William Wilberforce is presented as “the man who freed the slaves”. Often this is done in an incredibly patronising way that removes or diminishes the role of the British mass movement and, above all, the struggles of slaves themselves.
Former Tory leader William Hague has written a biography of Wilberforce to celebrate his “Christian Conservatism”. Some of the most odious figures of the US right see Wilberforce as an example to be followed.
Tony Blair will venerate Wilberforce, but he won’t mention men like the great black British hero William Davidson. Jamaican-born Davidson, an opponent of the slave trade, was one of five men publicly executed in 1820 for the Cato Street Conspiracy.
This was a failed plot to kill the entire cabinet as a revenge for the Peterloo Massacre of radical protesters in Manchester the previous year.
But it would be wrong to say that Wilberforce was simply a reactionary who was more of an obstacle than a help to ending the slave trade.
His vision of the world had no place for slavery, and he was prepared to battle endlessly to abolish it.
He was a contradictory character – conservative in many of his attitudes, horrified by slave revolts and the more radical elements of the French Revolution. He was an architect of the laws passed to restrict civil liberties and trade unions at the start of the 19th century.
He also took up unpopular causes. He worked to restrict the use of the death penalty at a time when hundreds of crimes were punishable by hanging, tried to improve conditions in prisons and pressed for laws to end child labour.
He founded both the Society for the Suppression of Vice and Encouragement of Religion to undermine support for revolutionary ideas, and the Society for the Relief of the Manufacturing Poor to bring reforms for workers.
He dedicated his life to ending slavery, yet believed that after slavery ended the slaves (and the rest of the poor) should know their place.
In 1816 he chaired a dinner for the African and Asiatic Society where the Africans and Asians present were screened off from the rest of the diners!
Wilberforce was no revolutionary, but was committed to halting the slave trade. He played a genuinely important and courageous role which, whatever his intentions, frequently brought him into sharp confrontation with the people at the top of society.
He was often attacked verbally, and threatened with physical assault. He could not enter the city of Liverpool openly for fear of his life.
His campaigning drive, and the ability to mobilise a massive coalition to bring change, gave a stimulus to other battles – such as that for the vote.
He was celebrated by radical forces across the globe. He was elected, like the radical Thomas Paine, as a citizen of France by the country’s revolutionary convention.
That is why he is part of a rounded picture of how the slave trade ended.
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