A few weeks ago I was listening to a competition on the radio. One of the multiple-choice questions was this. When was slavery abolished? (a) 537; (b) 1833; or (c) 1949. As I listened to this I couldn’t help wondering what the person who had assembled these options was trying to do. All of these dates are both right and wrong: the emperor Justinian abolished the Roman practice of slavery in 537; the Slavery Abolition Act was passed by the British Parliament in 1833; and in 1949 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. So what would you think was ‘the’ right answer? Well, according to the presenter, it was 1833, and from his little bit of follow-up chatter it became clear that he had no idea that the other two dates represented anything relevant at all. I think the researcher was having some fun at the expense of the presenter.
Well, 1833 is not an uninteresting date in the history of slavery, and it in fact the Act was passed in that year on this date (August 29). Some years earlier, in 1807, the transatlantic slave trade had already been made illegal in the Slave Trade Act. William Wilberforce, who was a member of the House of Commons, is generally credited with the successful movement to abolish slavery. This, by the way, is a matter of great local pride in Hull, where I worked for ten years: Wilberforce was a native of the city and lived there, and his home is now a museum of the slave trade.
However, two comments should be made. As was so often the case in history, others who played a major role in this important historical event have largely been written out of public awareness, if not the official record. Chief amongst those who deserve a mention is Elizabeth Heyrick, a radical reformer and campaigner against the slave trade. She was instrumental in moving public opinion in favour of more immediate and effective methods to put an end to slavery and secure emancipation of former slaves, often criticising liberal politicians (including Wilberforce) for their timid approach.
The second point that needs to be made is, of course, that in reality none of the three options in the radio competition was correct. To our shame, slavery has still not been abolished, and human trafficking is alive and well. The organisation Anti-Slavery International on its website details both countries and industries in which humans are held in slavery-like conditions. And in case you thought this is all far away from our own part of the world, it isn’t: human trafficking in women for the purposes of prostitution is right here and right now.
Many problems, issues and disasters across the world call for our attention and help. Slavery is still one of these, and the ultimate human indignity of being possessed and controlled by others is still there and needs to be abolished, finally and effectively. It is a cause well worthy of your support.