Richard Huzzey

Senior Lecturer in History at Durham University

Friends of the Earth and the history of anti-slavery campaigns

Richard Huzzey is Senior Lecturer in History at Durham University. He studied history as an undergraduate at Oxford University and became interested in nineteenth-century campaigns for the abolition of slavery while working on a third-year module on the American Civil War. He wondered what happened to anti-slavery sentiment in Britain, after the abolitionists’ early victories and the emancipation of slaves in the British Empire in the 1830s.

One of the organisations he researched for his PhD on the anti-slavery movement after emancipation was the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. The organisation was founded in 1839 and still exists today, though it is now known as Anti-Slavery International and its role has changed to that of a United Nations consultative body. When Huzzey researched the collection of nineteenth-century abolitionists’ pamphlets held at the organisation’s library in London, he realised that Anti-Slavery International is campaigning on many of the same issues now, such as consuming the products of slavery, supply chains and forced labour.

‘The policy questions of what you can do to stop slavery, after your own country has made it illegal, are the same ones motivating anti-trafficking and anti-forced labour groups today. Yet I have always been uncomfortable with the popular idea that you can learn from past mistakes to avoid repeating them in the future. History sensitizes you to the present and makes you think more analytically and critically about decisions today’

This case study describes the contribution Huzzey made to helping Friends of the Earth explore ‘why change happens’ and learn ‘lessons from history for campaigners’. In the accompanying case study, Big Ideas from history, Mike Childs, head of science, policy and research at Friends of the Earth, describes the benefits they gained from working with Huzzey and other historians in the H&P network.

How change happens

Huzzey first became involved with Friends of the Earth when History & Policy invited him to be one of eight historians taking part in a joint seminar in November 2014. Lucy Delap and Fiona Holland, the director and public affairs manager at H&P, recognised that his research was directly relevant to the question of ‘how change happens’ that Friends of the Earth wanted to discuss with historians as part of their Big Ideas project.

Although he was unsure what to expect from the seminar, Huzzey’s hopes and expectations were very quickly met:

‘What I didn’t want to do was to make laboured comparisons – for example to claim that the evils of slavery are much the same as emitting more than your carbon allowance per year. But the fact that Friends of the Earth were thinking in very broad terms, about how big changes in values are needed to prevent catastrophic climate change, meant that one could talk about other big changes in history on their own terms. And in a sense it is not such a big jump. The historical events that I am interested in are very similar; is this something where ideas change peoples’ behaviour, or might underlying material motives have influenced changes in policy? Is it driven by new avenues of political expression, or have the ideas and the way people think about things changed? So in some way the problematics – I quite like that word although it is a bit academic – the problematics are the same.’

Chatting with Mike Childs in the pub after the seminar, Huzzey was invited to run a session for members and activists at Base Camp, the Friends of the Earth annual conference:

‘That was really interesting and fun because I had semi-prepared it as I would an undergraduate seminar. It was very audience-led and started by establishing some basic facts about abolitionist campaigning by crowd-sourcing their existing knowledge, and adding a little myself. And then we discussed how far Friends of the Earth activists could learn from the past. This was with grass roots members rather than staff and I was facilitating the discussion rather than pushing my own answers.’

Some of the issues discussed at Base Camp fed into his presentation at the next Friends of the Earth and H&P joint event, a conference held in June 2015. He had to step back from his own research, and think about how his knowledge of the anti-slavery campaigns in the nineteenth century could be translated into more general terms that were relevant to Friends of the Earth now:

‘In my own area there was a big change, as slavery went in 50 years from being an almost unchallenged part of British policy to something which the nation defined itself as against. I had to take a step back from that and think: what were the key elements to focus on? In my presentation, rather than saying change comes from a focus on A, B, and C, I dressed it up as a series of pivot points – problems without answers – on which I could say “this is how it worked out for abolitionism”. How exclusive or inclusive should a movement for change be? Should it maintain purity or cooperate with potentially quite unsavoury fellow-travellers? How far should it try to hold together a certain breadth of opinion and accept disagreement on sub-issues, versus the danger of diluting or appearing uncertain over crucial issues?’

Based on his experience at Base Camp, Huzzey was able to suggest that the dilemmas of inclusivity and idealism confronted both the abolitionists he had studied in his academic research and many of those in the environmental movement today. For example, he discussed the contemporary turn, controversial in some circles, to embrace nuclear power if it stopped the greater evil of climate change; likewise, abolitionists in the nineteenth century argued over how far gradual reformers should be welcomed amongst their ranks.

