April 1839, United Kingdom: supported by the non conforming
Churches, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society
(BFASS) is launched. This marks the accomplished outcome
of an evolution starting with the creation, in London
on 22nd May 1787, of a Committee for the Abolition of
the Slave Trade. Backed by the Tories in power at the
time, namely the Prime Minister William Pitt and the
MP William Wilberforce, the Committee was born from
the Quaker milieu: with the exception of its president
Granville Sharp and two other persons, all of the twelve
members belonged to the Society of Friends. When an
Act was passed to ban the slave trade in the British
colonies in 1807, this same Committee then became a
semi-official organism, the African Institution, to
monitor the application of the new legislation. Eager
to spread abolition and to promote other forms of trades,
the African Institution indeed tried to put an end to
the transatlantic slave trade and to encourage the emancipation
of slaves on the model of Sierra Leone, whose capital,
Freetown, had accommodated about 14,000 persons set
free by the British between 1772 and 1778. But the Institution
didn’t fight the “domestic” slavery
within the African continent and hardly dealt with the
future of those freed, left to cope for themselves.
In 1823 thus appeared a “Society for the Mitigation
and Gradual Abolition of Slavery Throughout the British
Dominions” with members of the 1787 Committee,
like Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, as well
as Quakers or philanthropists such as Zachary Macaulay
(a Scottish planter in Jamaica and a governor of Sierra
Leone who launched a newspaper, the Anti-Slavery Reporter,
in 1825) and the MP Thomas Fowell Buxton (1786-1845).
By dint of petitions to the Parliament, new measures
enhanced the living conditions of slaves but were not
enough to obtain total freedom. In 1832, the more radical
militants of the movement, who had founded a dissident
group the year before, the Agency Committee, broke away
from the 1823 Society to fight for the unconditional
and immediate abolition of slavery. Rather than staying
in London, they decided to fight the issue outside the
capital and gained to their cause the women, who, if
they were still not allowed to vote, could sign petitions;
more than 187,000 of them joined the Agency Committee’s
campaign. Their efforts were not fruitless: on August
29th 1833, a bill was passed to programme the gradual
abolition of slavery after a compulsory apprenticeship
period of four to six years. So as to appease the anger
of the “owners”, such a procedure allowed
the exploitation of a cheap labour force to continue
for some time, including children aged over six; this
system was eventually abolished in 1838.
-12 June 1840, United Kingdom: with delegates from France
and the United States, the BFASS organises in London
the world’s first anti-slavery convention, held
at Freemasons’ Hall. The conference helps to raise common issues on both sides of the Atlantic but also sharpens internal divisions. Because genders are segregated in Victorian London, the English majority refuses to seat several black and white women elected as American delegates; these can not vote and have to join women in the balcony as spectators. Moreover, the United States, where there are 1,350 local antislavery societies with between 120,000 and 250,000 members in 1838, resent the meddling of the former British coloniser regarding the servile status of the Blacks in the South. According to a Congressman from South Carolina quoted by Betty Fladeland, such criticisms are out of place because of “enslaved subjects” in Ireland and the abject poverty of the lower classes in England.
-1841, United Kingdom: France, Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia adopt a treaty recognising the right of each to halt ships on the high seas of any one of the group engaging in the slave trade.
-1843, United Kingdom: during another world anti-slavery
convention, the BFASS opposes free trade and supports
protectionism. According to the organisation, tariff
reduction would lead to an increase in the British demand
for Cuban and Brazilian sugar, produced at low cost
through slave work, still legal in Latin American. Free
trade between the British Empire and the rest of the
world would also ruin the West Indies’ sugar plantations,
which emancipated slaves and which enjoyed privileged
trade relations with London. But such protectionism
could also cause an increase in domestic prices for
imported goods, bringing about general discontent in
the British popular classes. These contradictions push
some members to leave the BFASS and to create a dissident
Provisional Committee dedicated to overthrowing slavery
whilst remaining consistent with the principles of free
-From 1850, United Kingdom: considering that the fight
against the transatlantic slave trade is by then very
repressed, the BFASS starts to denounce less well known
forms of exploitation, such as the importation in the
West Indies of workers bonded in India. The organisation,
which promotes the boycott of goods grown in countries
which haven’t yet abolished slavery, has to overcome
a certain decline amidst the working classes, more concerned
with improving their own living conditions now that
slave trade is abolished in the United Kingdom. The
BFASS’s membership and finances decrease in consequence.
