Does sugar equal oil?

I’ve just started reading Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves by Adam Hochschild, © 2005.

It was loaned to me by my cousin because he said it was about Quakers. I’m not sure where he got it; I wouldn’t have pegged him as the political activist type.

It’s about the British campaign to abolish slavery, what the author calls “the first grassroots human rights campaign”.

From the inside jacket cover:
“In 1787, twelve men gathered in a London printing shop to pursue a seemingly impossible goal: ending slavery in the largest empire on earth. Along the way, they would pioneer most of the tools citizen activists still rely on today, from wall posters and mass mailings to boycotts and lapel pins. This talented group combined a hatred of injustice with uncanny skill in promoting their cause. Within five years, more than 300,000 Britons were refusing to eat the chief slave-grown product, sugar; London’s smart set was sporting antislavery badges created by Josiah Wedgewood; and the House of Commons had passed the first law banning the slave trade.”

We all know that the abolition of slavery was one of the great movements of the Religious Society of Friends. Most of us know that it was not an automatic decision, but a long dreary struggle, even within the Society. It was interesting to me to read earlier this year, in The Reformation of American Quakerism, 1748-1783 by Jack D. Marietta, © 1984, that one of the reasons that opposition to slavery was finally made official was that the fighting of the American Revolution in Philadelphia made it difficult to get to Yearly Meeting for a few years, and so only the most dedicated stalwarts showed up, thus making it easier to achieve unity on this controversial proposition. Even after Friends in the U.S. agreed it was wrong to hold slaves, there was not unity on whether it was right to try to make others give up their slaves, especially if that meant contradicting the laws of various states and the nation.

But the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, as they called their group, (p.110) “…knew [their] major allies would be the Quakers: they were rock-firm in their convictions and had a strong tradition of supporting their beliefs with generous donations. As organizers, they had a national network – an international one, in fact, because of their close ties to American Quakers…”(p. 95) “They opened a bank account, hired a lawyer and drew up long lists, page after page of names from all over Great Britain, and beside each person the name of the committee member assigned to contact him. They were mobilizing the Quaker network.” They were also astute in having the non-Quaker members of the committee sign the letters they sent to public officials, thus avoiding the need to use “thee” and “thou” or leave out the customary honorifics, or use peculiar dating systems, which had stymied the Quakers’ effectiveness until then. (p.107)

But it is somewhat of a straw man argument that most draws my attention:
“A latent feeling was in the air, but an intellectual undercurrent disapproving of slavery was something very different from the belief that anything could ever be done about it. An analogy today might be how some people think about automobiles. For reasons of global warming, air quality, traffic, noise and dependence on oil, one can argue, the world might be better off without cars. And what happens when India and China have as many cars per capita as the Untied States? Even if you depend on driving to work, it’s possible to agree there’s a problem. A handful of dedicated environmentalists try to practice what they preach, and travel only by train bus, bicycle or foot. Yet does anyone advocate a movement to ban automobiles from the face of the earth?” (p.86)

Hochschild is using this as an example of how impossible it seemed in the late 1700’s to end slavery. It was commonplace in all countries. It had been around since time immemorial. It was the backbone of the British economy. Doing without slavery seemed unthinkable. But in fact, it ended, rather precipitously, measured against the centuries in which it persisted.

In another place Hochschild likens sugar in the 1700’s to oil in the 21st century. “Just as oil drives the geopolitics of our own time, the most important commodity on European minds then was sugar, and the overseas territories that mattered most were the islands so wonderfully suited for growing it.” (p.54)

What if we did advocate a movement to ban automobiles from the face of the earth? What if we did organize against the gluttony amongst us in order to preserve the mere lives of people in the Middle East? What if our country did not feel the need to wage offensive wars just to preserve our unlimited access to oil?

It seems impossible to think of now. But, “Within five years, more than 300,000 Britons were refusing to eat the chief slave-grown product, sugar…”

What if?


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Blogger Gregg Koskela said...

Thanks, Robin, for a very hopeful challenge and prod. I love that you're reading these cool things, but I think I love more that you're looking for ways it speaks to us today.

12/06/2005 11:16 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Yeah, well, tomorrow look for a post on the contradictions between my ideals and my reality.

12/06/2005 5:13 PM  
Blogger Lorcan said...

