In the years leading to the French Revolution of 1789 there were abolitionists striving to find a way to free the slaves in France’s American and Caribbean colonies and terminate the slave trade. Two such were Jacques Pierre Brissot and the Swiss pastor Benjamin Sigismond Frossard.
Before all that the two men met in Lyon, where Frossard was a pastor and member of academic societies. Brissot was edified by Frossard’s preaching, and at the Lord’s Supper was struck by the realisation that ‘it was indeed the meal and the sign of equality’.
Frossard himself referred to the liturgy as a bridge between slave and master where all people came to profess that they are equal.
Brissot was guillotined in 1793, as the revolution turned in upon itself, and Frossard returned to Switzerland. Although the National Assembly in Paris abolished slavery, Napoleon reinstated the practice, which had never gone away because the Assembly was unable to enforce its decrees across the Atlantic.
My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; and ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?
The source for this post is FROSSARD AND THE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY: A MORAL DILEMMA by Barbara Saunderson.
The word that came to Jeremias from the Lord, saying: Stand in the gate of the house of the Lord, and proclaim there this word, and say: Hear ye the word of the Lord, all ye men of Juda, that enter in at these gates, to adore the Lord.
Thus saith the Lord of hosts the God of Israel: Make your ways and your doings good: and I will dwell with you in this place. Trust not in lying words, saying: The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, it is the temple of the Lord … you put your trust in lying words, which shall not profit you:
To steal, to murder, to commit adultery, to swear falsely, to offer to Baalim, and to go after strange gods, which you know not. And you have come, and stood before me in this house, in which my name is called upon, and have said: We are delivered, because we have done all these abominations. Is this house then, in which my name hath been called upon, in your eyes become a den of robbers? I, I am he: I have seen it, saith the Lord.
If Jeremiah was preaching at a gateway like this, he would get noticed; even if other preachers were getting pushed to the side by impatient passers-by.
Occasionally there are preachers around Canterbury Cathedral’s main Christ Church gate: mostly they seem to be ignored, as the churches themselves are much of the time. People say I’m too nice to them if I stop and chat, or engage with the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Someone Else called the Temple a den of robbers, and drove the moneychangers out of the courtyard. They were no doubt raking in a tidy profit, in effect making Mammon, or money, at home in God’s House; going after strange gods, as we are tempted to do today. We may not be directly sacrificing children to Baal or to Mammon but there are many children whose all-but slave labour contributes to our comfortable lifestyle. Think of clothes and shoes made in Asian countries.
Willy-nilly we are caught in a web of sinfulness and can do little to escape it. At least there are some fair trade products on the market that we can buy, and we can hope that the shops we use do indeed check all the way back along the supply chain to see that workers are treated fairly.
People on both sides of the Atlantic are revisiting their history and discovering that much has been omitted. One area that has come under scrutiny is slavery down to the 19th Century and its after effects in terms of poverty and social attitudes.
It was slaves that built the University of Virginia originally, a fact unacknowledged until now. The link is to the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers now erected close to the centre of the site. It explores the memorial and its symbolism and how the design came about.
On March 3rd in 1865 Union Troops emancipated the local slaves.
There has been much complaint about ‘one law for us, another for them’ during the course of the pandemic. Nothing new about that, of course. Blaise Pascal identified the problem a century before Doctor Johnson. It’s easy to see how similar assertions about being born in the wrong place at the wrong time could be used to justify slavery.
In the letter of the law injustice can come in. The pleasantries of the elders who have everything: my friend, since you were born on this side of the mountain, it’s right that your elder brother should have everything.
But as Johnson said, you cannot argue with avarice – or unregulated capitalism. We just have to learn to live life simply, without unnecessary stuff, as to an extent we have had to these last months. As we come out of the infection and the danger of covid19, we could think more carefully about what we are buying, in particular about the costs of production in terms of human and environmental justice and peace.
Pope Gregory’s answer was not to argue with the slavers but to send Augustine to convert the English, including, no doubt, those men prepared to kidnap children and sell them on as slaves. But today we all need to convert ourselves from destroying our sisters and brothers, and destroying our common home, through what we buy. It’s not a task we’ll succeed in when life revolves around mobile phones that depend on exploited labour to extract the ores to produce the precious metals that power them. But we can do something if we reflect upon it.
Boswell writes: In his review of the ‘Memoirs of the Court of Augustus,’ [Samuel Johnson] has the resolution to think and speak from his own mind, regardless of the cant transmitted from age to age, in praise of the ancient Romans. Thus,
‘I know not why any one but a school-boy in his declamation should whine over the Common-wealth of Rome, which grew great only by the misery of the rest of mankind. The Romans, like others, as soon as they grew rich, grew corrupt; and in their corruption sold the lives and freedoms of themselves, and of one another.’
Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765 by James Boswell.
Even the convinced imperialist John Buchan, recognised that: ‘The existence of a subject race on whatever terms is apt to lead to the deterioration in moral and mental vigour of its masters.’1And we see today, if we look, all manner of slavery, or almost slavery, cheap and forced labour, land degradation, poor health and safety.
Today is the Feast of Saint Josephine Bakhita, liberated slave and religious sister.
1Buchan A Lodge in the Wilderness Chapter XIV The Subject Races.
Wilberforce spent some forty years working for the Abolition of Slavery, which was achieved in the United Kingdom in 1833. In the previous century, Samuel Johnson was a prominent figure against the trade and the institution of slavery, as recorded here by James Boswell.
