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“William Wilberforce was primarily responsible for the abolition of the Slave Trade in the British Empire” To what extent do you agree with this statement?
William Wilberforce has been accredited almost solely for the abolition of the Slave Trade throughout history, as is suggested in the statement. This view is supported by common misconceptions which the public have treated as facts, the views of some historians and predominantly, the media. The media has portrayed Wilberforce as a heroic and passionate figure, when in fact he only took up the cause when close friend, Prime Minister William Pitt, told him to make the abolition cause his own before ‘the ground may be occupied by another’1.
An example of this media includes the film ‘Amazing Grace’, within which it was even implied that Wilberforce was so passionate about the cause that the stress eventually killed him. In reality this actually occurred to Thomas Clarkson, and this idea of Wilberforce’s passion for abolition is merely a myth created by the media. In this case its intention was merely entertain and entice the audience into a sympathetic view of Wilberforce, which is prevalent in times gone by.
William Wilberforce was widely known as a highly prominent figure in the abolition movement, as the public face of the campaign and a popular figure throughout British politics. His ‘charm, personal kindness, reputation for integrity and deep conservatism on most issues gave him influence with his fellow MPs that few others in parliament had’1 and this was essentially his primary reason for involvement with the committee. He was needed to give the committee a place in parliament; this would then allow them to continue vigorously campaigning for abolition and be safe in the knowledge that they had a channel to push their proposals into a fully fledged law. Wilberforce was considered very abnormal for his interest in abolition, though he was much more regular in his views regarding other topics including the French Revolution, which disgusted him, as well as voting. This gave him more credibility with the upper class landowners which parliament consisted of, and thus made the campaign appear less radical and more realistic.
Although Wilberforce was the representative of the ‘Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ in parliament, most of the work occurred behind the scenes through the likes of Thomas Clarkson and James Stephen, who were further aided by the cultural changes occurring within Britain during this period. Both of these figures were undoubtedly important; Thomas Clarkson did virtually all of the ‘leg work’ by collecting evidence and petitions whilst James Stephen devised the initial 1807 Slave Trade Act. It was these actions behind the scenes that propelled Wilberforce into fame and fortune, the very thing that he aimed to achieve by taking the cause.
Though these figures were important there is no questioning the tremendous significance of the actions of the slaves themselves as they fought their unjust oppression, which was the primary reason for the abolition of the Slave Trade. Furthermore the changes in the attitudes of the British public aided their susceptibility to the proposals of Wilberforce, though ultimately the slave rebellions finally shattered the trade. This largely was achieved by increasing the costs through the necessity of the policing the plantations, which ended the trade’s profitability and economic value. Without Wilberforce’s supporting cast in the theatre of abolition, he would never have succeeded.
Although the ‘saintly’ Wilberforce was crucial to abolition, and was well-known and hard-working, he did have many flaws. Predominantly he was highly disorganised and a poor political tactician, and although he introduced the abolition bill every year for over a decade, he did so when MP’s were distracted by other issues or too late in the parliamentary season.
This usually resulted in failure as politicians were already deeply involved in other proposals which had already been discussed and proposed, with Wilberforce speaking to those who simply were not listening. This incompetence may have cost the cause 15 years, as Wilberforce got the bill passed in the commons in 1792, yet due to his lack of organisation and research, it was rejected by the Lords. When the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed Wilberforce was hailed as a hero, yet the passing of the Act was certainly not purely his achievement, as alone he would have had no evidence, knowledge or tactical expertise and therefore would never had been passed at all.
Furthermore Wilberforce became very concerned with spreading the message of Anglicanism, after his conversion consequently distracting him from his abolition goals and proving that in reality, his priorities lay elsewhere. Wilberforce created ‘The Society for Carrying into Effect His Majesty’s Proclamation against Vice and Immorality’, as well as leading other campaigns promoting social reform. This proved to be a distraction for Wilberforce and is a possible reason for his under-performance in the Commons when regarding the Slave Trade. His priorities undoubtedly lay in religion after his conversion in 1874/75 during his European tour.
Many people believe that without Wilberforce’s presence in parliament the bill to finally abolish the trade would never had been passed, when in reality it was his disorganisation and political dimwittedness that failed the cause on multiple occasions, and though he did eventually pass the Act, it was with the assistance of tacticians such as James Stephen. In summary, Wilberforce was a popular, influential politician with ‘the greatest natural eloquence in England’2, that provided the committee with a parliamentary representative, though he was also a largely incompetent one. Wilberforce was often far more concerned with the implementing of Anglican beliefs and conversions, than aiding the emancipation of slaves.