Well Friends: Cars are only a small bit of the oil story. We are swimming in a sea of oil. These machines on which we are communicating are, for the most part, made of oil (plastic is mostly oil) the paint on thy walls, oil, the buttons on thy clothes, likely oil, the fiber thee is wearing ( unless thee is plain like a few of us... ) oil mixed with cotten or wool. Emagine taking everything in thy world away that is plastic, rubber, the finish on thy traditional instruments, the electric light thee burns - can't without oil. We have become addicted to oil, and the car is one small drop.
But, also consider that only a few risked their lives to interfere with slavery. The underground railroad was a minority and back bencher movement. And they were not promenant in the hearts of many Friends. So, maybe to honnor them, I ask Friends if they have done enough for the underground railway conductors in the world today? Tom Fox is such a man, and we have less than 48 hours to act on his behalf, or he will join Mary Dyer as a martyr for our beliefs.
Please, talk about cars tomorrow, speak about Tom and his companions tonight.

12/06/2005 5:47 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Dear Lorcan,

I thank you for your concern and your outreach. I think everyone who reads my blog is well aware of the current crisis in Iraq. I am not at all convinced that further outcry from middle class Americans will change the minds of Tom Fox's captors.

My prayers are with him and his fellow CPT captives.

12/06/2005 6:31 PM  
Blogger Lorcan said...

Dear Friend:

I was going to email thee, this responce, but thee does not have an email attached. Feel free to email me for clearness on this.

We Friends attempt not to act on our assumptions. I am not sure I understand thy comments. Firstly, I am not middle class, I am somewhere between poverty and the lowest rungs of the working class (stretching it...). Frankly, though it is true that many Quakers are middle class, it is not that which we need to make known, rather it is time that Quakers pour out their love to the captors and let them know who we are. I don't know whose plea might melt their hearts if any will. But, we are known to people from Hamas to the Israelis for our unconditional love.
I hope each will reach into their hearts and project that love, it is what Tom Fox's friends have asked us to do. If thee is not led in that direction, that is your leading. But, I find a note of ... I don't know... well some assumptions in thy responce.

Thy dear friend in the light

12/06/2005 10:11 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Ah Lorcan,
Tone of voice is so important and so difficult on the Internet.

By middle class, I refer only to myself. For others, if the shoe doesn't fit, don't wear it.

As I said before, I appreciate your concern and my prayers are with the Christian Peacemakers Team. I encourage you to continue your witness elsewhere.

12/06/2005 10:54 PM  
Blogger Lorcan said...

Hi Robin:
Do email on this if thee might.

12/07/2005 8:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm thankful for this post. I've been sitting with it for a few days now.

When we had a workshop on the peace testimony at the local Friends School last week, one of our questions for the group was, "Am I sowing the seeds of war in my life?" One person was clear she was contributing to the development of war, that even though she drives a fuel-efficient Prius and she picks up casual carpoolers to share the drive, the fact remains she is still driving over the Bay Bridge every day.

Until we change the very way we physically structure our lives, through land use decisions -- and the desires they manifest -- this cycle of war will continue.

I've been pondering two questions for some time now:

1. Some kind of change will eventually happen, whether for better or worse. Will it happen, from a historical perspective, "in the twinkling of an eye," as Paul wrote? Or be long and drawn out?

2. What is our Berlin Wall here in the US? What is keeping us as a society from seeing our true freedom and acting on it? (I vote for TV, but that's just me. Could be the Internet, too! ;)

Thank you, as always.

-- Chris M.
Tables, Chairs and Oaken Chests

12/09/2005 12:20 AM  
Blogger Lorcan said...

I don't intend this to be argumentative, but let us consider what we can do, as we weigh our leadings about oil. Let us look at some use of petroleum oil in a day.

