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Abolitionists and Emancipators

Wilberforce and his Colleagues - Spiritual Forces - 'Property' alarmed - The Asiento - Attitudes of: Burke, Pitt, Fox, Duke of Wellington, Joseph Sturge, John Gladstone - The Religious Bodies.
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'They conquer who believe they can.'

One hundred years ago the nobler elements in Britain were at last beginning to prevail against a monstrous evil - Slavery. For two hundred years the unholy practice of trading in our fellows had been extending its tentacles through every avenue of life, corrupting British men and women, choking the arteries of the social and even of the religious life of the nation. The story of the years of struggle during 1787 to 1833 under the leadership of Wilberforce, Buxton and their friends 'may probably,' as Lecky says, 'be regarded as among the three or four perfectly virtuous acts recorded in the history of nations."

It was not merely that these efforts brought to an end so gigantic a system of oppression and terminated barbarities of so atrocious a nature, but the movement had positive effects in British national life. As Professor Rex Coupland says, in his admirable life of Wilberforce, it founded in the conscience of the British people a tradition of humanity and of responsibility towards the weak and backward black peoples whose fate lay in their hands. And that tradition has never died.... It was nothing less, indeed, than a moral revolution; and those who see the world's life as a whole, as an intricate, shifting complex not only of states and nations but of continents and races, discordant, yet interdependent, heterogeneous, yet all belonging to one human family, will give a high place in history to the Englishman who did so much to bring about that revolution.

This struggle in due course gave birth to a movement in Great Britain which for more than a hundred years has dominated British Colonial policy; produced administrators like Cromer, Lugard, Macaulay, Hubert Murray, George Grey and General Gordon; given to religious missions stout-hearted champions for upright dealing with native races such as Livingstone, Smith, Knibb, Shrewsbury, Moffatt and Austin, and at home given rise to a race of men and women whose sacred fire has always leapt into flaming activity whenever any system has developed which has shown the slightest tendency to reviving a commerce in human beings.

The spiritual and mental atmosphere of the period was almost overwhelmingly unfavourable to these stout-hearted Abolitionists. When the apparently insuperable obstacles which stood in their way are considered - the spiritual atrophy of the Churches, the callousness to human suffering in general, the public indifference to slavery, and the immensely powerful vested interests which supported slavery - it becomes a moot question whether in 2,000 years the spirit of Christianity which at all times governed the actions of the Abolitionists has ever accomplished anything greater. Although it was Christianity which ultimately won the victory, it was only after a crusade lasting nearly fifty years. That victory lies to the eternal credit of Clarkson, Sharp, Wilberforce, Buxton, Sturge, Lushington and their colleagues.

How tremendous the odds against the Abolitionists, how deep-seated the evil in our national life, may be gathered from the fact that even the Abolitionists themselves did not at first grasp a truth set forth by Buxton and emphasised many years later at the Jubilee of the Anti-Slavery Society by King Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, that the only sure way to abolish slave-trading was to abolish slave-owning.

They first strove for Abolition of the Slave Trade, which Wilberforce, at the age of forty-eight, carried through in 1807. The campaign for the Emancipation of the Slaves did not really begin until about 1820. The Slave Trade had in the meantime actually increased, and the checking of its international development was one of the aims of the Duke of Wellington.

Against the Emancipators (Those who sought to abolish the Trade were known as Abolitionists; those who sought to abolish Slave-owning as Emancipators. In course of time both sections became known as Abolitionists) were arrayed first the 'West Indians,' the representatives of the strongest vested interest of that day, known as 'The Trade.' They prophesied that Abolition would spell the ruin of London, Liverpool and other cities. The Abolitionists were vigorously opposed by cities in their corporate capacity, who were able to draw upon city revenues for the purpose. It is estimated that the Liverpool Corporation spent more than 10,000 in combating Abolition. The Council presented scores of petitions, employed counsel and paid witnesses and 'delegates' to advance their cause. They conferred the Freedom of the Borough upon those who assisted in combating Abolition. Amongst those so honoured were Hawkesbury (afterwards Lord Liverpool) for his support of the Slave Trade; a piece of plate, value 100, was given to Mr. Penny, one of the 'delegates,' with the Freedom of the Borough to his son. They gave to Mr. Green, another of their 'delegates,' 500; they conferred the Freedom of the Borough upon one eminent person: the box containing his grant of Freedom cost 226, and the illuminated address cost twenty-five guineas! Pamphleteers vilified and slandered the Abolitionists and thundered against the Pestilent doctrines of those hot-brained fanatics who, under the vile pretence of philanthropy and zeal for the interests of suffering humanity, preach up rebellion and murder to the contented and orderly negroes in our territories.

