HISTORY: by John BallantyneNews Weekly
Wilberforce's epic battle to end slavery
, May 12, 2007
This year marks the bicentenary of the abolition of the African slave trade in the British empire. John Ballantyne looks at the life of William Wilberforce (1759–1833), the famous English parliamentarian and anti-slavery crusader.Two hundred years ago, on March 25, 1807, the British Parliament outlawed the trans-Atlantic African slave trade. Eventually, in 1833, Britain was to make slavery itself illegal throughout the empire.
|Josiah Wedgwood's design for an anti-slavery|
brooch. Pictured is an enslaved African man,
chained hands held up in supplication, pleading:
"Am I not a man and a brother?"
For at least two centuries the African slave trade had been a lucrative part of the English economy. In the late 1700s, English traders used to raid Africa's west coast on the Gulf of Guinea. Each year they would seize tens of thousands of black Africans, ship them across the Atlantic to British colonies and sell them into slavery.
To save space aboard the slave ships, the chained Africans would be packed in as tightly as canned sardines. Without adequate food, water or sanitation, as many as half of them would perish during the trans-Atlantic voyage.
In 1781, Sir Luke Collingwood, captain of an overloaded slave-ship Zong
bound for Jamaica, ordered his crew to throw overboard 133 sick slaves. He calculated that he could claim more money for this lost “cargo” from the ship's insurer than he could earn at a slave auction.
|Diagram of the deck of a slave ship, |
circa 1790, presented as evidence to
the British House of Commons.
No officers or crew were ever prosecuted for these murders. All that the British Solicitor-General John Lee could bring himself to say about the Zong
massacre was: “What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well-serving honourable men of murder ... The case is the same as if horses had been thrown overboard.”
If an African slave was lucky enough to escape death at sea, he was destined for a life of captivity, endless toil under the whip and an early grave.
William Wilberforce, whose parliamentary career would eventually help see an end to this abominable traffic, was born in 1759 in the port of Hull, on England's north-east coast.
The son of a wealthy merchant, he was free of financial cares from an early age. He studied at Cambridge University but was, as he confessed, fairly idle, being more interested in pursuing his social life than in applying himself academically.
In 1780, at the age of 21, he was elected member of parliament for Hull, making him the youngest member of the House of Commons. (His contemporary and close friend, William Pitt the Younger, was elected to parliament at the same time and, a few years later, at the age of 24, became Britain's youngest ever Prime Minister).
Wilberforce's first few years in parliament were undistinguished. As he admitted in later years, his original political ambition was for self-advancement. In 1784, however, his life changed radically when, under the influence of one of his former schoolteachers, he converted to Evangelical Christianity.
He agonised over the direction of his life, wondering if parliament was really the best place to serve God and one's nation. For advice, he turned to the famous Anglican clergyman John Newton. Newton was a former slave-ship captain, once notorious for his loose living and mistreatment of slaves, who had converted to Christianity. Newton's life had undergone a radical transformation, celebrated in the words of the much-loved hymn he composed, “Amazing Grace”.
Newton told the young Wilberforce: “God has raised you up for the good of the church and the good of the nation. Maintain your friendship with Pitt, continue in Parliament. Who knows that but for such a time as this God has brought you into public life and has a purpose for you.”
Conversion changed the course of Wilberforce's life. He gave up his easygoing ways and became serious about his faith. He became particularly interested in pursuing social reform and improving factory conditions in Britain.
At about this time, Wilberforce came under the influence of the famous anti-slavery campaigner, Thomas Clarkson, whom the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously described as a “moral steam-engine”.
On May 22, 1787, Clarkson, an Anglican, and 11 other men, nine of them Quakers, met in a London print shop to work out a political strategy to achieve their ends. This tiny group founded the world's first citizens-initiated human rights movement, the Society for the Abolition of the African Slave Trade. The French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville later described the outcome of that meeting as “extraordinary” and “absolutely without precedent” in the history of the world.Unprecedented
Adam Hochschild, in his book, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves
(2005), remarks: “It was extremely unusual and almost unprecedented in Britain at that time for people of different religious sects to get together in the same room to form an organisation to agitate for a common end.”