Thomas Clarkson is considered by many to be of at least equal importance in the fight for abolition as Wilberforce. Clarkson was a graduate of Cambridge University, and winner of a national Latin essay competition, which propelled him into the position as one of the most intelligent and well-known figures in the country. Although he had a career ahead of him which promised many riches, he decided to fight for those which he wrote his essay about, the slaves. Clarkson was certainly the most important of the individual campaigners and with his sheer determination, intelligence and morality; he propelled the committee towards victory. Clarkson was responsible for the formation of the committee itself, after arranging a meeting in London, 1787 with Wilberforce, a group of existing campaigners (largely Quakers) and Granville Sharp. The bringing together of the committee was one of the most important occurrences within the abolition movement in Britain, as without the sharing of attributes and resources within the group campaign would have remained scattered and unsuccessful.
It was through many of the combinations formed within the committee that aspects of the abolition movement began to ‘take-off’. For example one member owned a printing press, which combined with Thomas Clarkson’s writing skills allowed anti-slavery literature to become more widespread and thus increase a public awareness and demand for slavery’s end. Additionally the legal minds of Granville Sharp and James Stephen combined with Wilberforce’s parliamentary presence allowed for the devising and passing of the act itself. Without Clarkson, the utilisation of resources within the committee could never have occurred and events such as the passing of the Slave Trade Act may not have occurred.
Clarkson also travelled huge distances to gather evidence, travelling from London to Bristol and onwards to the Industrial North where he gained support in cities such as Manchester and Liverpool. Much of this support stemmed from the effects of the Industrial Revolution which caused the public to empathise with the slaves (Pg III, paragraph V). Clarkson capitalised on this and preached much about the conditions of the slaves, even carrying a box that contained examples of whips, chains and torture equipment to horrify listeners into signing petitions. The ‘slaves’ of the Northern factories backed abolition and Clarkson gathered 10,000 signatures to take to parliament. It was estimated that after 1787 he covered 35,000 miles by horseback3, an astounding achievement that was testament to his dedication. Crucially this allowed him to give the legal and political thinkers of the committee some strong evidence that proved the public’s support for abolition, thus exerting pressure to pass the Slave Trade Act.
Clarkson made a solid and significantly important contribution to the abolition movement though he, similarly to Wilberforce, cannot be considered the sole reason for abolition. Both Clarkson and Wilberforce were hugely interdependent; they could never have achieved emancipation of the slaves alone. Clarkson would never have been able to get his evidence or petitions into parliament were Wilberforce not in the committee, and thus slavery would have been unlikely to be questioned.
Furthermore he owed much to other members of the committee for the printing of his literature and financial support as well as the public for supporting the cause through signing petitions and buying his literature. This would have resulted in both, a reduced awareness of the abolition movement due to a reduction in available literature, as well as lessening of pressure upon parliament to act on the issue of slavery, caused by a lack of support and evidence. Alone, Clarkson would have been virtually unable to spread the message against the Trade, nor affect any views within parliament and thus would have been rendered useless.
This period was crammed with cultural adaptations and changes within Britain which affected the lives of the entire population. One aspect of these changes was the increasing levels of literacy, with over 50% of people being literate by 1800. This was crucial in allowing anti-slavery literature to spread through the working classes as well as the highly-educated upper classes and this consequently led to a significant increase in demand for abolition. Furthermore it was becoming easier to gain access to anti-slavery literature, with the number of bookshops, entering their thousands by 1800 while the number of libraries hit 100 by the same year. Consequently anti-slavery literature by the likes of Thomas Clarkson, John Newton and Equiano became very popular around the country and aided the revolution of thinking in regards to slavery.
The Industrial Revolution further added to the demand for abolition. In most industrial towns in the North such as Manchester, people were being forced to live in cramped, dirty and disease-ridden circumstances. The people were forced to work long hours in employment which offered little health and safety (to say the least) and were not even allowed to form any kind of trade unions (something which Wilberforce supported). This caused a feeling of enslavement and thus the population of these regions felt empathy for the African slaves, which consequently caused support for abolition to increase hugely.
An additional factor which affected abolition was that the majority of the working class population believed that they were ‘free’. The population were very proud of their democratic system, and even though only 5% of the people could vote, a large proportion believed that democracy had improved the country and gave them a say. The people’s belief in freedom caused an inevitable ‘dislike’ for slavery, and by excising their supposed rights by signing petitions, the public contributed towards the abolition movement.
