Printing for Social Justice

The Abolitionist Movement

In this day and age it is normal and contemporary to equate pamphlets with everyday advertising and marketing of goods and services. Although you may receive relevant material on the high street concerning local, national or international issues there is nothing very subversive or radical in the general content.

It was not always so, if we go back to the early 1830s in America, the wealthy New York city merchants Tappan Brothers invested in the latest print technology. This was in order to engage in the dissemination of pamphlets with the overt intention of influencing public opinion against the slave trade. This activity was so subversive at the time, it inflamed southern conservatives to the extent that they broke into post offices, seized and burned mail on the streets in front of cheering mobs.

The campaign was abandoned as impractical after such extreme tactics by those wishing to preserve the status quo regarding slavery. However, the tactic can be considered as very effective as far as raising awareness. Abolitionists then concentrated on petitioning members of congress directly. The material produced in pamphlets was incredibly graphic, it depicted the horrors of slavery and all its cruelty and depravity in an illustrated form. Most slaves at the time were illiterate so this visual illustration was important regarding awareness for all sectors of society.

Although a campaign by pro-slavery advocates to ban the pamphlets, failed to be enacted in law in the US Congress, local postmasters and officials confiscated printed material locally. The Anti-Slavery Society realised a point had been made and therefore changed tactics. The printed pamphlets had already achieved the objectives of causing controversy and raising awareness regarding injustice and cruelty. The printed pamphlets did make a significant difference and impacted public opinion.

If we go back to the late 18th Century, here in the UK pamphleteering had a direct and significant effect on a form of dissent and activism that was to increase momentum towards abolition that would hurt wealthy merchants who benefitted from sugar slavery, where it mattered most – in their pockets.

Democracy was in its infancy at the time and great swathes of the population did not even have the right to vote, including all women. Therefore, activists decided to act in the form of a consumer boycott, so as to energise the Abolitionist movement. Although the moral argument against the fundamental injustice and evil practice of slavery had already been achieved, Parliament was dragging its heels regarding a ban and a bill that would outlaw the slave trade failed to be passed.

In 1791 a young high society gentleman and intellectual by the name of William Fox published his seminal pamphlet entitled ‘In Address to the People of Great Britain’. It was essentially an anti-sugar pamphlet against imports from the Caribbean which had risen by a startling volume. In Liverpool alone sugar imports from the West Indies had risen from 760 tonnes in 1704, to a staggering 46,000 tonnes a century later.

The pamphlet was a stunningly successful piece of marketing and ran to 25 editions selling over 70,000 copies. As a result, hundreds of thousands of households up and down the country gave up sugar all together as a protest, or voluntarily bought more expensive sugar produced by ‘free labour’ in the East Indies.

This expression of consumer power as a form of dissent can be directly linked to the print industry. It is an example of how printing has historically played a part in progressive social justice ideals and helped to evolve and educate society. This paragraph from William Fox’s pamphlet is a salient example of the power of print:-

“If we purchase commodity we participate in the crime. The slave dealer, the slave holder, and the slave driver, are virtually agents of the consumer, and may be considered as employed and hired by him to procure the commodity… In every pound of sugar used we may be considered as consuming two ounces of human flesh” (William Fox, 1791, in Address to the People of Great Britain).

On a final note, printing firms have historically played an important part in social change and helped many worthwhile causes, raising awareness in the public sphere. They can be the voice of the oppressed, dispossessed, those excluded and ignored by those with power. These examples have drawn attention to how printing played a part in ending one of the most grievous crimes against humanity and helped to end the evil practice of human slavery, perpetuated by two of the most powerful nations in the world at the time. The US and Great Britain.

Blog by Simon Jones

Photo by Robert Koorenny on Unsplash