Truth 2007: Exploring the Wilberforce myths
Sun 4 March 2007
Ms Serwah, FRSA, a Ghanaian-born barrister, social activist and co-founder of BTWSC (Beyond The Will Smith Challenge) shares her thoughts on the portrayal of William Wilberforce as an anti-slavery pioneer.
The Amazing Grace film is said to be based on “the life of anti-slavery pioneer William Wilberforce”. First of all, let us not confuse the campaign for the abolition of the 'slave trade', with the anti-slavery campaign. One campaign was to end the forced transportation of human beings, and the other campaign was to abolish the existing institution of slavery. Secondly, let's understand who a pioneer is. Longmans' English Larousse describes a pioneer as “a person who plays a leading part in the early development of something”.
By way of background, in 17 June 1783, before William Wilberforce became involved in the anti-'slave trade' campaign, the Society of Friends (Quakers) presented an anti-slavery petition to parliament through Sir Cecil Wray (Member of Parliament for Retford). According to historical accounts, the British campaign to end the 'slave trade' was begun by Quakers, who saw the 'trade' as a violation of their fundamental belief in the equality of all. In 1787 the Quakers helped form the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The twelve founding members included nine Quakers, and Anglicans Granville Sharp, and Thomas Clarkson, who was known as the architect of the campaign and founding father of the anti-slavery movement in Britain.
In the same year, Ottobah Cugoano, a formerly enslaved African living in England published the ‘Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Commerce of the Human Species', which stirred public opinion against the enslavement of Africans.
It must be noted that in 1787 Britain only members of the Church of England (Anglicans) could take up seats in parliament. Some accounts credit Sir Charles and his wife Lady Middleton with persuading Wilberforce (originally an Anglican) to lead the parliamentary campaign against the 'slave trade' in 1787. Other accounts credit Thomas Clarkson. What is not in issue is that William Wilberforce was persuaded to join the campaign. Two years later, on 12th May, 1789, Wilberforce made his first speech against the 'slave trade' in Parliament.
Was Wilberforce an anti-slavery pioneer? Various historical accounts have conveniently overlooked the uncomfortable fact that Wilberforce was initially against the immediate abolition of slavery. He came round to campaigning against slavery in later years. Whilst the anti-'slave trade' campaign and the likes of Thomas Fowell Buxton argued that the only way to end the suffering of enslaved Africans was to abolish slavery, Wilberforce disagreed. He pointed out in a pamphlet he wrote in 1807 that: "It would be wrong to emancipate (the enslaved Africans). 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…”
Wilberforce against immediate abolition
In 1824 Elizabeth Heyrick, a key figure in the formation of the Female Anti-Slavery Societies, published a pamphlet entitled ‘Immediate not Gradual Abolition' in which she argued for the immediate emancipation of the enslaved in the British colonies. She is reported to have come into conflict with William Wilberforce, who instructed leaders of the anti-slavery movement not to speak at women's anti-slavery societies.
Wilberforce was eventually persuaded to join the anti-slavery campaign, but as he retired from the House of Commons in 1825, he did not play a pivotal role in the passing of the Abolition Of Slavery Act in 1833.
One of the terrible consequences of the refusal to abolish slavery, but rather to abolish the 'slave trade', was the number of Africans who were thrown overboard between 1807 when the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act abolished the 'slave trade' in the British Empire and made it illegal to carry enslaved Africans in British ships, and 1833 when slavery was abolished. This was because with the passing of The Slave Trade Act, British captains risked a fine of £100 for every African held on board their ships. When they were in danger of being captured by the British navy, captains often ordered the captive Africans to be thrown into the sea. This situation would have been avoided if slavery had been abolished at the same time as the abolition of the 'slave trade'.
Sadly, the numerous Africans who spearheaded the end of slavery through various means, including uprisings and anti-slavery revolts are hardly mentioned in Euro-centric accounts of the abolition of slavery. These Africans sacrificed their lives to end this system of slavery that dominated the Maafa before Wilberforce became convinced of the need to do so.
In Britain, Africans such as Olaudah Equiano, and Ottobah Cugoano, campaigned tirelessly against slavery. Wilberforce certainly played a role in the abolition of the 'slave trade', but it seems a betrayal to Africans to dismiss their contribution, and highlight William Wilberforce as an anti-slavery pioneer.
Conservative estimates are that 20 million Africans died as a result of slavery, more than three times the number of people who died through the Jewish Holocaust. As we reflect on 200 years since the abolition of the 'slave trade', let us ensure that the truth, no matter how uncomfortable, is told. We should also reflect on why it took Christians and the British public so long to express outrage about the dehumanisation, kidnapping, and inhuman enslavement of Africans.
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