There's a saying that goes something like this ...
'Once you see something, you can't unsee it"
It's usually used to describe that feeling when you see something that maybe is rather unattractive or makes you feel a bit strange and 'iffy'. Once the image is imprinted on your memory, you can't forget it.
But today I'm thinking about that phrase in a slightly different way.
It was on this day - August 24th - in the year 1759 that a child called William Wilberforce came into the world.
He would grow up to achieve something that would literally change the world for millions of people in his time and beyond.
William Wilberforce was a British philanthropist and politician. A year after becoming an independent Member of Parliament (MP) for Yorkshire in the north of England, he became an evangelical Christian, which led to major changes in his lifestyle and the beginning of a lifelong passion for reform. Although he had been interested in the faith as child, in 1785 he committed his life to God and so began a journey which would eventually result in his becoming a leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade.
At the time religious enthusiasm was viewed rather sceptically in 'polite' society. Many people went to church on a Sunday but their Christian faith didn't really go much further than that. Many would never have considered that what they did on a Sunday should affect the rest of their lives. Indeed many of those who were involved in the Atlantic slave trade - those who either directly owned slaves or indirectly benefitted from the slave trade in goods like sugar - would have considered themselves as 'Christians'.
Slavery was not a new phenomenon. Throughout human history there is evidence that people have been involved in enslaving others to do their dirty work, and to enrich themselves. If you 'own' a slave you don't have to pay them, and you can treat them any way you like. Ancient civilisations are known to have had slaves... apart from anything, it was an excellent way to control others and to dominant your society and culture.
The British became involved in the slave trade during the 16th century. By 1783, the triangular trade route that took British-made goods to Africa to buy slaves, transported the enslaved to the West Indies, and then brought slave-grown products like sugar, tobacco, and cotton to Britain, represented about 80 percent of Great Britain's foreign income. It was big business, British ships dominated the slave trade, supplying other colonies ... not just British but also French, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese ...and at its peak British slave traders carried forty thousand enslaved men, women and children across the Atlantic in horrific conditions. In fact, of the estimated 11 million Africans transported into slavery at the height of the trade, about 1.4 million died during the voyage. Appalling!
The British campaign to abolish the slave trade really began in earnest in the 1780s with the establishment of the Quakers' anti-slavery committees, and their presentation to Parliament of the first slave trade petition in 1783. It was in that year that Wilberforce, while dining with his old Cambridge University friend Gerard Edwards, met Rev. James Ramsay, a ship's surgeon who had become a clergyman on the island of St Christopher (later St Kitts) in the Leeward Islands, and a medical supervisor of the plantations there.
Ramsay shared what he had seen of the conditions endured by slaves at sea and on the plantations. Where many people thought the British were bringing Christianity and moral improvement overseas, they realised that it was just the opposite when they heard Ramsay's accounts especially of the way that depraved plantation owners cruelly treated their slaves, fellow human beings.
It took a few more years and more fact gathering and conversations with many powerful men, including a future Prime Minister of Great Britain, William Grenville but eventually Wilberforce committed himself to the anti-slavery movement.
Wilberforce's involvement in the abolition movement was motivated by a desire to put his Christian principles into action and to serve God in public life. As he read his Bible, prayed, discerned what God might be saying to him, and mixed with other fervent Christians, he came to the conclusion that faith needed to be with him every moment of the day. He was convinced of the importance of religion, morality and education and he believed faith should affect not just his thinking and personal life and behaviour but even his political work and ambition.
As well as the anti-slavery movement, William Wilberforce got involved in lots of moral campaigns including the Society for the Suppression of Vice, British missionary work in India, the foundation of the Church Mission Society, and even the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He also supported the creation of a free colony in Sierra Leone in Western Africa. In fact, he was often accused of ignoring injustice at home in England while campaigning for enslaved people outside of his own county.
It was in May 1789 that William Wilberforce delivered his first major speech against the slave trade but it would be many years before he would see slavery abolished.
In March 1796 he was crushed when the Anti-Slave Trade Bill was first narrowly defeated in the British Parliament and it wasn't until February 1807 that the bill finally made it through and was passed into law the following month.
But that wasn't the end of it.
That just stopped the slave TRADE. It was not until July 26th 1833, just three days before William Wilberforce's death at the age of 73, that the British parliament passed the bill which abolished slavery in the British Empire - the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. He had been retired for about eight years but continued campaigning until the end.
Now back to my opening thought. Once you have seen something you can't 'unsee it'.
'You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know'
We can live our lives oblivious to the difficulties that others are subjected to including the conditions of those still living in what we call 'modern slavery'. Yes, there are still those living enslaved lives including in the sex trade, in agriculture and forced labour of other kinds. Millions upon millions across the globe still live under these restrictions and often the conditions are appalling as they are unable to come and go, and are often treated very badly by those who make money out of them.
What Wilberforce was saying was that ... although we may remain unaware of such things because they don't affect us personally ... once we ARE aware of them, we can't remain oblivious!
People like Wilberforce and many campaigners even today believe that once we are aware, our conscience or maybe even our faith, impels us to action. We can't just go back into our 'not knowing' mindset. We can't 'unsee' what we now know to be true.
These days we like things to happen quickly, but as William Wilberforce discovered, righting a wrong might take many years. We might have to work a lifetime to see those injustices made right, but once we are aware of what needs doing, our resolve should remain strong.
And once we see injustice happening, we can't 'unsee' it.
But ultimately, the question is ... are we doing anything about it?