Called Saint Wilberforce, even King Wilberforce by slaves in the West Indies, the man often credited with leading the British movement for the abolition of slavery is portrayed here as deeply conservative: he was against giving more British people the vote, expected women to be submissive, and argued against a cruel slave trade rather than for “too rapid” an emancipation, even at one point voting against the liberation of children born to slaves. He was mainly useful to the abolitionist cause as an MP, close friend to the Prime Minister William Pitt, and a compelling speaker.
This highly readable yet deeply researched “narrative history” focuses on the lesser known characters who in fact played a more fundamental part in the long battle to end the inhumane trade on which many people in the late C18 believed the British economy depended. Author Adam Hochsfield apparently set out with the aim of writing about John Newton who evolved from the callous captain of a slave ship to an Anglican clergyman, rueful abolitionist and writer of “Amazing Grace”. Through his research, the author came to realise that the real force behind the movement was Thomas Clarkson whose prize-winning essay in Latin on the slave trade brought him to the Damascene conversion “that if the contents of the Essay were true it was time that some person should see these calamities to their end”. This led him to travel thousands of miles on horseback to seek out and gain testimonies from those who had witnessed the horrors of the slave trade, and in many cases perpetrated or suffered them directly.
I was surprised by the amount and intensity of interest in slavery amongst workers in the industrial cities like Birmingham, prepared to attend meetings and sign petitions against slavery. Even children brought up in liberal households often gave up eating sugar. It was a different matter in the ports grown rich on the trade: on a tour to promote his autobiography, the remarkable Equiano, the former slave kidnapped from Nigeria who had bought his freedom and became a respected campaigner, asked the influential Josiah Wedgwood to come to his aid if he was seized by a press gang in the slave ship port of Bristol. White Britons were also at risk of being kidnapped and forced to join the Navy, and sailors on slave ships suffered brutal discipline and physical hardship, factors which further fed opposition to the slave trade.
Despite the mountain of evidence collected, including the infamous diagram of the slave ship in which slaves were packed with no room to move, which so shocked even the Tsar of Russia, apparently seeing no parallel between the plight of slaves and his own serfs, it proved impossible to end slavery in British territories until the reform of Parliament in 1832 created enough broadminded MPs to outweigh those whose family wealth depended on the income from plantations.
The case for change was also strengthened by the “crisis in the sugar colonies” caused by the increase in violent rebellions by the slaves in West Indian plantations, which meant they could no longer be relied upon as a source of wealth: St Domingue, now Haiti, “the jewel of the European colonies”, with its rich soil at one time producing a third of the world’s sugar and more than half its coffee, set the trend with its ultimately successful struggle for its independence from France.
Although freedom was clearly a necessity on moral and humane grounds, too often former slaves found themselves no better off in material terms. Those who fought for the British in the American War of Independence in exchange for freedom, had to take such drastic measures as escaping to a grim life in Nova Scotia to escape recapture by slave masters when the fighting was over. Others found that the Utopia of a free state in Sierra Leone was a myth, with the settlement of “Freetown” within sight of Bance Island, the notorious slave trading post for those captured inland and brought to the coast for transport to the West Indies and America.
Although apparently belittled by some academics for being too anecdotal, my sole criticism is that it does not explain with sufficient clarity the crucial 1807 Slave Trade Act which brought the slave trade to an end. Otherwise, this impressive book brings the key players alive, sets the fight for abolition in the context of the times, and encourages reflection on the issues raised.
Of the great campaigners, only Clarkson lived to see the “real victory” in 1838, when some 800,000 slaves in the British Empire became officially free, having first served for a further six years as “apprentices” for their former masters, who were also compensated with £20 million in government bonds, under a scheme including a Church of England plantation. Obliged to pay for rent and food, ex-slaves often remained impoverished but they were free, one of the first steps in changing the status quo and achieving greater social justice.