The world was a happening place in 1787. The astronomer, William Herschel, discovered three new moons in the solar system – two of Uranus and one of Saturn. Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of British India, was impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors (though he would later be acquitted). Civil war broke out in the Netherlands. Mozart completed "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik." Shays’ Rebellion, which had broken out in Massachusetts the previous year, went down to defeat. 1787 saw the birth of Thomas Gallaudet, founder of America’s first school for the deaf, and the death (on August 1st) of St. Alphonsus Ligouri, founder of the Redemptorist order and Doctor of the Church.
This momentous year would also prove to be pregnant with the future. The Founding Fathers hashed out the Constitution of the United States in 1787 and submitted it to the former Thirteen Colonies for ratification. The Federalist Papers were published, and by year’s end, three states had voted to ratify. Out of the ashes of the Revolution, a new nation was staggering to its feet.
And across the pond, on May 22 – just three days before the beginning of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia – twelve men held a meeting at a printshop at 2 George Yard in London. Their purpose: nothing less than to rid the world of slavery. Though little noticed at the time, this meeting was like a tiny crack in a dike that lengthens and spreads until the dike bursts and gives way before the crashing flood.
Although we in the in the western world in the 21st century take it for granted that slavery is a grave evil, this was by no means the view in 1787. Even in the most enlightened places on earth at the time, slavery was age-old, routine, banal, workaday, taken for granted – and as a result, firmly entrenched and heavily depended upon. Slavery was the backbone of the sugar industry in the Caribbean, which in turn was a major source of wealth for the far-flung British Empire. As Adam Hochschild describes in his book Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, abolition was unthinkable at a time when so much depended on cheap, captive labor.
Yet these twelve men not only thought the unthinkable; they did it. Decades of campaigning, writing, publishing, buttoneering, organizing, boycotting, petitioning, and enduring all sorts of hardships and dangers, led to a reversal of public opinion on slavery. In 1807 – just 20 years after that first meeting at George Yard – Parliament outlawed the slave trade. For a while, slavery itself continued to wage a fierce yet vain battle against oblivion. Only in stages could the British Empire rid itself of the curse of slavery, but rid itself it ultimately did. On August 1, 1838 – 51 years after the George Yard meeting and exactly 168 years ago today – slavery was officially and forever abolished in the British Empire.
As the great day of Emancipation drew near, one Baptist congregation in Jamaica gathered at church. They decorated the walls with flowers and portraits of Thomas Clarkson, the prime mover in the abolition movement and the sole surviving participant in the George Yard meeting, and William Wilberforce, abolition’s leading advocate in Parliament. A whip, slave chains, and an iron punishment collar lay in a coffin inscribed, "Colonial Slavery, died July 31st, 1838, aged 276 years." The congregation sang as midnight approached. Adam Hochschild describes the scene over which the pastor, William Knibb, presided:
"The hour is at hand!" Knibb called from his pulpit, pointing at a clock on the wall. "The monster is dying!" When midnight struck, he called out, "The monster is dead!" The congregation burst into cheers and embraces. "Never, never did I hear such a sound," Knibb wrote to a friend. "The winds of freedom appeared to have been let loose. The very building shook at the strange yet sacred joy." An open grave lay waiting in the yard of the church school. Still singing, the parishioners lowered the coffin into it. At the graveside they planted a coconut tree, as a "tree of liberty" – a symbol from the American and French revolutions now adopted by former slaves. Slavery was still in place in the southern United States, in the Caribbean colonies of other European countries, in most of South America, and, in different forms, in Russia, most of Africa, and the Islamic world. But in the largest empire on earth, it was ended. (Bury the Chains, 348-349.)
Much tribulation still lay ahead for the newly freed slaves, and it would be almost another thirty years before slavery would end in the United States. Even today, slavery lives on in some parts of the world. But the impulse to liberty is irrepressible. How fitting it is that on the anniversary of the death of slavery in the British Empire, a ray of hope again shines forth as the taskmaster just 90 miles off the coast of Florida lies dying.
It’s staggering to think that in just fifty years – a tiny step in the long march of history – the conscience of an entire empire had been roused, and a seemingly invincible institution that had been taken for granted almost since the dawn of humanity tottered and collapsed. And it all started with just twelve men in a smelly printshop in London.
For those of you who don’t believe in God, doesn’t this shake your faith – just a little?