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 Issues | Church History | William Wilberforce


William Wilberforce by Michael Hennell
The Slave Trade Campaign

In 1787 a Committee for the abolition of the Slave Trade was formed. Its first chairman was Granville Sharp, whose pleading influenced Lord Mansfield's famous judgement that a slave ceased to be a slave as soon as he stepped on English soil. Its most active agent was Thomas Clarkson, who, as a Cambridge undergraduate, had written a prize essay against slavery, and henceforward set himself to discover all the facts obtainable about the Slave Trade and to make them known. Another original member of the committee was the Rev. James Ramsay, who had spent nineteen years in the West Indies and came home to a country living, where he used his pen in the service of abolition. Quakers, who had been the first in the field both in America and England, were also well-represented on the Committee.

Their chief need, however, was a spokesman in Parliament, but no front-rank politician would risk his career to undertake such a venture. Burke knew the Trade was wrong and as early as 1780 had drafted a bill for ameliorating the treatment of the slaves, but he did not make it public till Wilberforce's campaign was launched. Fox and Pitt opposed the Trade but were frightened of splitting their parties on an issue which they knew divided them. It needed someone of their calibre to lead the attack and for this task God gave William Wilberforce, fully equipped-a giant among giants, an orator among orators, a leader among leaders.

At the time that the Committee was requiring such a leader Wilberforce was making inquiries into the nature of the Slave Trade, and then, after a meeting with Ramsay and other friends, he decided to consult Pitt. However, it was Pitt who took the initiative, for one day, while they sat with Grenville “at the root of an old tree just above the steep descent into the vale of Keston”, Pitt asked, “Why don't you, Wilberforce, give notice of a motion on the Slave Trade?” Soon afterwards Wilberforce committed himself publicly.

In 1788, when the question was due to be raised for the first time, Wilberforce was seriously ill and not expected to live. At Wilberforce's request Pitt generously took charge of the first motion demanding an investigation of the Slave Trade and promising, should Wilberforce not recover, to undertake the campaign himself. Wilberforce, however, recovered surprisingly quickly and after a long convalescence in the Lake District, returned to introduce his first motion for abolition in 1789, which was made possible by Pitt's preliminary motion the previous year.

In 1789 revolution broke out in France. Its effect in politics was to increase a general distrust in all progressive measures; the cause of parliamentary reform suffered a serious setback, and the Whigs were out of office till 1830. Wilberforce's campaign also suffered severely, for men feared that the black slaves might follow the example of the French peasants, a fear which was only too unhappily justified in 1791, when two thousand whites were massacred in St. Dorningo in a rebellion of mulattoes and slaves.

The cause of abolition was further balked by the outbreak of war between France and Britain. The war placed a strain on the Pitt-Wilberforce friendship from which it never really recovered; it also made of little effect their alliance against the Slave Trade. The tension showed itself in two directions. First, their attitude to the war was different, and secondly they ceased to share the same political objectives. Wilberforce was never really convinced of the necessity of the war till after the rupture of the Peace of Amiens in 1803. As early as 1794 his strong desire for peace had brought him out into open opposition; it has been said that this and the mutiny of the fleet at the Nore three years later were the only events that ever robbed Pitt of sleep. With regard to political objectives, Pitt henceforward concentrated on one thing-the defeat of the French. Reform gave place to repression at home, and although he spoke against the Slave Trade in debate, he did nothing to force the issue on his king or his cabinet, and possibly could not have done so had he wished. Wilberforce, on the other hand, although he supported the suppression of political clubs and Trade Unions, wanted reforms during the war period and foresaw trouble if they were not granted. Furthermore, to Wilberforce the abolition of the Slave Trade was more important than the defeat of Napoleon and consequently he often mistook as signs of apathy and negligence, situations and delays caused by Pitt's preoccupation with fighting the war. The questions of the war and the Slave Trade were not related, for Pitt's policy of “military pin-pricks and filching sugar-islands” meant new British settlers in these islands, and new settlers meant new slaves.

However, neither the Revolution nor the war prevented the Abolition movement becoming nation-wide in spite of the growing hostility to it in Parliament. The Committee sought to rouse the country and to mobilize opinion against the Trade: they published the parliamentary debates, wrote pamphlets, Clarkson toured the country, organizing Corresponding Committees in all the large towns, agents were employed, public meetings organized and petitions to Parliament prepared. Cowper wrote several poems for the cause, one of which, called “The Negro's Complaint”, was printed on fine-quality paper and distributed in thousands bearing the superscription “A Subject for Conversation at the Tea-Table”. Josiah Wedgwood, the master-potter, had a cameo made showing a black slave on a white background pleading for freedom - a figure soon to be seen ornamenting gentlemen's snuff-boxes and ladies' jewellery. In many parts of the country Abolitionists refrained from using West Indian sugar, and in some cases even older children were persuaded to do without sweets on principle.