‘At the most simplistic level some campaigners today might just take inspiration from the changes that have been achieved in the past, but when you dig down into causation and respond to questions from the audience, it’s not about saying that, for example, BP is the equivalent of the West India interest. At the end of the day, abolitionists didn’t win by assembling better statistical information on the productivity of free as opposed to slave labour. They won by winning a values debate.’

His involvement with current issues and with History & Policy helped him think differently about his own academic research:

‘I found it intellectually invigorating in the same way you draw inspiration from the best undergraduate seminars. It made me think about broad issues, about how my own particular research field relates to bigger issues of historical change. So quite apart from any History & Policy or Impact outcomes, it’s helped me step back from the particular debates over why abolition of the slave trade happened, and instead think about broader social processes.’

Politically motivated history?

Although Huzzey supports taking action against climate change in his personal politics, he is nervous of what he describes as ‘politically motivated history’ – history taught, discussed or otherwise practised with a certain present-day outcome in mind. In his view, the relevance of history to current policy issues comes from looking at the process, rather than at specific outcomes:

‘I would shy away from the idea that I see my role as a historian being to vindicate or strengthen things that I happen to believe politically – I would shy away from that. On the other hand I think we are very much in sympathy with what the Big Ideas project was trying to do. If you are thinking about the process of why and how things happen in the past, you are going to be better at thinking about why and how things happen in the present or the future.’

With a relatively large number of participants at the How Change Happens conference, there appeared to be something of a culture gap between the historians, who focused on the peculiarity of the past, and the activists, who were concerned about the broader picture, looking for ideas to help them take action on issues such as climate change, which they believed were unprecedented in the history of humanity.

In Huzzey’s view, there was bound to be a difference in approach between academic historians and campaigning activists, but they still had much to gain from talking to each other:

‘As long as the spirit of these events is founded in an understanding that we are coming from different places and we are not going to the same place, but we still gain from travelling part of the way together, then it works. There are productive moments, conversations which enrich the research process but are also useful for policy practitioners, helping them reflect on what they are doing, through the past.’

Lessons from history for campaigners

Huzzey was directly involved in designing the third joint event, a seminar held at Friends of the Earth’s offices, on the theme of lessons from history for campaigners. He liked the format of the How Change Happens conference, with participants discussing the historians’ presentations in groups at Round Tables. He worked with Mike Childs and Joanna Watson at Friends of the Earth to take it a stage further:

‘At the conference, we had break-out discussion rather than question and answer, and I really liked that. I thought that was great. The policy makers weren’t just there to listen and receive knowledge from us, but to take part in a conversation and challenge us. For the seminar at Friends of the Earth’s offices we pushed that model even further.

We wanted to encourage the historians to think in broadly compatible areas of analysis. So we focused on campaigning specifically and set up the questions of contention and method. What is it that historical campaigners were challenging and what did they want to achieve? What particular campaigning techniques were used?’

Historians were asked to write up their case studies in advance, following a brief prepared by Huzzey. At the seminar, the historians were asked to sit quietly and listen to the activists comment and discuss their work. Huzzey was struck by how activists would come up with their own parallels with the present that he had not considered before.

‘We emphasised to both sides at the seminar that, for us, the event will be a success the less the historians speak; not because they are there just as witnesses to the event, but because they are there to clarify, perhaps to offer their own views, but really because having produced a concentrated digest of their research, we wanted to see how it was received by campaigners. Just because you are an expert in your field doesn’t mean you necessarily have a monopoly of wisdom about how it translates to the present.’

After the seminar, Huzzey worked with Friends of the Earth on a publication, Campaigning for change: lessons from history, which aims to draw out general principles for campaigners from the specific case studies. The publication includes an introduction written by Huzzey, the historical case studies, the crowd-sourced responses from the activists and policy makers, and a conclusion written by Mike Childs of Friends of the Earth.

‘We went for a publication on campaigning rather than on how change happens. We felt that at the conference at King’s, people had been talking about different things, and it was going to be hard to have the tight focus that we had at the seminar on campaigning.’

Huzzey is now applying some of the facilitation techniques he used at History & Policy and Friends of the Earth events to his undergraduate teaching.

‘I feel this activity has helped me articulate and share with students the value of History as a university subject. One of the things I say is that whenever you are trying to apply history in the present, you are doing a two-stage process. The first stage is the one historians always do; argue about what actually happened. As we kept reminding the policy makers, if you have a different historian of women’s suffrage, a different historian of the Corn Law League, or a different historian of the Miners’ Strike, you will get different answers on what happened and why it happened. And then the second stage of the process is how you draw the parallels and apply it to the present.’