-1861, United States: the BFASS does not take position on the civil war which begins between the abolitionist North and the South, who refuses to free its Black slaves. Many activists are pacifists and find it hard to support any war, while some British humanitarians are sympathetic to the South’s claim that it is fighting for independence against an imperial North.
-1865, United States: the end of the civil war and the
victory of the North, who had freed its Black slaves,
place the BFASS in an awkward situation because it had
been in favour of a cease-fire which would have advantaged
the Confederates of the South, fervent advocates of
slavery. Generally speaking, the organisation’s
pacifism is often paradoxical; for instance when it
leads to criticising the British government, whose Navy
precisely sees to enforcing the international treaties
banning the slave trade.
-1867, France: the BFASS takes part in a new anti-slavery
convention in Paris, which, through the tales of the
British explorer David Livingstone, raises the public
awareness of the slave trade between East Africa and
the Muslim world. During the 1870s, the organisation
puts pressure on the British government to force the
Khedive of Egypt, the Ottoman Sultan and the Shah of
Persia to put an end to slavery in their respective
-1884-1885, Germany: under pretence of fighting slavery,
the Berlin conference divides up the Black continent
between the European colonial powers. The abolitionist
cause is thus used as an alibi for the colonisation
Hence in Britain, the BFASS supported the conquest of Sudan by General Charles Gordon (1833-1885), who rose an army of slaves to fight against slave trade!
-1888-1890, Belgium: the BFASS, which initiated in Britain
a parliamentary debate to incite governments to organise
and finance an international conference on slavery,
brings off an important victory in 1890, with the signature
in Brussels of the first treaty planning to fight against
the slave trade in the African hinterland. Under the
influence of Henry Richard Fox Bourne (1837-1909), the
organisation’s new secretary general since 1889,
the Society changes its focus to the exploitation of
indigenous peoples like the Indians in Peru. This new
strategy leads the BFASS to move closer to the Aborigines
Protection Society (APS). Founded in 1839 by Quakers,
this Society had paradoxically received the support
of King Leopold II of Belgium, celebrated at the Berlin
Conference in 1885 as a philanthropist concerned with
fighting slavery and civilising the African continent
through his International African Association. Now the
Congo Free State, created in 1884 and placed under the
personal sovereignty of the king, had become the private
domain of the companies who had won concessions there
and who starved and decimated the natives through forced
labour. So the APS had to distance itself from Leopold
II and even ended up campaigning against him with the
BFASS and the Congo Reform Association, set up by the
journalist Edmund Dene Morel (1873-1924) who had gathered
evidence of the crimes committed in the Congo Free State.
-1897-1935, Ghana: the APS supports the creation of
the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society (ARPS),
founded at Cape Coast by the chief editor of the Methodist
Times, the Reverend Samuel Richard Brew Attoh-Ahuma
(1875-1921), and the Fante chiefs who are worried about
colonial attempts to limit their traditional land rights
following a bill in 1894. Composed of Africans such
as Joseph Peter Brown, a businessman of royal origins,
and John Mensah Sarbah, the first qualified lawyer of
Ghana, the association, which publishes a newspaper,
the Gold Coast Aborigines, only uses the available constitutional
and judicial means to promote the interests of the natives.
Outmoded after the emergence of a nationalist movement
at the start of the 1920s, the association disappears
from the political scene around 1935.
-1909, United Kingdom: the BFASS and the APS merge to
form the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society, whose first general secretary is a former
Baptist missionary in Africa, the Reverend John Harris.