Slave-owners attacked Wilberforce for 'having unnaturally gone about stirring up a fermentation.' Wilberforce's personal character and position placed him above the reach of the lower forms of calumny, but the obscure Kentish clergyman, the Rev. W. Ramsay, who, after having spent some years witnessing the cruelties of West Indian slavery, had done more than almost any other man to open the eyes of Wilberforce to its horrors, was safe game, and him they slandered into his grave and publicly rejoiced at having done so. Slavery in their view was 'countenanced by the law Of God' - it was better, they asserted, for the negroes to be enslaved under Christian influences in the West Indies than free in heathen Africa; they argued that slavery was not cruel and in any case the West Indies would be ruined if slavery were abolished.

At times they showed an amusing lack of humour, as when 'an old M.P.' gave as an instance of the great benevolence with which the negroes were treated that 'Dr. Dalzell has often taken the irons off his slaves.' On another occasion a gentleman from Mauritius assured Buxton that the blacks there were in fact the happiest people in the whole world, and appealed to his wife: ( Now, my dear, you saw Mr. T.'s slaves. Do tell Mr. Buxton how happy they looked.' 'Well, yes,' innocently replied the lady, 'they were very happy, I'm sure, only I used to think it so odd to see the black cooks chained to the fire-place.'

Property felt itself threatened. The Trade argued that if their property rights in the slaves were abolished and the planting community ruined, all property rights would be endangered. As Earl Buxton has well said:

Opposition came not only from those personally and pecuniarily interested in the question, but also from those who looked upon the agitation as a 'radical,' rapacious or sentimental attack on a long-established industry, and directed against the sanctity of property, the individual rights of owners, and other vested interests - and in those days, as we realise from the penal code, property was more of a fetish even than it is now. Slavery as an institution was actually defended on religious grounds (Introduction to the Memoirs of Sir T. F. Buxton, by Earl Buxton, published in Everyman's Library).

And so, for many years, first the Slave Trade, and when that was abolished, Slavery itself, had the support of a great number of the landowners, country squires, and worthy merchants so powerfully represented in Parliament.

The West Indian proprietors included many of the most aristocratic and respectable families in the land, but in profiting by the Slave Trade they were only following earlier and still more exalted forerunners, for when Admiral Sir John Hawkins shipped negroes from Sierra Leone to San Domingo, he had the countenance of Queen Elizabeth. She expressed, indeed, a pious wish that the negroes should not be taken away to labour against their will, but she lent him, for his second venture, her own ship, the Jesus of Lubeck, and when he returned to England he had the honour of being received by her and of dining with the Spanish Ambassador.

That worthy and domesticated sovereign, Queen Anne, 'who sometimes counsel took and sometimes tay,' was a party to the infamous Asiento, by which 'Her Britannic Majesty did offer and undertake' - such are the words of the treaty - by persons whom she shall appoint, to bring into the "West Indies of America belonging to his Catholic Maj esty, in the space of thirty years, 144,000 negroes, at the rate of 4,800 in each of the said thirty years; paying, on 4,000 of them, a duty of thirty-three and a third dollars a head.... As great profits were anticipated from the trade, Philip V of Spain took one quarter of the common stock, agreeing to pay for it by a stock-note; Queen Anne reserved to herself another quarter (which she subsequently divided between Lady Masham and some of her favourites); and the remaining moiety was to be divided among her subjects. The sovereigns of England and Spain became the largest slave merchants ever known in the history of the world. (Stephens, The Slave in History).

