The Campaign to Abolish Slavery Part Four: Victory and the Continuing Struggle Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Campaign to Abolish Slavery Part Four: Victory and the Continuing Struggle

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Part One: Am I Not A Man And A Brother? | Part Two: The Abolitionists | Part Three: Setbacks and Stagnation | Part Four: Victory and the Continuing Struggle
Actor Martin Turner as William Wilberforce.


In 1806, the abolitionist Prime Minister William Pitt died, marking perhaps the nadir of the anti-slavery campaign. Stephen had returned from Jamaica, depriving the abolitionists of a key source of information.

The abolition campaign had seemed almost dead for nearly two decades. Yet all the key points that would lead to victory were now in place. The war with France, that had for so long served the pro-slavery lobby, would soon be used as an argument for abolition.

The newly-returned Stephen approached Wilberforce, suggesting a more subtle approach. A law was put forward, riding on the tide of anti-French feeling, that no British ship should trade with any French colony. The law was passed comfortably, since the majority of the pro-slavery lobby were unaware that the bulk of the British slave trade was with French colonies. Further, since these ships carried the neutral American flag, they had no protection from being boarded and seized by the British navy; if they wished to carry the British flag, they could no longer leave British ports or dock at French ones.

At the same time, the end of the revolt in Haiti caused a dramatic fall in the prices of sugar and slaves, cutting the funds available to the pro-slavery lobby. Since France was now reintroducing slavery into its Empire, the abolitionists were also able to re-position themselves as anti-French, playing into widespread parliamentary support. Finally, the death of Pitt had caused Grenville to become Prime Minister of the 'Ministry of All the Talents'. As committed as Pitt to the abolitionist cause, Grenville was also unhampered by the political tightrope Pitt had had to walk to keep his government together.

The abolitionists sensed their chance, and began to reactivate the network they had built up twenty years previously. Clarkson again rode the country seeking testimony from witnesses; new petitions began to arrive at Parliament, and the sugar boycott resurged.

On 25 March, 1807, a bill proposing the abolition of the slave trade was introduced into the upper House of Lords, the traditional pro-slavery stronghold. It passed by 100 votes to 34. The abolitionists carefully counted their supporters in the Commons and determined that they had a narrow majority, but with the majority of MPs still undecided or wavering. Debate among the 658 MPs lasted all night, but when the vote was finally taken in the early hours of the morning, the motion was passed by 283 votes to 16.

As the bill was passed, Wilberforce received a standing ovation from other members of the House.


The unexpectedly crushing scale of the pro-slavery lobby's defeat hastened the demise of the slave trade. From May 1st 1807, it was illegal for slave ships to leave Britain; the USA banned them shortly afterwards, and the Royal Navy began to patrol the Atlantic looking for slavers. Captains who captured a ship were allowed to sell it, which undoubtedly added to the thoroughness with which they sought them.

John Newton died just days after the slave trade was abolished.

Not a single slave was freed as a result of this act; it would take the end of the war with France, rebellions in Barbados and Jamaica, and several decades of work by the London Society for Mitigating & Gradually Abolishing the State of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions for that to happen.

Wilberforce returned to his conservative roots, campaigning against the Lottery, the freeing of the children of slaves and immediate (as opposed to gradual) abolition of slavery itself. In later life, he declared his greatest campaign to have been the introduction of missionaries to India. The campaign to abolish slavery itself began in earnest in 1823 but, ironically, achieved little until its great opponent the Duke of Clarence became King. A new generation of leaders such as Elizabeth Heyrick and George Stephen found themselves increasingly at odds with Wilberforce, who favoured caution over speed.

The battleground became the reform of Parliament. Public support for abolition was obvious, but Parliament did not reflect public opinion. A series of reforms that would have made British government more democratic passed the Commons in 1831, but were stymied in the Lords. A second bill, in 1832, succeeded, and when the newly elected Parliament sat for the first time in 1833, the abolition of slavery was high on its agenda. Wilberforce died in 1833, mere days before the bill to abolish slavery cleared the upper House of Parliament and was signed into law.

As with the slave trade, Britain was not quite the first country to abolish slavery; the Netherlands had already done so in 1818. Over £20,000,000 was paid to British slave owners in compensation; the slaves themselves received nothing. They remained 'indentured apprentices' - slaves in all but name - for five further years. On 1st August 1838, the 800,000 slaves remaining in the British Empire were freed.

Over the next 50 years, Brazil, Cuba, Russia the USA and most other world powers would also abolish slavery. Clarkson died in 1846, the last of the early campaigners and the only one to see the end of slavery in Britain.

Rewriting History

Almost as soon as the slave trade was abolished, its story began to be sanitised and mythologised for public consumption. Two of Wilberforce's sons wrote a massive and highly influential biography of him that glossed over some of his less well-remembered campaigns. They also wrote Clarkson out of history almost entirely.

Abolition became remembered as an Evangelical campaign, ignoring both the Quakers and those Evangelicals, such as George Whitefield, who had been firm supporters of slavery. The role of the Church of England, including its Evangelical wing, as the largest and one of the most brutal slave-owners in the Caribbean was forgotten, as was the support of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (later the Missionary Society) for slavers who took priests with them into Africa. More importantly, it became an act of white Christian compassion to Africans unable to defend themselves, and the central role of the slave uprisings on St Domingue, Jamaica and Barbados was downplayed.

John Newton's life was rewritten more than any other abolitionist's. Many came to believe that he must have written Amazing Grace after becoming an abolitionist, and that his conversion to Evangelicalism must have led to his leaving the slave trade (in fact it preceded him becoming a captain). It has even been claimed that upon his conversion he turned his ship around and freed his cargo!

Modern Britons rightly take pride in their country's history as the prime mover behind the abolition of slavery worldwide. They would do well to remember the other sides of the story though, both the role Britain played in the slave trade for 300 years and the role played by black former slaves in abolishing slavery.

Finally, it should be remembered that slavery still exists in many forms worldwide, from cocoa growers in West Africa to sex workers in Britain, and the work of anti-slavery organisations continues.

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