-1910-1912, Peru: in London, the Society relays the
complaints of Benjamin Saldana Rocca against the wealthy
Julio Cesar Arana, who registered his company in England
and who is accused of the massacres of the Amazonian
Indians workers in his rubber plantations along the
river Putamayo, on the border with Equator, Brazil and
Colombia. As with the Congo (territory finally entrusted
to Belgium in 1906) the scandal provokes the creation
of a governmental inquiry commission which, led by Roger
Casement, hands in its conclusions to the British Parliament
in 1912, quoting the figure of 30,000 deaths linked
to the production of rubber in the region since 1900.
-1913, South Africa: the Society opposes the Native
Land Act which, on the instigation of the British colonial
power, reserves 93 % of the country’s land to
the white, excluding black farmers and reducing them
to labour tenancy. In London, the King George V, who
disapproves of the criticism of British policy, resigns
from the Anti-Slavery Society, of which he had been
the honorary president. As a general rule, the organisation
doesn’t demand independence for Africans at this
time. It approves the civilising mission of colonisation
and only wants to limit its abuses.
-1914, United Kingdom: the strategic alliance between
London and Brussels, at war against Germany, forces
the Anti-Slavery Society to tone down its attacks of
the Belgian exactions in Congo. As for Edmund Dene Morel,
he launches a pacifist party, the Union of Democratic
Control (UDC), which leads to his being imprisoned in
1917 but which will have a certain influence on the
political scene – nine of its members will belong
to the Labour government in 1924.
-1926-1939, Switzerland: the Society backs the International
Slavery Convention of 1926. Between 1933 and 1939, it
takes part in the permanent Advisory Committee of Experts
on Slavery charged with monitoring the effective application
of the Convention. In this framework, the Society exposes de facto slavery in Liberia.
-1930-1931, Switzerland: the Society supports the International Labour Organisation Convention n°29 which bans forced labour. The following year, it also participates with Save the Children to an international conference in Geneva, which deals with child trafficking in Africa.
-1939-1945, United Kingdom: the Second World War leads
to a significant decrease in the activities of the Anti-Slavery
Society in the various colonies around the world.
-1947, United Kingdom: with Charles Wilton Wood Greenidge (1889-1972) as his secretary from 1942 until 1956, the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society takes the shorter name of Anti-Slavery Society. The organisation remains in the tradition of liberal colonialism and doesn’t support claims for independence. Its Journal The Reporter, which has a circulation of about 2,000 in 1947, officially targets “all those to whom the maintenance of justice for weaker races of the world appeals as a duty”. ASI only opposes apartheid because of South Africa’s attempt to annex Namibia, sending to the British government a delegation led by an Anglican Reverend from Johannesburg, Michael Scott, who will enter the leadership of the Society in 1963.
-13th May 1949, United States: at the UN, the General Assembly approves the creation of a non-permanent committee of experts on slavery where Charles Greenidge, the secretary of ASI, is appointed.
-1950, United States: encouraged by the article 4 of
the Human Rights Declaration of 1948, which bans slavery,
the Anti-Slavery Society gains consultative status with
the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)
in New York.
-1956-1962, United States: following the lobbying of
the Anti-Slavery Society, where Thomas Stanley Lane Fox-Pitt (1897-1989) replaces Charles Greenidge, a review of the 1926 Convention
extends the notion of slavery to child labour, serfdom
and debt bondage in 1956, as well as early and forced
marriages in 1962. The organisation modifies its Constitution
in consequence so as to include the new articles of
-1957, Switzerland: the Society, which changes again its name into the Anti-Slavery Society for the Protection of Human Rights, supports the work of
the International Labour Organisation towards the signature
of the Convention n°105 banning the use of forced
labour by governments as an instrument for political
repression, economic development, labour discipline
or racial, social, national or religious discrimination.
-1960, United Kingdom: once the UN embrace decolonisation and many African countries become independent, the Society begins to assert the right of self-determination for the indigenous. In the 1970s, it will intervene on behalf of the Kurds of Iraq, the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh, the Aché in Paraguay, the Yanoama in Brazil and the natives of East Timor after the Indonesia invasion.
-1963, United Kingdom: Colonel Patrick Montgomery becomes the new secretary of the Society, a post he retains until 1980. In 1978, the title of secretary becomes director and the staff, which consisted of only a secretary and assistant, is expanded.
