The campaign to abolish the slave trade

Stabroek News
January 7, 2007

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The year 2007 marks the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade by an act of the British Parliament. The law came into effect throughout the British dominions on March 25, 1807, except - as we explained in our edition of August 6 last year - in what were known as the ceded territories of Berbice, Essequibo & Demerara, Tobago and St Lucia. In these colonies which were not under the jurisdiction of Parliament but came under the direct control of the Crown, abolition had already been effected through an order-in-council issued on August 15, 1805, in Weymouth, England.

Where this country was concerned, the order banned the direct importation of Africans from Africa itself after January 1, 1807, and restricted importation in the meantime. The restrictions went into operation on December 1, 1805 and set an 1806 importation ceiling of 800 Africans for Berbice and 2000 for Essequibo & Demerara; these were intended as replacement labour to be employed only on land already under cultivation. The proclamations issued on November 30, 1805, in both Guyana colonies did allow importations for replacement purposes from other British West Indian territories (but not Africa itself) after January 1, 1807, and the act of parliament too allowed trafficking between the anglophone islands after that date.

As we related last year, in the view of some older historical sources the abolition of the trade from Africa came early to these shores because the planters in the established sugar colonies were afraid that this country with its virgin soils could outproduce them and would therefore prove a threat in Britain's protected sugar market. While the planter lobbies in the House of Lords in particular, were doing their best to stymie moves for general abolition, therefore, they were not averse to stopping the trade in the ceded territories with a view to blunting their competitive edge.

The larger story of abolition has generated a whole library of scholarly works, although the parameters of the modern debate on the subject were set first by Eric Williams in 1944 with Capitalism and Slavery.

Since then, a great deal has been written on the causal factors impelling abolition, although there is no absolute agreement among historians on how to calibrate the weight given to any given one of them as against another.

The movement for the abolition of the trade in the United Kingdom evolved against a background of various acts of resistance on the part of Africans in the slave-holding colonies; the changed climate of intellectual opinion which the Enlightenment had created in Europe; the appearance of the evangelical movement and its concerns with moral issues of various kinds; and the beginning of a shift in the primary economic interests of the British nation.

While anti-slavery activists like the Quakers, Olaudah Equiano, Ignatius Sancho and Granville Sharp had already been working on the abolition issue at an earlier stage, technically speaking the official campaign against the trade began with the formation of the Committee (later Society) for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787. Nine of the men on this twelve-man committee were Quakers, and the member who undertook the research to be used as ammunition in the campaign was Thomas Clarkson. He visited the slave ports, went on board the slavers and interviewed a large number of the sailors who worked on them. His most famous propaganda item which appears in children's text books even to this day, was the drawing of the slave ship Brookes, which was prepared for him by Captain Parrey of the Royal Navy.

The man whose name has become inextricably associated with the anti-slave trade movement is that of William Wilberforce, although he was not actually involved in it at the outset. He was recruited to lead the parliamentary campaign partly on account of his exceptional oratorical skills, but also because he was a personal friend of the then Prime Minister William Pitt, a relationship which it was felt would advance the cause in political circles. It was a choice some of the members later came to regret, George Stephen, for example, accusing Wilberforce of having "too much deferential regard for rank and power." Even less charitable critics said it was so important to him to be well thought of, that it interfered with his judgement. Stephen also had little respect for Wilberforce's capacity for industry, describing him as a man of "busy indolence," while the essayist Hazlitt called him "as fine a specimen of moral equivocation as can well be conceived."

As the campaign wore on, Wilberforce's weaknesses became more evident, particularly after 1807, when he appeared to be ambivalent at best about moving on the matter of the abolition of slavery itself. It might be asked, therefore, on what his overweening reputation has been founded.

The answer appears to be that his sons were largely responsible for creating the embellished Wilberforce image by exaggerating his role in the movement and diminishing that of everyone else when they wrote his biography. Thereafter, many decades of hagiography embedded Wilberforce as the prime player in the abolition process.

Thomas Clarkson, it was thought, was the one who lost out most as a consequence of the biography. He was later to write that the Abolition Committeee would have been founded and would have operated in the same way even if Wilberforce had never been there at all. The only difference would have been, he said, that someone else would have led the campaign in Parliament.

It was Eric Williams who called the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade "one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time." The abolitionists certainly constitute the first mass pressure group of the modern era, their activities being facilitated by the fact that Britain was entering the industrial age and in addition to London, there were now relatively large centres of population dotted around the country whose inhabitants could be easily mobilized. There was also the means for mass-producing and disseminating propaganda, and with some improvements in transportation, speakers could also travel up and down Britain without too much difficulty addressing audiences.

As it was, signature campaigns were organized; endless numbers of sheets, tracts, reports and speeches were churned out; one of the most famous logos in history designed (for a time it became high fashion, being sported on earrings, bracelets and snuff-boxes); poems were written; and ballads composed. Various writers have adverted to the fact that the campaign gave a voice to those in the society not normally heard, even if it was just at the level of attending a meeting or appending a signature to a petition. There certainly was no precedent for it in Britain, and the methods of the abolitionists set the pattern for all future public campaigns of a political nature. A leading speaker for the campaign was the Ibo from what would now be Nigeria, Olaudah Equiano.

He had been seized as a child, transported and had later bought his freedom, and is one of the very few who endured the Middle Passage to leave a written account of his experience. Even before the formation of the committee, he had alerted Granville Sharp in 1781 to the case of the captain of the Zong, who had had sick Africans thrown overboard.

Another of the British-based Africans who was active in the early movement was Ottabah Cugoano from what would now be Ghana, who published a book in 1787 denouncing the trade.

The importance of women to the campaign has only been recognized in more recent times, although radicals like Stephen did give them their due. Wilberforce was opposed to women in the movement and attempted to prevent any mention of their efforts appearing in the abolitionist newspaper.

They had been excluded from the initial abolition society meetings and simply organized their own until they were admitted. More radical than many of their male counterparts - it was they, for example, who attempted to organize a boycott of slave-grown produce - their numbers included not just members of the middle class but also of the working class. In the end, they could not be ignored by the men, because in 1787-88 their subscriptions to the society accounted for 10% of the total. In response to the logo designed by Josiah Wedgewood for the society - 'Am I not a Man and a Brother?' - they commissioned one which read, 'Am I not a Woman and a Sister?' After various failed attempts to get an abolition bill through Parliament, the society came near to success in 1805 when one was passed by the House of Commons but thrown out by the House of Lords.

The following year the administration changed, and the new Prime Minister Lord Grenville and his Foreign Secretary Charles Fox were strong opponents of the trade. With Grenville in the House of Lords promoting it, the bill passed there in 1807 by a majority of 41 to 20, after having passed the Commons by 114 to 5. Under the act, which as said above became law on March 25, British captains who were caught participating in the trade were to be fined £100 for every 'slave' found on board.