William Wilberforce Antislavery politician

William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce was an English politician who became the voice of the abolition movement in Parliament. He was a slightly built man, about five foot three in height, and suffered from bouts of bad health.

He was born in Hull, into a rich merchant family. As a child, whilst living with his uncle in London, he was taken to hear John Newton preach. It made a great impression on him but he returned home and soon became part of fashionable society, attending the theatre and races, where he watched his own horse run.

He enrolled at Cambridge University and became friends with William Pitt. At the age of 21, Wilberforce was elected to Parliament.  He was well suited to politics, as he was an extremely eloquent speaker and very witty. In 1783, he met James Ramsay and, for the first time, discussed slavery. Around 1784-86, he underwent a gradual but ‘intense religious conversion’ whilst travelling with a friend. He considered leaving Parliament but his friend and mentor, John Newton, advised him againt this; so, instead, he decided to serve God in public life.

After his conversion to evangelical Christianity, he gave up his racehorse, gambling and attendance at clubs. Although a serious young man, he was still fun to be with and, despite some of his friends thinking his new found belief was a madness, a childhood friend remarked, “If this be madness, I hope that it will bite us all!”

His new beliefs affected his public life. Before, he had usually voted with Pitt but now he was guided by his conscience. He and his evangelical friends were nicknamed “the Saints” by upper class circles but he won widespread respect. He championed many causes but it was the fight against the Slave Trade and slavery that he worked most tirelessly for. His interest was rekindled by a letter from Sir Charles Middleton, suggesting he should represent the cause in Parliament. William Pitt also encouraged him to take up the cause.

In early 1787, Thomas Clarkson called upon Wilberforce with a copy of his Essay on Slavery. This was the first time the two men had met, and a collaboration was formed which lasted over fifty years. The skills of the two men complemented each other. Wilberforce was able to turn the vague sentiment amongst the more privileged in society, into real opposition and rise above party politics to obtain support from many in Parliament.

From 1789, Wilberforce regularly introduced bills in Parliament to ban the Slave Trade. He was fiercely opposed by those making fortunes from the trade, who used all kinds of delaying tactics. The first time a bill was introduced, Wilberforce lost the debate by 163 votes to 88 but he never gave up. A bill to cease the trade was passed by the House of Commons in 1792 – but with the amendment that the ban should be ‘gradual’, which those with an interest in the trade interpreted as ‘never’.

In his late 30’s, Wilberforce married Barbara Spooner (also an evangelical Christian). He remained devoted to her throughout his life.  Finally on 25th March, 1807, the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act abolished the Slave Trade in the British colonies. It was carried by 267 votes. The house rose to its feet and cheered wildly. (see Letter from Clarkson) 

However, this was not a vote to abolish slavery as a whole throughout the Empire, just the trade in enslaved people. William Wilberforce continued to work for the abolition of all slavery within the British Colonies. He joined the ‘Society for Gradual Abolition’ and, when the campaign intensified again in the 1820’s and 30′, he did as much as his failing health would allow. In 1821 he requested that Thomas Fowell Buxton take over the leadership of the campaign in the Commons and resigned his parliamentary seat in 1824, after a serious illness. By May, 1830, when two thousand people met in London at Freemasons’ Hall, Wilberforce was stooped with age and wearing a metal girdle to prevent him slumping.

Despite the groundswell of public opinion, Parliament still refused to ban slavery, until parliamentary reform removed many of its supporters. Despite this, it was still not clear that Parliament would act. Wilberforce wrote a last petition. The Parliamentary debate lasted three months. On the 26th July, 1833, the Abolition of Slavery bill passed its third reading in the House of Commons. A messenger rushed to Wilberforce’s house. They told him that slavery in British colonies would finally be abolished. Just three days later, on 29th July, William Wilberforce died.

Hear extract  1 from Wilberforce 1789 speech to the house
Hear extract  2 from Wilberforce 1789 speech to the house
Hear extract  3 from Wilberforce 1789 speech to the house

Olaudah Equiano’s Argument Against Slavery Was His Life Experience

The Igbo writer wrote honestly about the brutality of his experience—and of the Christian faith that sustained him.
ERIC WASHINGTON

Olaudah Equiano’s Argument Against Slavery Was His Life Experience

The word of God was sweet to my taste, yea sweeter than honey and the honeycomb. Christ was revealed to my soul as the chiefest among ten thousand,” wrote an 18th-century British seaman in 1789 as he reflected on his conversion that occurred five years previously. This Christian was a previously enslaved man known as Gustavus Vassa, who, through writing his own life story, became the founder of a literary movement known as slave narratives. His work was published under his birth name: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.