In this way Wilberforce and his Committee carried their crusade beyond an unrepresentative Parliament to the people, at the same time bringing the light of a full publicity and the pressure of an informed public opinion to make the attack within Parliament harder to withstand, and the case for abolition more difficult to refute. In so doing they brought the effective methods of John Wesley's organization and evangelistic propaganda into the service of a great social movement and thus stamped humanitarian agitation with- a new character. Dr. G. M. Trevelyan comments in his English Social History:

“The methods of Wilberforce were afterwards imitated by the myriad leagues and societies - political, religious, philanthropic and cultural - which have ever since been the arteries of English life. Public discussion and public agitation of every kind of question became the habit of the English people, very largely in imitation of Wilberforce’s successful campaign. Voluntary association for every conceivable sort of purpose or cause became an integral part of English social life in the Nineteenth Century, filling up many of the gaps left by the limited scope of State action.”

In the early debates in Parliament the defenders of the Trade tried to prove that the tales of cruelty were untrue. They failed. As the evidence increased and public opinion became better informed, they were compelled, with Wilberforce's almost annual motions, to shift their ground and to defend their interests on the score that Abolition would - endanger the security of the west Indian Islands and the Empire. As the campaign continued, public opinion began to ask whether Slavery itself were no less wrong than the Trade which fed it. Gradually Wilberforce and his friends were able to convince the people of England that Abolition, first of the Trade, and then of Slavery itself, would not involve English towns and English merchants in financial ruin, and time proved them right. Nevertheless the war brought with it excuses and delays ; from 1797 to 1804the Abolition Committee did not meet and from I 799 Wilberforce dropped his annual motion.

The campaign, however, was by no means dead. New men appeared on the Committee, divisions appeared in the ranks of the opposition, and in May 1804, while Napoleon was massing troops and invasion-barges in ports across the water, Wilberforce's Bill passed the Commons for the first time. Pitt and Fox both died in 1806. Pitt's early assistance had been invaluable to Wilberforce, though his later lukewarmness made Abolition difficult while he was Prime Minister. Fox, on the other hand, never wavered in his support and Wilberforce wrote during Fox's final illness: “I quite love Fox for his generous and warm fidelity to the Slave Trade cause.” The following year both Houses of Parliament passed the Bill. When Sir Samuel Romilly contrasted Napoleon’s victories, which brought misery to thousands, with Wilberforce's triumph which earned the gratitude of men “in every quarter of the world”, the whole House rose to its feet to give Wilberforce an ovation such as no other English politician has ever received.

Abolition in 1807 was not the end of the story. During the rest of the war, and more especially during the years immediately following the war, Wilberforce made every effort to see that the Act of Abolition was enforced and that other European nations should follow Britain's example. By 1821 the campaign to abolish Slavery itself was launched. The same methods were used, but Wilberforce determined that a younger man should take the lead in Parliament. His choice fell on Thomas Fowell Buxton, a brother-in-law of his friend Elizabeth Fry and a convert of Josiah Pratt, the Secretary of the Church Missionary Society. In June 1824 Wilberforce retired from Parliament and in 1833, the year of his death, Slavery was abolished.

Abolition came just in time, for, as Sir Reginald Coupland has pointed out, the nineteenth century saw the opening up of the vast African continent. If Slavery and the Slave Trade had been tolerated, the European settler would have turned a whole continent into a vast slave plantation. He writes: “Nor was it from that African nightmare only that Wilberforce, more than any other man, saved the world. He had done something positive. More than any other man, he had founded in the conscience of the British people a tradition of humanity and of responsibility towards backward black peoples whose fate lay in their hands. And that tradition has never died.”

That tradition had its origin in the Sierra Leone Company, founded in 1791, and which for seventeen years financed and administered a settlement in West Africa for freed slaves, in the face of hostility from slave traders and neighbouring chiefs and the destruction of the capital by French sailors. This Company was founded neither for profit nor for prestige but for the good of the governed. The benefits that were brought to the Colony were looked upon as a small compensation for the wrongs done by Europe to Africa, and when the members of the Company formed the Church Missionary Society they made it clear that this was their main motive for sending their first missionaries to Sierra Leone.


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