Mindset Changing: Why Slave Ship Captain James Irving Couldn’t See The Irony of Being Enslaved and What We Can Learn from His Experience

One of the basic rules of planning communication goals is to make them achievable. Some things you can change and others you just have to live with. Maybe you can convince someone to buy your product, and maybe you can change their attitude about the environment, but some changes are just too big for one step, or perhaps even for one generation.

A new book has just been published that contains a beautiful example of this. Eighteenth century slave ship captain James Irving wrote many letters to his family which were never intended for publication. He also wrote at a time before the abolitionist movement when no one questioned slavery so his accounts of his experiences are uncensored and, to modern eyes, astonishingly candid. You can read the whole story in the book: Slave Captain: The Career of James Irving in the Liverpool Slave Trade (Liverpool English Texts and Studies) by Suzanne Schwarz

I won’t repeat here what he said about his human cargoes, since practically every word he wrote is offensive to Africans and African-Americans but there is one episode that makes his story perfect movie fodder: after years of transporting Africans into slavery he was shipwrecked on the coast of Morocco and enslaved himself. After 14 months of slavery he returned home and you might expect that he would be a changed man and at least support the embryonic abolitionists. Well you would be wrong. As soon as he could he found another ship and went back to his old ways.

To modern minds this seems appalling, and everyone who hears the story is amazed at this final twist, but they shouldn’t be because it reflects the mindset of his era. He had no sympathy for his own cargoes because he didn’t consider them human, but to enslave an Englishman was scandalous. And if you can’t get inside this mindset try asking yourself if a man who has spent time in jail will stop buying eggs laid by chickens in cages because he empathizes with their plight. Of course not, they are just chickens.

This extraordinary story has a lesson for us all. There are some things that people just don’t see and you should never plan to change these attitudes with a PR campaign. Even more dramatic methods like giving slavers a taste of slavery don’t work because their mind is programmed in a way that they just can’t see your point of view. But on the positive side attitudes can be changed, though it takes time, patience and consistency. James Irving never understood the humor or the irony of his situation, but attitudes have changed so much over the last two hundred years that we find it hard to imagine. So there is hope.


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