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William Wilberforce and Slavery

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Most textbooks incorrectly state the William Wilberforce campaigned against slavery. He did not. In fact, he was in favour of slavery. Let me explain.

In 1784 Wilberforce became converted to Evangelical Christianity. He joined the Clapham Set, a group of evangelical members of the Anglican Church, centered around Henry Venn, rector of Clapham Church in London. As a result of this conversion, Wilberforce became interested in social reform and was eventually approached by Lady Middleton, the wife of Charles Middleton, to use his power as an MP to bring an end to the slave trade.

Society of Friends in Britain had been campaigning against the slave trade for many years. They had presented a petition to Parliament in 1783 and in 1787 had helped form the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Of the twelve members on the committee nine were Quakers. As a member of the evangelical movement, Wilberforce was sympathetic to Mrs. Middleton's request. In his letter of reply, Wilberforce wrote: "I feel the great importance of the subject and I think myself unequal to the task allotted to me." Despite these doubts, Wilberforce agreed to Mrs. Middleton's request, but soon afterwards, he became very ill and it was not until 12th May, 1789, that he made his first speech against the slave trade.

Wilberforce, along with Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp, was now seen as one of the leaders of the anti-slave trade movement. Most of Wilberforce's Tory colleagues in the House of Commons were opposed to any restrictions on the slave trade and at first he had to rely on the support of Whigs such as Charles Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, William Grenville and Henry Brougham. When William Wilberforce presented his first bill to abolish the slave trade in 1791 it was easily defeated by 163 votes to 88.

Wilberforce refused to be beaten and in 1805 the House of Commons passed a bill to that made it unlawful for any British subject to transport slaves. However, the bill never became law as the measure was blocked by the House of Lords.

In February 1806, Lord Grenville formed a Whig administration. Grenville and his Foreign Secretary, Charles Fox, were strong opponents of the slave trade. Fox and Wilberforce led the campaign in the House of Commons, whereas Grenville, had the task of persuading the House of Lords to accept the measure.

Greenville made a passionate speech where he argued that the trade was "contrary to the principles of justice, humanity and sound policy" and criticised fellow members for "not having abolished the trade long ago". When the vote was taken the Abolition of the Slave Trade bill was passed in the House of Lords by 41 votes to 20. In the House of Commons it was carried by 114 to 15 and it become law on 25th March, 1807.

British captains who were caught continuing the trade were fined £100 for every slave found on board. However, this law did not stop the British slave trade. If slave-ships were in danger of being captured by the British navy, captains often reduced the fines they had to pay by ordering the slaves to be thrown into the sea.

Some people involved in the anti-slave trade campaign such as Thomas Fowell Buxton, argued that the only way to end the suffering of the slaves was to make slavery illegal. Wilberforce disagreed, he believed that at this time slaves were not ready to be granted their freedom. He pointed out in a pamphlet that he wrote in 1807 that: "It would be wrong to emancipate (the slaves). To grant freedom to them immediately, would be to insure not only their masters' ruin, but their own. They must (first) be trained and educated for freedom."

In 1823 Thomas Fowell Buxton formed the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery. Buxton eventually persuaded Wilberforce to join his campaign but as he had retired from the House of Commons in 1825, he did not play an important part in persuading Parliament to bring an end to slavery.

In 2010 the historian Stephen Tomkins discovered documents that suggested Wilberforce allowed the abolitionist colony of Sierra Leone, which the Clapham Set managed, to use slave labour and buy and sell slaves. "After abolition, the British navy patrolled the Atlantic seizing slave ships. The crew were arrested, but what to do with the African captives? With the knowledge and consent of Wilberforce and friends, they were taken to Sierra Leone and put to slave labour in Freetown."