We are asleep on a wooden bed finished with an oil based finish, most finishes are in part petroleum and even if it is pure linseed oil, the brushes were cleaned with a petroleum product, and the linseed was delivered by use of oil. The sheets likely have some oil content, I know, as I spend a lot of my time, when seeking bed clothes, seeking natural fiber. The alarm goes off, in a clock made of plastic, a petroleum product. The electric that runs the clock is produced by generators that employ large amounts of oil, at least as a lubricant, if thy electricity is produced by the thief of Innu and Cree land, for those of us in the north east whose electricity is contributed to by Hydro Quebec. The wires that carry the electricity is insulated by rubber, a petroleum product. We get out of bed and into our slippers, rubber soles, and pop some bread into the toaster. The bread is wrapped in a plastic bag, the toaster has plastic parts ( and like the clock, uses electricity ) Jump into the shower, rubber washers, brush thy teeth, plastic toothbrush, plastic cap on the plastic tooth paste tube, put on thy clothes, petroleum oil in the threads, shoes with rubber and plastic throughout, all around thee, thy walls are painted with oil, and if this list went on through the day, it would take an entire book to list all the oil thee has used. The best we can do, as we try to evolve a society that is not wed to oil, is to make it no longer a prize good. There is nothing wicked in oil by itself, but in it's production and control. Unlike sugar, which we could once raise on our own or use other products, there is no way to divorce ourselves from this product, so it is incumbent on us to change the way it is produced and controlled.

12/12/2005 8:23 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thank you, Lorcan. My as-yet-unwritten post I referred to in the second comment would have or may yet be about how I know the pervasiveness and the cost of oil, the scarcity and cost of clean water, the damage to the earth and the creatures upon it of many chemicals I continue use, and how I yet do not see the way to completely eliminate them, nor do I even comply with all the ways I do know to reduce my impact on the earth. All of which I was reflecting upon while cleaning my bathroom the day after first posting this.

12/12/2005 3:25 PM  
Blogger Lorcan said...

:D Ah yes! Cleaning the bathroom. I also find it a time to reflect on balance!!!

Frankly, I think there is a two part struggle. The struggle to use properly, and not waste, and the struggle to see that things are made justly.

I was having dinner with group of other lawyers, members of the Lawyers Committee for Nuclear Disarmament, I think the name is. One was saying that she believes solar power is the only way to go, to replace Nuclear generators.

I had just returned from working with Innu friends on issues of theft of thier land for, not only hydro electric power, but for heavy mettal mining. I explained that there is not a single answer, that in solar power huge batteries are needed, which has led to a large amount of cadmium mining in Innu hunting land. She said she was sure the Innu would not mind a little mining on their land. I explained that in fact, they did! Such mines polute heavily and destroy land very needed for their life as hunter gatherers. This lawyer spoke of a need to end their life of free hunting!

Life is a balance, but we have to be careful that as we seek the balance we take care not to take from others, and that takes a lot of work and witness.

Over the years I have seen the harm done to Innu communities, and to see it close up and watching friend's lives destroyed, you become so aware that all our plans for our wealth take from somewhere else, even when we speak of taking electric from the sun and the water.

Well, as we clean our tubs etc... it is good that we think, and labor and worry.

12/12/2005 5:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, our hearts fly to the Christian Peacemakers Team.

I loved Hochschild's book. I think it's a wonderful book to read with Woolman's Journal. Because Woolman (among many other things) pulls me into the American experience (rather than the British) and the experience of the individual organizer -- though i gotta say having read Woolman's Journal a few times now -- and this may sound petty -- how did Mrs. Woolman run the farm and the store and mind the kids and all that with him gone so much and so obsessive. I've always wanted to read/write her Jounal. Quite a story there too.

12/14/2005 1:41 AM  
Blogger Lorcan said...

Hi Evy:

Thy question is not petty. I wrestle with that myself, because from what I read about the life of Elias Hicks, who like Woolman, had the responsibility of a farm and family, DID mind his families business, while gently and persistently fighting against slavery, traveling well into his old age, headmastering Quaker schools, and I think of how hard it is for me to keep my home and family commitments while being an activist. They truly lived that balance, much better, I think, than many I know.

Hick's family life was not easy, and yet he did it so well. He objected to taverns, so he not only farmed and raised livestock, but turned part of his house into an Inn, so that travelers could find hospitality in a wholesome environment. The other day, Genie ( my wife ) and I were eating in one our favorite restaurants in Jericho, the Millerage Inn, and to our surprise found that it was the home of Elias Hicks ( I grew up Hicksite... ) He did so well at his life, that his ministry was instrumental in Quakers freeing their slaves, Quaker schools still bear his marks..., and the Inn he established in his home in the 1820s... is still serving food!


12/16/2005 9:02 AM  

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