By Mike Kaye
Last updated 2011-02-17
In the 1780s, slavery was regarded as normal, legitimate, profitable and even 'genteel' employment. The pro-slavery lobby attempted to dehumanise Africans by claiming that they had no native society, lived like savages, were grateful for the opportunity to escape Africa, enjoyed the crossing and benefited from a good life on the plantations (as in the depiction above).
The abolitionists sought to provide evidence to show that none of these things were true. Thomas Clarkson set about doing this by interviewing sailors, ships' doctors and traders in London, Bristol and Liverpool to document the treatment of enslaved people. He also bought shackles, thumbscrews and a device for force-feeding slaves who went on hunger strike, to provide physical evidence of abuse and confirmed the testimonies he collected.
Clarkson also documented the brutal treatment of the slave ships' crews by demonstrating that, on average, 20% of each crew died from disease or ill treatment before the ship returned. His evidence demolished the myth that the slave trade provided useful training for Britain's seamen and showed that the trade was bad for sailors as well as Africans.
In contrast to the prevalent style of the times, Clarkson's analysis was neutral in tone, relying on facts, statistics and physical evidence rather than emotion or religious and moral exhortations. He presented his information in such a way that it gained the attention of different key audiences - those concerned about the treatment of Africans and those concerned about the treatment of British sailors. This approach has become a standard part of research for good quality human rights reports and investigative journalism today.
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