single story with two main threads. The story is one of subjugation, unrelenting and unmitigated. There is no sugar-coating here; no tales of the occasional affectionate mistress and her jolly mammy. There are no kind masters, either. To the extent that the enslaved are granted any room for maneuver -- e.g. allowed to live and work on their own, and pay their owner part of their salary -- it's solely because the owner thinks these allowances make business sense; they're not due to some moral imperative.

Even ostensibly positive developments come with a terrible sting. To cite just one example: The slave trade -- the traffic in human beings from Africa -- was outlawed in 1808. But that only made the domestic slave trade even more horrific. It drove up prices for a suddenly scarcer commodity -- enslaved human beings -- at a time when the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 had added four new states demanding agricultural labor, chiefly in the cotton fields. More than a million enslaved souls were sent to the deep South in that era, including many formerly free blacks who had been kidnapped by roving gangs to be "sold down the river."


Watching this program is not an overwhelmingly depressing experience, however. This is because it celebrates two aspects that are not often prominent in traditional accounts of the era: resistance among African-Americans, and the contributions slaves made to the building of a nation. On the latter subject, the program makes a compelling case that the labor of slaves was the single factor most responsible for building America into a global powerhouse. The cotton business alone was a bigger part of the economy than all other enterprises combined (and its profits were also reaped by Northern textile plants and nascent Wall Street financiers). Facts like these may rightly be seen as an indictment. They also represent an achievement -- however cruelly forced -- by generations of enslaved people who have been stigmatized as mere victims.

Yet, as the program makes clear, the experience of slavery was also an exercise in determined survival, not only of the body but of the spirit. We know this in part from old newspaper clippings about runaways, and from accounts of freed slaves who roamed the highways after the Civil War. In both instances, the driving force was family reunification. Others asserted their humanity and right to liberty with active resistance, and in ways that have been documented. Some struck back with violence, including arson. Many others engaged in small personal battles of liberation. Some became inspirations to all who heard their name.

Efforts to resist the condition of enslavement began as soon as the first 11 slaves arrived in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in the 1620s, where they were put to work building the infrastructure of the settlement that eventually would become New York. From that time, until the 1739 Stono slave rebellion in South Carolina ushered in an era of draconian "black codes," a slave's life was largely unregulated by law. So it was that in New Amsterdam for instance, slaves like Anthony Portuguese and Simon Congo and indentured servants of any race could congregate in taverns to swap stories of servitude and sometimes successfully negotiate with their bosses for a little autonomy. Beginning in 1694, Frances Driggus, the teenage daughter of a former Virginia slave, fought her employer in court and eventually won a ruling invalidating his claimed right to control her.

Quest for Liberty

In the 1760s, a New Jersey slave named Titus taught himself business skills by selling animal skins and produce. When the Revolution began, he, like an estimated 100,000 Southern slaves, joined the British side to take advantage of a promise that all slaves who helped the royalist side would be granted freedom. Titus, now known as "Colonel Tye," fought in New Jersey as the head of a mixed-race guerrilla band, before being killed in battle against the patriots. Mum Bet, a slave in Massachusetts, listened carefully to her boss, a leading patriot, as he and his friends discussed their quest for liberty. After the Revolution, Mum Bet went to court to claim her own natural right to freedom, and won, helping to pave the way for the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts in 1783.

David Walker and Harriet Jacobs both fought back and left detailed records of their struggles. Walker, born free in North Carolina, came to Boston and in 1829 wrote "An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World," an erudite, fiery document which was distributed along the East Coast. Harriet Jacobs, the house slave of a sexually predatory North Carolinian, escaped and lived in a tiny attic for seven years, kept sane only by the knowledge that her children had been rescued from slavery as a result of her actions. Jacobs eventually took the Underground Railroad to Rochester, N.Y., where she wrote "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl." Robert Smalls, allowed by his owner in Beaufort, S.C., to work in Charleston and pay a $15 monthly remittance, became a skilled sailor. On the night of May 13, 1862, Smalls, his family and a group of other slaves piloted a Confederate ship, The Planter, out of Charleston harbor and delivered it to the Union navy.


Returning to South Carolina after the Civil War, Smalls, like many other freed African-Americans, entered politics as a staunch Republican; he ultimately was elected to the U.S. Congress. Tragically, the flowering of postwar freedom and rights for former slaves lasted only about 10 years. As violence against blacks and Republicans mounted in the South, Congress, exhausted by war and political battles with Southern opponents, basically left the South to its own devices.

That abandonment is one of the saddest moments in this series. Amid all the suffering, we have glimpsed the evolution of a vital consciousness and distinct sense of community among America's black population. As slaves, they had built up the economy, and as free men they expected to become full participants in it and all aspects of national life. Instead, many were condemned to another century of suffering and marginalization -- and the country as a whole was deprived of all the contributions they could have made to society. Making us feel that terrible loss, for them and for our nation, is one of the triumphs of this fascinating series.

* * *

Posted by: glory on 23 Feb 05

What do we take for granted that future societies will think barbaric? War and the possibility of war.

Worldchangers should take note of something H.G. Wells once wrote: "A federation of all humanity, together with a sufficient measure of social justice, to ensure health, education, and a rough equality of opportunity to most of the children born into the world, would mean such a release and increase of human energy as to open a new phase in human history." It is possible to make war between, say, the US and Iran, as impossible as war between California and Mississippi -- using the same method, the formation of a democratic common government. Please see my website,, for more info.

Posted by: Jane Shevtsov on 27 Feb 05



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