The movement was joined by other notable Christians such as John Newton and the famous preacher, John Wesley. Within two years, Wilberforce was leading the abolition movement's parliamentary campaign.
In his first impassioned speech on the subject, in the House of Commons, he confronted the lawmakers with descriptions of the shocking reality of the slave trade. He said to them: “Having heard all of this you may choose to look the other way but you can never again say that you did not know.”
But far too many people at that time preferred to look the other way. Much of Britain's wealth was derived from the slave trade; and the powerful merchants who profited from it were not going to give up without a struggle.
Wilberforce was told in no uncertain terms to keep his religious principles to himself and to refrain from imposing his personal values on the public. He was attacked in the newspapers and assaulted physically. After receiving death threats, he had to employ an armed bodyguard.
Over two tumultuous decades - during which Britain was distracted by the convulsions of the French Revolution in 1789, the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte and wars with France - Wilberforce persisted with his crusade.
Many times he was despondent. In 1791, the famous preacher John Wesley (1703-1791), then very close to death, wrote a famous letter exhorting Wilberforce to persist in his efforts to oppose what he (Wesley) called “that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature”, i.e., slavery.
He added: “Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? ... Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.”
In 1796, the Abolitionists thought they finally had sufficient numbers in Parliament to outlaw the slave trade, but their parliamentary opponents had one ingenious trick up their sleeve: they offered free opera tickets to some of the bill's supporters for the night of the vote.
The bribe worked, and several MPs chose to attend the opera rather than stay in the House of Commons. The bill was defeated by four votes.
A devastated Wilberforce suffered a nervous and physical breakdown.
Fortunately for Wilberforce, the anti-slavery movement did not depend on his efforts alone. Outside parliament his fellow Abolitionists were succeeding in swinging public opinion decisively against slavery, with the aid of pamphlets, books, rallies, marches and petitions. Many people started boycotting the purchase of imported sugar from the slave plantations of the West Indies.
Meanwhile, Wilberforce persisted in introducing bill after bill to outlaw the slave trade.
Eventually, 18 years after he first took up the cause, victory came.
On February 23, 1807, an anti-slavery motion came up once more in the House of Commons. This time there was a difference. The majority of the speeches were now decisively against the slave trade. The Abolitionists were poised to win. Wilberforce bowed his head and wept.
At 4 o'clock in the morning, the Commons voted by 283 to 16 to abolish the slave trade.
It had taken two decades to achieve this outcome. Even so, it was only a partial success. Although the British parliament had outlawed the capture, transport and sale into slavery of Africans, the new laws did not free those who, in its colonies, were already slaves. It was not until 1833 that an act was finally passed emancipating all slaves in the British empire.
Anti-slavery was not Wilberforce's only passion. He was a great philanthropist in other areas as well. He gave away a quarter of his earnings to the poor, sponsored numerous charitable causes, such as the British and Foreign Bible Society, and helped found the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
With his convivial personality, sense of humour, talent for singing and gift for mimicking contemporary public figures, Wilberforce was a very difficult person to dislike.
He was always unfailingly gracious towards his enemies and, throughout his campaign against slavery, sought to befriend, and win to his cause, the very slave-traders he hoped to put out of business.
Wilberforce retired from politics in 1825, but one last chapter in the anti-slavery struggle still remained.
On July 29, 1833, an act to free slaves throughout the British empire passed through the House of Commons.
Wilberforce by now was frail, partially blind and too sick to attend this historic session of the House of Commons; but he heard what happened there and rejoiced at the news of this great victory.
Only two days later, with his life's great work completed, he died.
He was later honoured by his country with burial in Westminster Abbey.- Wilberforce's long struggle and eventual victory against slavery are the subject of a recently-released film, Amazing Grace, directed by Michael Apted for Walden Media and starring Ioan Gruffudd as Wilberforce. It is due for release in Australia on June 7. (A slightly shortened version of the above article appeared in the printed version of News Weekly).