In 1756 he described Jamaica as ‘a place of great wealth and dreadful wickedness, a den of tyrants and a dungeon of slaves.’ In 1759 he wrote:—’Of black men the numbers are too great who are now repining under English cruelty.’ In the same year, in describing the cruelty of the Portuguese discoverers, he said:—’We are openly told that they had the less scruple concerning their treatment of the savage people, because they scarcely considered them as distinct from beasts; and indeed, the practice of all the European nations, and among others of the English barbarians that cultivate the southern islands of America, proves that this opinion, however absurd and foolish, however wicked and injurious, still continues to prevail. Interest and pride harden the heart, and it is in vain to dispute against avarice and power.’
No miserable sophistry could convince him, with his clear mind and his ardour for liberty, that slavery can be right. ‘An individual,’ he wrote, ‘may, indeed, forfeit his liberty by a crime; but he cannot by that crime forfeit the liberty of his children.’ How deeply he felt for the wrongs done to helpless races is shown in his dread of discoverers. No man had a more eager curiosity, or more longed that the bounds of knowledge should be enlarged. Yet he wrote:—’I do not much wish well to discoveries, for I am always afraid they will end in conquest and robbery.’
Life of Johnson, Volume 2 1765-1776″ by James Boswell, via Kindle
More from Lichfield’s Doctor Johnson who was against slavery all his life, when it was a matter for debate, as we shall see tomorrow. Johnson had great regard for his servant, Francis Barber, born into slavery in Jamaica. ‘Frank’ was his heir, and the descendants of his marriage to a white Lichfield woman are proud of their ancestor. Here Johnson is setting forth an argument, based upon natural law, to support another slave who was claiming freedom in the Scottish courts.
It must be agreed that in most ages many countries have had part of their inhabitants in a state of slavery; yet it may be doubted whether slavery can ever be supposed the natural condition of man. It is impossible not to conceive that men in their original state were equal; and very difficult to imagine how one would be subjected to another but by violent compulsion. An individual may, indeed, forfeit his liberty by a crime; but he cannot by that crime forfeit the liberty of his children.
What is true of a criminal seems true likewise of a captive. A man may accept life from a conquering enemy on condition of perpetual servitude; but it is very doubtful whether he can entail that servitude on his descendants; for no man can stipulate without commission for another. The condition which he himself accepts, his son or grandson perhaps would have rejected.
If we should admit, what perhaps may with more reason be denied, that there are certain relations between man and man which may make slavery necessary and just, yet it can never be proved that he who is now suing for his freedom ever stood in any of those relations. He is certainly subject by no law, but that of violence, to his present master; who pretends no claim to his obedience, but that he bought him from a merchant of slaves, whose right to sell him never was examined. It is said that, according to the constitutions of Jamaica, he was legally enslaved; these constitutions are merely positive; and apparently injurious to the rights of mankind, because whoever is exposed to sale is condemned to slavery without appeal; by whatever fraud or violence he might have been originally brought into the merchant’s power.
In our own time Princes have been sold, by wretches to whose care they were entrusted, that they might have an European education; but when once they were brought to a market in the plantations, little would avail either their dignity or their wrongs. The laws of Jamaica afford a Negro no redress. His colour is considered as a sufficient testimony against him.
It is to be lamented that moral right should ever give way to political convenience. But if temptations of interest are sometimes too strong for human virtue, let us at least retain a virtue where there is no temptation to quit it. In the present case there is apparent right on one side, and no convenience on the other. Inhabitants of this island can neither gain riches nor power by taking away the liberty of any part of the human species.
The sum of the argument is this:—No man is by nature the property of another: The defendant is, therefore, by nature free: The rights of nature must be some way forfeited before they can be justly taken away: That the defendant has by any act forfeited the rights of nature we require to be proved; and if no proof of such forfeiture can be given, we doubt not but the justice of the court will declare him free.
Pope Francis invites us to join him this month in praying for women who are victims of violence, that they may be protected by society and have their sufferings considered and heeded.
Sadly, many women suffer in silence and their neighbours are unaware of the situation. Saint Josephine Bakhita, who died in 1947, had 144 scars of physical abuse over her body when she was released from slavery.
Things have hardly improved since her time, but the diocese of Westminster has established a refuge in her name. Read more about it here. Sometimes it is important to offer open ended help to someone who is suffering, it needs energy as well as confidence to be able to move on. That energy grows out of the love the women are enwrapped in at Bakhita House.
Saint Bakhita’s feast is 8th February, and you can read previous reflections by entering Bakhita into the search box on this post. We have a few more postings on slavery over the next few days.
Not long ago, we read John Wesley on the argument that slavers were using to justify procuring and abusing slaves: If it is not quite right, yet it must be so; there is an absolute necessity for it. Something along the same lines seems to be put forward to justify almost any environmentally destructive activity. Sin’s arguments are ages old: the Serpent in Eden had Eve believing that the forbidden fruit was absolutely necessary for her future happiness.
I needed a new phone: poor people dig out the scarce ores that are used for the inner workings; others in the manufacturing process are poorly paid, overworked and live in heavily polluted neighbourhoods. It must be so, or must it be so? I have two old phones that should be recycled to reuse precious metals.
Clothes: cotton production diverts water from growing food: ‘it must be so.’ Synthetic fibres cause pollution at every stage of production, use and disposal, even, apparently, poisoning fish in the open ocean. But ‘it must be so’.
Forests are destroyed, ‘it must be so’. Rivers polluted, flood plains built over: it must be so.
Well, no. Money need not rule. Time for some New Year Resolutions! Use less, discard less, waste less: reuse or recycle more.