A resident of London during the 1780s, Equiano became involved in British abolitionism and was a vocal opponent of the slave trade and slavery until his death in 1797. His Interesting Narrative served as the foremost abolitionist writing of the day because he was an African voice that described the violence and degradation of the slave trade and of slavery itself. Equiano’s narrative spurred nine English editions through 1794 and was published in Dutch, French, and Russian.

Distinguishing itself from the arguments of abolitionists Thomas Clarkson and John Newton, Equiano’s Christian argument against the slave trade and slavery proved historically unique because he wrote about the horror of slavery, having experienced it firsthand. In his memoir, he drew connections between his traumatic life experiences and meeting God:

Now every leading providential circumstance that happened to me, from the day I was taken from my parents to that hour, was then, in my view, as if it had but just then occurred. I was sensible of the invisible hand of God, which guided and protected me, when in truth I knew it not: still the Lord pursued me.

Life in Igboland

Much of what we know today about Equiano comes through his own words. According to his Interesting Narrative, the author was born in what is now eastern Nigeria, in Igboland, in 1745. (Note: While historians have questioned his account, after reading their arguments and doing my own assessment of the documents, I am inclined to trust the veracity of Equiano’s story.) Unlike accounts of enslaved people that begin in the Western Hemisphere, Equiano introduces his readers to his homeland and people and focuses on the type of government established in his Igbo village, as well as his community’s marriage customs, arts, and agriculture.

According to Equiano, one of the Igbo community’s key beliefs was in a “Creator of all things” who “governs events, especially our deaths and captivity.” It was this Igbo predestinarian conviction among Igbos that likely made it easier for Equiano to accept the Christian doctrine of the Providence of God and is a major theme of the work.

His writings also compare Igbo and ancient Israelite practices, noting Igbo circumcision, and suggest that Igbo and Jewish naming practices are similar because the two cultures name their children in light of an important event or a notable circumstance surrounding one’s birth. In fact, the text goes so far as to argue that Igbos—all Africans in fact—originated from the Jews.

As one of only a handful of 18th-century Afro-British writers, Equiano makes the countercultural argument that Igbos (and Africans) are equal image-bearers to Europeans, and they live in functioning societies complete with a sexual division of labor, a robust system of justice, and a complex religious system. Equiano’s description of his people contains none of the stereotypes that Europeans employed to paint Africans as savages. Further, he refutes the idea that darker skin denoted inferiority, instead, drawing upon European writings that argued that climate produced dark skin. He also turns to the Bible, citing Acts 17:26: “God ‘who hath made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on all the face of the earth.’”

The End of Innocence

Equiano was 11 years old when Igbo-speaking slave catchers stole him and his sister away from their home. But he wasn’t immediately shipped off to the British colonies. Instead, he worked as a slave in numerous households in what is now Nigeria before reaching the coast. While enslaved in his homeland, kidnappers kept Equiano separated from his sister. In his memoir, he writes that he grew to the point where he yearned for death. While he did not record any harsh thoughts he had about his African masters and mistresses, Equiano had choice words for African slave catchers and called them “uncircumcised.”

After about half a year, Equiano arrived on the west coast of Africa, where he was sold once more to European slave traders, and then boarded a slave ship bound for the Caribbean. Equiano refers to his treatment by European slave traders in the Middle Passage as “a new refinement in cruelty” and paints a picture of a harrowing journey on board a slave ship.

No other slave narrative offers an account of the ship ride as lengthy or descriptive as Equiano’s; he describes the filthy living conditions he and fellow Africans endured, the suicide of a couple of captives, and other types of cruelties hurled at him and his shipmates. At the end of his account of the Middle Passage, Equiano pauses his narrative and addresses the reader: “Might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you?”