Huzzey doubts if universities have fully understood the implications of academic staff spending time creating and organising events in which their research is consumed and discussed by policy makers, in addition to performing their normal academic duties, but he still believes that public engagement activities are well worth doing in their own right.

‘I think it often ends up being something you do on top of everything else, rather than it being some sort of way in which you are contributing to the institution’s strategy or needs. But I have no doubt that I have become a better teacher having done more of this myself, rather than just discussing it in the abstract.’


Based on his experience working with History & Policy and Friends of the Earth, Huzzey offers the following suggestions for historians, policy makers and campaigners:  

  • Be open minded and unguarded when you have conversations with people you might not normally work with.

‘It’s still worth doing and it’s worth taking a risk in terms of your time and your comfort zone. It’s the same as my experience collaborating with a museum in Liverpool. You want to be really open right from the start.’

  • Take the time to understand what the other side wants from the collaboration.

‘Understanding something about the Big Ideas project was crucial in designing the events. We were bringing people together from two very different constituencies, and at least one side would have been disappointed if they thought we were mis-selling it.’

  • History & Policy activities are as much about creating a space as creating a programme.

The anti-slavery campaigners: petitions, prayers and providence in the long view

By Richard Huzzey

When studying the transatlantic slave trade today, people often ask how British people tolerated, justified, or ignored the exploitation of men, women and children. But forms of slavery and exploitation have been the most common types of labour in human history, and we might ask “why did it end?” as well as “how did it continue?” Until 1783, only a few individuals had questioned the legitimacy of slavery, even if others saw it as distasteful; within a few years, a large popular movement was petitioning Parliament to ban the slave trade and, later, slavery itself. The story of British abolitionism has been told before and told well. But historians have argued over the exact causes of this revolutionary change. My work follows in the footsteps of a generation of scholars who have pulled our focus away from parliamentary leaders, such as the sainted William Wilberforce, and focused instead on the role of popular mobilisation, particularly the importance of petitions and the novelty of sugar boycotts.

Having worked on Victorian anti-slavery and imperialism in the past, I am now looking at two aspects of the original anti-slavery campaigns of 1787-1833. On the one hand, I am re-examining Britons’ expectations of material losses or benefits of continuing the slave trade. The evidence no longer supports older, Marxist theories that anti-slavery was just a conspiracy for more efficient forms of exploitation; however, I am still interested in looking at how ideas of national honour and God’s chosen people left Britons with powerful faith that abolitionism would prove right in the end, even if it involved a short-term sacrifice. Abolitionists’ rhetorical tactics and nervousness about economic predictions, therefore, form one strand of my research, as I seek to understand what the ordinary Briton thought their country would gain or lose from banning the human traffic.

I am also fascinated by the decisions that led local leaders and eager signatories to move from mild distaste or indifference to political activism. The proposals, in 1783-87, that Parliament should legislate against the slave trade were novel, and they involved a shifting barrier between private business and public interest as much as a change in national conscience. The success of abolitionists lay in excusing past inaction but compelling future duties, by confronting Britons with evidence that ‘you may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.’ In order to ask new questions about the motive, rather than merely the significance, of popular petitioning, I am not only studying the rhetorical appeals but the local context of abolitionism and why this issue became the first experience of parliamentary campaigning for so many ordinary Britons, some – including all women – without the vote. Petitioning was a traditional tactic for town corporations or business elites to commend or criticise targeted economic legislation (such as a new harbour in their town or a lower tax on the product they produced); abolitionism hijacked the parliamentary petition as a populist tool on public legislation (affecting the whole country – indeed, the whole empire). The response was unprecedented in numbers (perhaps as many as 1 in 4 men signing) and geography (from all areas of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland). By building case studies of the local leaders who organised petitions, I hope to build a profile of the professional, economic and political networks that built a keen national following.

When discussing my work on faith in the future and the need for short-term sacrifice in pursuit of long-term duty, colleagues have suggested that there are parallels with climate change and environmental concerns today. Indeed, in my first book, I suggested that nineteenth-century Britons could acknowledge that wage labour was more expensive, hour by hour, but that larger, unfathomable catastrophes followed slave labour, and I compared this to unsafe power generation, which delivers unsustainable efficiency. I’m excited by the chance to explore the issues of political campaigning and popular mobilisation which form the other strand of my research.

Further Reading

Campaigning for change: can we learn from history? By Mike Childs

Related Policy Papers

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  • Richard Huzzey is Senior Lecturer in History at Durham University.

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