When the Governor of Sierra Leone, Thomas Perronet Thompson, complained that "these apprenticeships have after 16 years successful struggle at last introduced actual slavery into the colony". According to Stephen Tomkins: "He (Perronet Thompson) single-handedly abolished apprenticeship and freed the slaves. He filed scandalised reports to the colonial office. Wilberforce told him he was being rash and hasty, and he and his colleagues voted unanimously for his dismissal. Wilberforce advised him to go quietly for the sake of his career."

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Some have had IMHO a deeper look into the human condition ,even at the time, than the abolitionists . I do think Wilberforce was a positive force albeit a small contribution to helping humanity.

FROM a letter in the Gaurdian RE your post

Cobbett thought that he was full of xxxx

If there was one issue that divided them however, it was Wilberforce’s abolitionist campaign. Wilberforce has his place in history as a leading light in the struggle to end the trade in slaves. Though Cobbett never supported this inhuman traffic, he refused to join the abolitionists who, virtually to a man, he labelled as hypocrites. Indeed, many of those that worked themselves into a frenzy on behalf of the African Negroes totally ignored the grinding wage slavery that existed in their own towns and shires. Many of them even grew rich from profits and dividends wrought from the pain and misery of their own nation’s children........

This was Cobbett’s point. How could those such as Wilberforce break their hearts at the plight of the black American, yet ignore the pain racked faces and crippled bodies of children worked fourteen hours a day at machines that today could safely be described as lethal weapons?



The attitude of the various sections of the country toward chattel slavery has always been determined directly by the dominant economic interests of the section in question. Massachusetts abolished slavery at an early date, and we have it on the authority of John Adams that : -

Argument might have had some weight in the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts, but the real cause was the multiplication of laboring white people, who would not longer suffer the rich to employ these sable rivals so much to their injury.1

1 A work by a writer using the name of "Barbarossa," entitled "The Lost Principles of Sectional Equilibrium," published in 1860, has this statement (p. 39, note) : "In the Congress of 1776 John Adams observed that the number of persons were taken by this article (on taxation) as the index of the wealth of the state, and not as subjects of taxation. That as to this matter, it was of no consequence by what name you called your people, whether by that of freemen or of slaves. That in some countries the laboring poor were called freemen ; in others they were called slaves : but that the difference was imaginary only. What matters it whether a landlord employing ten laborers on his farm gives them annually as much as will buy the necessaries of life, or gives them those necessaries at first hand?" Williams, "History of the Negro Race in America," p. 209, quotes from a report of a committee appointed by the Massachusetts Council in 1706, stating that negro slavery should be abolished because "white servants" were cheaper and more profitable to the colony. CHAPTER 19

Algie Martin Simons

Social Forces in American History

New York: Macmillan Co., 1911

New York: the International Publishers, 1926

Lawrence, KS: Carrrie Books, 2003

************also adding to point *****************

"In former times the marauding minority of mankind, by means of physical violence, compelled the working majority to render feudal services, or reduced them to a state of slavery or serfdom, or at least made them pay a tribute. Nowadays the dependence of the working classes is secured in a less direct but equally efficacious manner, viz. by means of the superior power of capital; the labourer being forced, in order to get his subsistence, to place his labour power entirely at the disposal of the capitalist. So there is a semblance of liberty; but in reality the labourer is exploited and subjected, because, all the land having been appropriated, he cannot procure his subsistence directly from nature, and, goods being produced for the market and not for the producer's own use, he cannot subsist without capital. Wages will rise above what is wanted for the necessaries of life, where the labourer is able to earn his subsistence on free land, which has not yet become private property. But wherever, in an old and totally occupied country, a body of labouring poor is employed in manufactures, the same law, which we see at work in the struggle for life throughout the organized world, will keep wages at the absolute minimum"

F. A. Lange, Die Arbeiterfrage. Ihre Bedeutung fur Gegenwart und Zukunft. Vierte Auflage. 1861, pp. 12, 13. Quoted by H. J. Nieboer, Slavery: As an Industrial System (Ethnological Researches), 2d edition, 1909, p. 421.

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