The slave vessel carried Equiano to Barbados, the eastern-most Caribbean island and an inglorious port of entry for thousands of captive Africans. Equiano remained in Barbados for only two weeks before embarking on another voyage to Virginia. He remained there briefly before he was purchased by Michael Henry Pascal, a lieutenant in the British Royal Navy. Under the ownership of Pascal, Equiano traveled to England, was baptized into the Church of England in 1759, and learned that his baptized state afforded him his freedom.

But this legality did little for Equiano. After serving his master for a number of years—even serving in the Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War)—Pascal decided to sell Equiano. Upon learning this, Equiano protested, arguing that Pascal had no right to sell him because he had “been baptized; and by the laws of the land no man has a right to sell me.” Unfortunately for Equiano, there was no law; he once more had to swallow the bitter pill of slavery in the Atlantic World. About a century before, British colonies had ruled that baptism had no bearing on the status of an enslaved African. Early in his time as an enslaved boy on a ship, Equiano became obsessed with learning how to read after he saw English people onboard pouring over books. During a stay in London in the late 1750s, Equiano worked for two sisters who sent him to school where he began to learn to read and write.

After living on the confines of Navy vessels in the Atlantic during the Seven Years’ War, Equiano was sold to a Quaker who transported goods and enslaved people throughout the Caribbean and in North America. Equiano initially worked on his owner’s small ship, traveling to different Caribbean ports to sell fruit, tumblers, and other items to Europeans. While Europeans often sought to cheat him out of his money, Equiano nevertheless soon amassed enough money to purchase his freedom in 1766.

Though Equiano gained his freedom in the Caribbean, he was also simultaneously confronted with the reality of the unimaginable violence perpetrated against slaves. As Equiano later recorded in his writings, this was a place where slave women were raped and where one slave was punished by being staked to the ground and having hot wax poured on his back. Although free, Equiano himself was nearly beat to death after visiting a local physician’s slave.

Equiano later recounted a conversation he had with a Mr. Drummond who boasted of selling 41,000 Africans into slavery. Drummond had once cut off a slave’s leg who had attempted to run away. Equiano confronted his action, asking Drummond how he would answer to God, and how did that accord with the Golden Rule. Drummond tersely responded that “answering was a thing for another world,” but his action prevented the slave and others from running away.

God’s Plan for Equiano

In 1773, Equiano returned to London after a harrowing voyage during which he almost died. His near-death drowning experience had turned his mind to his eternal destiny, and he later wrote that the voyage had “caused me to reflect deeply on my eternal state, and to seek the Lord with full purpose of heart ere it was too late.” He also explained that he “was determined to work out” his “own salvation, and in so doing procure a title to heaven.”

Equiano began attending Anglican churches and Quaker meetings, he studied Roman Catholic teachings, and he even considered Judaism. He then consented to just read the four Gospels “and whatever sect or party I found adhering thereto such” he “would join.”

The following year, Equiano attempted to help a formerly enslaved person win back his freedom after the man’s former master illegally re-enslaved him. Despite his efforts and those of other abolitionists, the man was taken back to the West Indies where he died.

Equiano was miserable after this news. He wrote, “Suffering much by villains in the late cause, and being much concerned about the state of my soul, these things … brought me very low; so that I became a burden to myself, and viewed all things around me as emptiness and vanity, which could give no satisfaction to a troubled conscience.”

It in the midst of his depression, Equiano returned to the sea, traveling back to England. During the voyage, he became introspective and began considering the ways in which God had predestined every good and bad step of his life: “I was from early years a predestinarian, I thought whatever fate had determined must ever come to pass.”

Through the cultural worldview he had learned as a child, Equiano found God at work in his life when he been enslaved and when he had been rescued from near-death experiences. He had survived these things to be able to finally receive the grace offered to him by Christ.

Though Equiano desired to return to Africa, he never did. “Whether the love of one’s country be real or imaginary, or a lesson of reason, or an instinct of nature, I still look back with pleasure on the first scenes of my life, though the pleasure has been for the most part mingled with sorrow,” he wrote. Though he admired England and its people and was a committed Christian, he was still an Igbo whom God had chosen. Equiano lent his voice and his pen to the cause of suppressing Britain’s role in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. In 1797, he died in England, around the age of 52, without seeing the goal come to fruition. Yet the seeds he planted eventually bore fruit when Great Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807.

Eric Michael Washington is an associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. His research interests are in African history and the history of Africans in the Atlantic World.

 

Original here