Thomas Clarkson’s touring of the country collecting signatures capitalised upon this feeling, giving the movement evidence and momentum increasing the demand for abolition. In reality, only the richest and most privileged of the population had any say, and it was these people who had vested interests in the Slave Trade. Any progress would be difficult to make without the support of some of the higher classes and the wider public were helpless in this respect which is why respected members of the committee such as Clarkson and Wilberforce were needed, thus ensuring that the issue of freedom is not solely important. Essentially, the ideals of freedom increased pressure on parliament; other factors were required to destroy the trade.
Slave rebellions were a huge problem for the slave trading nations as they shook the Caribbean from 1791 when Toussaint L’Ouverture began the Haitian Revolution. He led the slave rebels through a dozen years of bloody battle with both the French and English armies, two of the world’s absolute superpowers. Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared independence from France on 1st January 1804, which essentially ended the slaving interests of France. The French pulling out of the slave trade destroyed the most prominent argument against abolition, that the French would take over the business and thus fuel any possible invasion of England. This essentially paved the way for the 1807 Slave Trade Act. The other prominent effect that the slave rebellions had upon the Slave Trade was that it’s hugely important driving factor was destroyed; its profitability.
During the period of war with France, the British had multiple slave rebellions to contend with across the Caribbean. In 1793 the British invaded the French colony of Saint-Domingue, looking to prevent rebellions from spreading, but after five years fighting, and after 12,000 deaths, decided to withdraw. The aim of preventing the rebellions from re-occurring failed miserably. In 1831 20,000 slaves took control of the North-West of Jamaica and set the plantations alight. Both the British army and militia had to fight for a month to regain control, costing 14 British lives and 540 slave lives. Overall ‘between 1793 and 1801 alone, 45,000 British died from wounds or disease putting down slave revolts in the West Indies’4, which brought huge costs, both in a humanitarian sense and most importantly, an economic one.
The rebellions meant that, essentially, the Slave Trade had to be policed. This required mass investment in the army which made the trade unviable and pointless as profits would only have to be re-invested in making further profits, which had to be re-invested in the army etc. This left the Slave Trade as merely a tumor on the economy, making relatively little difference to prosperity, especially when compared with the huge gains that had previously been made in coastal cities such as Bristol and Liverpool. As levels of employment generated by the trade began to dwindle, opposition to abolition reduced further and support from coastal regions finally began to grow.
Without the rebellions Wilberforce would have not had any economic ground to base his arguments on and the people of many coastal cities would have been strongly opposed to losing such a profitable business. The rebellions also enforced the preaching of Clarkson and aided the alteration of people’s views on the supposedly unorganised and stupid Africans.
Whilst many people imagined the African slaves to be uncivilised monkeys, who were unable to learn or abide to their Christian methodology, their organised rebellions proved their intelligence and proved their humanity, and thus made their slavery inhumane and in defiance of many religious beliefs, consequently making their enslavement immoral, furthering the cause for abolition. Additionally the rebellions forced the French out of the trade, which paved the way for abolition without any threatening consequences such as invasion, which made parliament much more open to the prospect.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that Wilberforce was far from primarily responsible for the abolition of the Slave Trade. He was merely a single piece of a much wider puzzle, which contained massive contributions from Thomas Clarkson, Cultural Changes, and Slave Rebellions. Wilberforce and Clarkson could never be singly attributed with the responsibility for abolition. They were all very interdependent and it was the sharing of their qualities that made the committee effective in raising awareness and support for abolition in Britain, yet primary responsibility could not be as confined as their campaign or attributes. Cultural changes within Britain also aided the anti-slavery cause, but once again it is not strong enough individually to be solely responsible. Without the campaigning of Clarkson and the Quakers these changes could never have been capitalised upon, and turned into support for the abolitionist cause and consequently they would have gone to waste.
There is no doubt which factor is neither interdependent, nor confined. Slave rebellions shook the British and French colonies alike, which caused serious loss of life and most importantly capital. The Slave Trade was initially based upon its high profitability potential and without such an incentive there would have been no trade in the first place.
It was the continuous determination of the slaves to fight for their freedom that created the need to police the trade, consequently resulting in an increase in expenditure and a decrease in profit. Without the slave rebellions it would have remained highly profitable, and with the support of the wealthy landowners within parliament it surely would never have been abolished. Undoubtedly it was for this reason that the Slave Trade was finally abolished, not for human rights, morality or justice, but due to the evaporation of the thing that was fuelling the greed; money.
2 Pg. 123 – Adam Hochschild – Bury The Chains