By Nigel Willmott (THE GUARDIAN,24/02/07):
William Wilberforce probably had more influence than anyone else in this place on the course of human history, Melvyn Bragg intoned reverentially from Westminster Abbey in a special radio broadcast this week marking 200 years since the abolition of the slave trade. It’s a dubious claim, given that the mortal remains of Newton and Darwin are slowly evolving into dust nearby, but it may have some literal truth. Those who might challenge Wilberforce’s claim to be The Man Who Abolished Slavery are not, and could not, be buried in the abbey, given that a large number were nonconformists, particularly Quakers. Of course Wilberforce, as the spokesman of the anti-slavery movement in parliament and promoter of several bills to outlaw it, played a key role, but to indulge in this canonisation of one man is a travesty of history.
It not only ignores the role of black people themselves in the colonies, who made slavery increasingly untenable through resistance and rebellions – and, in the case of Haiti, outright revolution under Toussaint L’Ouverture – but also those black leaders such as Olaudah Equiano, who campaigned in Britain for abolition. And why Wilberforce, a member of the Anglican-Tory establishment then enriching itself on slavery, rather than those who created the movement a generation before he even entered politics? Men such as Granville Sharp, who fought legal battles to ensure the freedom of runaway slaves, or the Rev Thomas Clarkson, the founder in 1787 of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. They were supported by a nationwide movement, including great figures of the industrial revolution: men such as Wedgwood – who raised funds with medallions declaring “Am I not a man and a brother?” – Joseph Priestley, Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) and other members of the Lunar Society, committed abolitionists all. And if you want Anglican and establishment figures, what about Lord Mansfield, who as chief justice handed down the judgment – interpreted as “Britons never shall be slaves” – that the runaway slave James Somerset could not be returned to his “owner” on British soil. Of course it was much more equivocal than that, but that didn’t stop this case becoming a rallying call for freedom. (Is it coincidence that Mansfield had a much-loved adopted black daughter, Dido, immortalised in a painting by Zoffany?)
But perhaps the biggest victim of this hagiography is the anti-slavery movement itself: one of the greatest popular political movements in British history, and in many ways the prototype of every reform movement since – from the campaigns over suffrage and factory hours, to anti-apartheid and the fight for racial equality and gay rights – with its combination of legal challenges, parliamentary lobbying and popular agitation. It is understandable why the Victorians would want to enthrone Wilberforce, to claim the moral high ground, as they sought to justify Britain’s growing imperialism. But why are we repeating this nursery-book history in 2007?
Slavery itself was abolished in Britain in 1833. The half-century of struggle is in reality a complex history full of ambiguity (Mansfield later ruled on a point of law in favour of a ship’s captain who threw slaves overboard); altruism mixed with self-interest (yes, slavery was an inferior competitor to the new factories, as abolitionist Adam Smith realised); and defeats and false dawns, elating and exhausting campaigners by turn.
All this is being increasingly documented in books such as Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains and Michael Jordan’s The Great Abolition Sham, as well as in others with a wider remit – Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings usefully shows that it’s not only the British establishment that likes to rewrite history; the flight of tens of thousands of slaves to enrol in the British forces to fight slave owners such as Washington and Jefferson is a rarely told story of the American revolution.
So let’s give Wilberforce his due. Perhaps, as Bragg has argued in his Twelve Books That Changed the World, Wilberforce’s 1789 arguments in parliament should be seen as a key historical text. But remember that the 1807 act was passed not because Wilberforce finally, after 25 years of trying, convinced the Anglican-Tory establishment that the trade was wrong, but because a brief non-Tory government provided the parliamentary arithmetic. The successful abolition bill was promoted by Sir Samuel Romilly – not Wilberforce.
The Tories returned for the next 25 years and only with their defeat in 1830 did the abolition of slavery itself come about, following the Great Reform Act of 1832. Both acts were the result of huge popular movements and political engagement, not of individual Great Men. Let’s celebrate the many, not the few.