Wilberforce opposed to slave trade not slavery

'Petition for Abolishing Slavery', 1826. The image shows a shackled slave pleading with his master, whilst two children hold up the petition to abolish the slave trade. From The Black Man's Lament, or, how to make sugar, by Amelia Alderson Opie. (London, 1826). (Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)

THROUGHOUT the 18th Century and into the 19th Century, the TransAtlantic Slave Trade contributed immensely to the riches of Europe and the Americas while Africa remained poor. 

The same period recorded growth of slaves from West Africa to the West Indies and into the America. 

A number of scholars highlight that plantation owners, merchants and slave traders became the richest and their riches benefitted even generations after them.

The living and working conditions of the African man and woman dragged from the land of his or her forefathers to work as a mule on plantations were deplorable.

The history of the TransAtlantic Slave Trade shows records of  brave men and women who fought for the emancipation of fellow slaves. 

Others from the whiteman’s side also suddenly had a conscience!

One of them is the ‘famous’ William Wilberforce, said to have contributed immensely to the abolition of the slave trade. 

Wilberforce was a friend and life-long supporter of William Pitt the Younger, a former British Prime Minister and war leader. 

Like his friend and leader, Wilberforce moved towards a more conservative position following the French Revolution and Britain’s involvement in the French revolutionary wars and Napoleonic Wars. 

His anti-slave trade ideas arose, not out of a background of secular liberalism but, out of his religious beliefs. 

It must be noted that Wilberforce was opposed to slave trade and not slavery.

Wilberforce’s contribution follows his role in the English House of Commons to abolish the slave trade with a belief  that abolishment of slavery worldwide would naturally follow.

It is important to note that resistance to end the trade was strong due to the huge profits it was contributing to the slave and plantation owners.

England’s strong involvement in the trade meant that it was more difficult to pass a legislation against it. 

In his book, Wilberforce’s Speeches on the Abolition of Slave Trade, Hazel Teabeau points out that England accounted for over half of the trade. 

Historian, Professor David Richardson, on the other hand, calculated that British ships carried 3,4 million or more enslaved Africans to the Americas. 

According to shipping records, from 1731 to 1807, 1 613 800 slaves were exported from Africa by English ships. 

The trade, therefore, was extremely profitable to Liverpool, England, where it brought in £17 million annually. 

To date, Liverpool is what it is because of slavery. 

Wilberforce’s task thus was a difficult one and it needed dedication and bravery.

Below is what Wilberforce said in Parliament:  

“When I consider the magnitude of the subject which I am to bring before the House – a subject, in which the interests, not of this country, nor of Europe alone, but of the whole world, and of posterity, are involved: and I think, at the same time, on the weakness of the advocate who has undertaken this great cause – when these reflections press upon my mind, it is impossible for me not to feel both terrified and concerned at my own inadequacy to such task. 

But when I reflect, however, on the encouragement which I have had, through the whole course of a long and labourious examination of this question, and how much candour I have experienced in my labours: when I reflect, especially, that however averse any gentleman may now be, yet we shall all be one opinion in the end, when I turn myself to these thoughts, I take courage – I determine to forget all other fears and I march forward with a firmer step I  the full assurance that my cause will bear me out and that I shall be able to justify upon the clearest principles, every resolution hand, the avowed end of which is, the total abolition of the slave trade.”

Prior to his speech in Parliament, Wilberforce was approached by anti-slavery advocate Thomas Clarkson, who organised meetings with other anti-slavery proponents for a way forward on the abolition of the slave trade. 

Clarkson organised propaganda campaigns throughout the country, while Wilberforce represented the group’s interests in the House of Commons.

To push forward his agenda, Wilberforce created two formal organisations in 1787; the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and the Society for the Reformation of Manners.

His speech in Parliament was key towards the abolishment of the slave trade because it addressed fundamental issues that showed that slavery violated human rights, some which were already advocated in France. 

One of the rights included: “All men were born equal.”

Wilberforce further noted that:  

“The slaves who are sometimes described as rejoicing at their captivity, are so wrung with misery at leaving their country, that it is constant practice to set sail at night, lest they should be sensible of their departure. 

The truth is, that for the sake of exercise, these miserable wretches, loaded with chains oppressed with disease and wretchedness, are forced to dance by the terror of the lash and sometimes by the actual use of it.” 

In the House of Commons, Wilberforce was an eloquent and sponsor of anti-slave trade legislation. 

His persistence saw him and other slave trade opponents making more enemies, but the most important thing is he stood up against his kith-and-kin to talk about the atrocities they were perpetrating against fellow humans. 

His closing remarks in the speech show that he was determined to see the trade abolished. 

Said Wilberforce: “A trade founded in iniquity, and carried on and this was, must be abolished, let the policy what it might, let the consequences be what they would, I from this time determined that I would not rest till I have affected this abolition.”

History of the TransAtlantic Slave Trade tells us that Wilberforce, to some extent, contributed to the abolishment of the slave trade and this influenced other countries to follow suit. 

Although he and his fellow advocates faced fierce challenges, the Slave Trade Act was passed in 1807 and it represented the culmination of Wilberforce’s active participation in the abolishment of slave trade.


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