But the Royal Family of Great Britain had then, and happily always has had, members who used their great influence for both Abolition and Emancipation. Of these the most constant was the Duke of Gloucester, one of the sons of George III, at whose house Abolitionist meetings were frequently held, who became the first President of the African Society and who spoke courageously for Abolition in the House of Lords.

The West Indian Legislatures disregarded almost all the recommendations for better treatment of the slaves despatched by the Colonial Office, and their powerful representation in Parliament made even sympathetic Colonial Secretaries, like Sir George Murray, in 1825, afraid of 'trouble with the Colonies.'

In Parliament the fight for the Abolition of the Slave Trade lasted 18 years, that for the Emancipation of the Slaves another 26 years. Its delay for so many years was due to the inertia, reaction and lack of imagination of the many little men who refused for a variety of reasons to follow the lead of the few really great men on both sides of the House.

Burke always stood for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and had contemplated undertaking the task of Abolition himself before he became engrossed in Indian questions. He paid a magnificent tribute to Wilberforce's great speech in 1789, and devoted all his eloquence and powers of reasoning to showing that no threatened loss of commerce could justify the terrible inhumanity of the Trade. 'If some loss there must be, were they not prepared,' he asked, 'to pay the price of virtue?'

William Pitt, the close friend of Wilberforce, made some of the greatest speeches in our Parliamentary history for Abolition, and when, in 1788, Wilberforce was so ill that the doctors despaired of his recovery, he appealed to Pitt to move his proposed Resolution in his place, and Pitt responded nobly.

Fox, on the other side of the House, was equally faithful to the cause, and when, after Pitt's death, he came into power, he at once moved a Resolution in the Commons. He died before Abolition was carried, and during his long illness wished that 'he could go down to the House once more to say something on the Slave Trade.'

Canning, in brilliant and witty speeches, supported the Abolition of the Slave Trade from the beginning, and later favoured Emancipation, although his speech from the Government benches in 1823 showed that he felt how great were the practical difficulties.

To the Duke of Wellington 'the suppression of the Trade was a simple matter of clean humanity,' (R. Coupland, Wilberforce) and although he condemned the Emancipation Bill of 1833 as violating the rights of property, he fought stoutly though unavailingly at the Conference of Paris and Verona for the right to search slave ships and set the slaves free.

So the fight went on. A few noble and great men against the indifference or opposition of the multitude. Year after year the motion for Abolition was defeated, but victory crowned the efforts of Wilberforce when in March, 1807, Abolition was achieved and the stage was set in preparation for Buxton's struggle for Emancipation.

The Abolitionists, whilst supported whole-heartedly by large sections of the Christian Church, could not command its undivided co-operation. The coldness and deadness of eighteenth-century religion still prevailed. Lord Sankey has recently emphasised this. Speaking on the Oxford Movement, (The Times, November 5, 1932.) 'England,' he said, 'and the whole of the Continent were in a state of unrest, there was moral and national bankruptcy. On Easter Day of 1800 there were only six Communicants at the Annual Communion Service at St. Paul's Cathedral, the parish churches were in a state of neglect, and the services casual and perfunctory.'

As Christianity revived, abhorrence of slavery grew; but it would be equally true to say that the practical Christianity which Wilberforce and Buxton preached and lived, and their call to all Christians to end a system which was the negation of Christian principles, acted as a powerful stimulus to the religious revival.

In America Abolitionists were formally denied Church membership, as Joseph Sturge discovered when he went there in 1841. In England it would be fair to say that the Churches had not awakened to the criminal nature of slavery, and that clergy and ministers had not grasped the fact that the practice of slavery broke every law of the decalogue. Leading families in the Christian Churches were so closely connected with the Slave Trade that it is probable that the average church-goer's attitude was pretty accurately reflected in a letter written by Mr. John Gladstone, father of the future Prime Minister, quoted by Viscount Morpeth in the House of Commons in 1831. John Gladstone, one of the most respected Liverpool merchants, was asked, 'Is slavery, then, to be interminable in our colonies?' And he replied, 'I humbly conceive that it is not for me to attempt to say when a system should terminate which Almighty God in the Divine Wisdom of His overruling Providence has seen fit to permit in certain climates since the origin and formation of society in this world.'

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