-1966, United States: the United Nations publish a special
report which confirms the persistence of slavery in
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, though officially
abolished in 1963. The Anti-Slavery Society then pushes
for the establishment of a monitoring committee. But
the British government is against it because the project
is being used by the USSR, Latin America, and some African
countries like Tanzania, to condemn South Africa and
its apartheid regime, seen as a particular form of slavery.
-1970, United Kingdom: the great great grandson of William
Wilberforce, a lord, becomes the new president of the
Anti-Slavery Society, of which he had been a member
since 1934. Following the model of Amnesty International, born in 1961, the organisation launches campaigns against child labour and changes its strategy. From 1946 to 1966, it did not publicize slavery “in the hope of securing governmental and international co-operation” to end it. But it noted that public support also suffered as a result of this policy of self-imposed confidentiality. In a report sent to the United Nations in 1968 and quoted by John Carey, ASI saw publication of investigations as its only option. As a consequence, it becomes more offensive, is attacked for “slander” and faces a serious challenge to its status at ECOSOC in 1978.
-1973, Paraguay : alerted on slaves trafficking and genocide by anthropologist Mark Munzel, the Society starts to investigate on the Aché, a nomadic Indian group in the south-east corner of the country. In September 1973, ASI chooses to be specific on Paraguay: its statement, prepared for the UN, is quite unusual because the normal procedure forbids NGOs to name countries (other than South Africa) in which gross human rights violations take place.
-1975, Switzerland: the United Nations Working Group on Slavery, which Anti-Slavery Society had lobbied for since 1966, is at last set up in Geneva. Amongst the selected experts is Ben Whitaker of Britain, who was a member of ASI and served as a director of the Minority Rights Group. At the beginning according to reliable sources quoted by William Korey, “almost all the information” of the Working Group on Slavery comes from the Society.
-1979, United Kingdom: the International Year of the Child helps the Society to promote its work against child labour. In 1975 and 1977, ASI had launched studies on child labour in the textile industry and the hand-made production of mats in Morocco and South Asia. Thanks to a grant from the Ford Foundation in 1978, it also produced a preliminary survey of child labour throughout the world, covering Colombia, India, Portugal, Hong Kong, Italy, Malaysia, South Africa, Spain and Thailand. The culmination of the Society’s efforts is the Convention on the Rights of the Child adopted by the UN General Assembly on the 20th November 1989.
-From 1980, United Arab Emirates: the federal authorities
take steps towards banning the use of children as jockeys
in camel races, a very popular entertainment in the
country. But in practice, the race organisers continue
to have young jockeys " imported " from Asia,
notably Bangladesh. Aware of the issue, the Anti-Slavery
Society starts a campaign aiming to end such practices.
-1981, United States: the UN create a Working Group on Indigenous Populations with the strong encouragement of the Society.
-1987, Australia: the federal government in Canberra
commissions the Anti-Slavery Society to draw up a report
on the status of the Aborigines.
-1990, United Kingdom: in November 1990, the Society takes the abridged name of Anti-Slavery International (ASI) so as to reinforce the visibility of an organisation which has suffered a decrease in its importance, with 3 employees and 1 143 members in 1988. A former official with Oxfam, Lesley Roberts, becomes the new director of the NGO in January 1990 and she aims to modernise it. Prior to her appointment, there was no financial plan, no budget, no staff contracts and no pension provision; minutes of the General Committee were designated as secrets. Before being succeeded in 1996 by Mike Dottridge, formerly with Amnesty International, Lesley Roberts improves the professionalism of the organisation, enlarges the staff to number some ten persons and registers 1,600 members.
-From 1992, Pakistan: a new law bans serfdom but is
poorly enforced, notably in the Sindh. So ASI supports
the efforts of its local partner, the HRCP (Human Rights
Commission of Pakistan), towards the effective application
of the existing legislation. The HRCP promotes a constructive
relationship with the authorities and publishes in 1995
a report criticising the leader of the BLLF (Bonded
Labour Liberation Front), Ehsan Ullah Khan, who accuses
other NGOs of hypocritical behaviour and brings them
into disrepute because of his exaggerated statements
on bonded labour.
-1993-1998, United Kingdom: following the publication
of its report on new forms of slavery in England, ASI
supports the so-called Kalayaan campaign to forbid the
confiscation of migrant domestic workers’ identity
papers by their employers. Frightened of being deported,
these immigrants do not go to the police to complain
about bad treatment. To avoid such situations, the British
Home Office awards them, from July 1998, an immigration
status independent of their employers.
-1994-1997, United Kingdom: in its headquarters, ASI
provides the secretariat of the End Child Prostitution
in Asian Tourism (ECPAT) Campaign, launched in 1994.
The lobby gets some results when the British law is
changed in March 1997 to prosecute nationals for paedophilia
-1995, United Kingdom: ASI becomes a charitable limited
guarantee company. For a long time, the organisation
was an exception and enjoyed tax exemptions thanks to
its seniority. Usually, the authorities refuse to give
a charity status to human rights organisations, which
are considered to be too political. Granted when the
legislation was less strict, ASI’s charity status
was temporarily questioned when the organisation changed
its name in 1990.
-1997, Brazil: following an action by the federal authorities
to buy a plantation from a private owner who maltreated
his workers in Flor de Mata in the state of Pará,
ASI advocates a complete confiscation of land where
modern forms of slavery persist. Although the government
isn’t in favour of such radical procedures, a
law project aims, in December 1997, to modify the penal
code and to forbid employers from retaining their employees
by force or through the confiscation of their identity
-1998, United Kingdom: eager to prevent illegal child
labour in the third world sub-contractors of big western
multinational companies, ASI becomes a member of the
Ethical Trading Initiative, which groups NGOs, trade
unions and socially responsible firms. Similar efforts
are made with the International Labour Organisation
in Geneva, where a Convention bans the worst forms of
child labour in 1999.
-1999, Philippines: with a local Foundation established
in 1991, Visayan Forum, ASI campaigns for the adoption
by Parliament of a charter named Batas Kasambahay to
ban the exploitation of children domestic workers.
-18-28 October 2000, Sudan: after it commissioned a
first report in August 1997, ASI sends to Southern Darfur
a delegation to conduct an investigation in co-operation
with a governmental organism, the CEAWC (Committee for
the Eradication of Abduction of Women and Children).
In the North, the Islamic junta in power in Khartoum,
at war against the South, refuses to talk about slavery
and only admits to disappearances and kidnappings by
the Arab militias close to the army. In the South, Fundamentalist
Christian organisations claim that the Muslims want
to commit a “genocide”. ASI’s realistic
position is between the two. The Society criticises
both the government, which failed to protect the victims,
and CSI (Christian Solidarity International) or CSW
(Christian Solidarity Worldwide), which buy up “slaves”,
be it at the cost of making the masters richer and encouraging
all sorts of fraud. In a report sent to the UN in June 1999, ASI also contests the assertion of 20,000 slaves and finds evidence for only several hundreds of captives scattered around separate households.
-February 2002, Nepal: following pressure from ASI and
its local partner, the organisation BASE (Backward Society
Education), the government in Kathmandu votes a law
making kamaiya bonded labour illegal.
-From 2005, Niger: Ilguilas Weila, the head of prominent anti-slavery organisation Timidria, and five colleagues are put in prison on 5 May 2005. Judicial sources say the six are accused of "propagating false information on slavery and attempting to raise funds illegally" by seeking 3.5 millions of Euros from ASI for the rehabilitation of thousands of slaves. In March this year, they had organised a release ceremony for some 7,000 slaves in the village of Inates, almost 300 km northwest of the capital. But the slaves failed to show up. ASI said a government delegation had visited the slave chief and intimidated him into backing out of the release. In a statement, Mary Cunneen, the director of the organisation, “condemns the Niger Government's treatment of Ilguilas Weila and demands his immediate and unconditional release”. ASI then defends Hadijatou Mani, the daughter of a slave, sold when she was twelve years old. Thanks to Anti-Slavery, the Niger Government's is eventually condemned for the first time in October 2008 by the regional court of ECOWAS (Economic Community Of West African States) and has to compensate the young victim because of its failure to protect her.