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2007 campaign call – Anti-Slavery

August 17, 2006 · 


With just six months to go until the bicentenary of Britain’s abolition of the slave trade, we are calling on UK campaigners to alert their Members of Parliament to the importance of this anniversary.

2007 provides a significant opportunity to commemorate the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its abolition, and to work for the eradication of all forms of slavery today.

MPs can put pressure on the Government to take specific actions, such as changing the teaching requirements on the Transatlantic Slave Trade and strengthening international mechanisms to tackle slavery today.

In one of the first examples of parliamentary lobbying, campaigners against the slave trade in the 1970s and 1800s effectively persuaded MPs of the justice of their cause.

William Wilberforce acted as parliamentary champion for the abolitionists (see below), but without the hundreds of thousands of petition signatures from ordinary people around the country, he would not have been able to win the vote that passed the Act or the Abolition of the Slave Trade  in 1807.

Today you can play a similar role by putting pressure on your MP to make a stand against modern-day slavery and demand its end once and for all.

For details of issues to raise, see under ‘write your MP’ or contact Sarah Williams on 020 7501 8933 / email

Campaigners from history – William Wilberforce

As a keen party-goer at Cambridge, nobody could have forecast that William Wilberforce’s name would still appear in newspapers more than 200 years later nor that a 21st century archbishop of Canterbury would select him as the greatest Briton of the Millenium.

Born to Born to a well-to-do family on 24 August 1759 in Hull, he was a frail child with weak eyesight. In 1780, aged 21, he was elected to the House of Commons from Hull. While it is reported that, at the age of 14, he wrote a letter to the Yorkshire Gazette condemning the slave trade, his real interest came much later. 

On visits to Europe in the mid-1780s, now representing Yorkshire, he read A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, which, together with discussions with the theologian Isaac Milner and others, led him to become an evangelical Christian, changing his direction completely.

Although Wilberforce favoured resigning from public life, John Newton, an ex-slave ship captain and author of Amazing Grace and other hymns, was among those who persuaded him God had a purpose for him. That purpose became clear in the spring of 1787.

Bennet Langton, “one of the worthiest men’” in Britain, arranged a dinner with Thomas Clarkson, later the first president of what is now Anti-slavery International, that proved significant for Wilberforce’s choice of direction. The abolitionists recognised their need for influence within Parliament and felt Wilberforce was the ideal choice. He was a Member of Parliament, had integrity and was independent. According to Clarkson, by the dinner’s end Wilberforce agreed he would raise the issue in Parliament, if no other MP could be found.

In the same spring, he had a meeting with his close friend Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and future Prime Minister William Grenville under a large oak tree on Pitt’s estate in Kent. This meeting also proved critical in Wilberforce’s decision to take up the cudgels in Parliament against slavery. At last, the abolitionists had what they needed – a voice in Parliament

On the issue of slavery, Wilberforce believed that, sudden emancipation “would be productive of universal anarchy and distress”, so he took a more gradualism approach. The first step, he felt, should be to stop the supply of slaves, forcing planters to see their existing slaves as irreplaceable and therefore valuable.

While small in stature, Wilberforce was a powerful speaker. But he faced considerable opposition for his abolitionist stand throughout the country and in Parliament, as Britain was the world leader in slave trading which made a significant contribution to the economy. He endured attacks from the press, was assaulted and received death threats.

On 12 May 1789, he made his most important speech to date. In it he called for the total abolition of the slave trade and challenged the pro-slave trade propaganda. He declared “numbers had been carried every year from their native country, in order to satiate the avarice of …. men whose … thoughts were bent upon tyranny and oppression”. Thereafter, he regularly introduced Bills calling for an end to the slave trade.

After repeated setbacks, in 1796, with support growing, it looked as though he could win. But parliamentary opponents offered some of his lukewarm supporters free opera tickets for the night of the vote, and the abolition Bill was defeated. The first two years of the 1800s were grim, but then the tide began to turn, enhanced by Napoleon’s reintroduction of slavery and hostility to emancipation. Despite this, Wilberforce’s Bill for abolition failed to pass in 1804 and again in 1805.

Throughout this whole period, the nation needed to be galvanized. Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionists introduced a variety of new tactics, which today are common to all campaigning, ranging from holding public meetings to publicizing powerful images, such as Clarkson’s model of The Brookes slave ship showing slaves packed in, to the use of literature, as with William Cowper’s poem The Negro’s Complaint and Josiah Wedgwood’s production of a slave medallion showing a slave in chains, inscribed “Am I not a Man and a Brother”.

On 23 February l 807, The Abolition of the Slave Trade Bill was introduced again and this time, Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of abolition. Wilberforce was overcome with emotion and, quite out of order, there were three cheers. Royal Assent followed on 25 March, ending the trade in slaves in British ships, but slavery continued in the British colonies.

By now in his 50s, Wilberforce believed in the complete abolition of slavery, but there was little political will for it at the time. He focussed his efforts on improving slaves’ conditions and ensuring the ban against the trade was implemented. With declining health, in 1812 he began work on the Slave Registration Bill.

By the mid-l820s, with the Government apparently obstructing slaves’ freedom, Wilberforce opted to campaign openly for an end to slavery. He wrote An Appeal on Behalf of the Negro Slaves in 1823 and in the same year became the first president of the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery.

Wilberforce is remembered particularly for his courage, persistence and his passion, coupled with his extraordinary oratory. He never worked alone and was part of the group of evangelical Anglicans that worked on a range of social issues, including slavery, which later became known as the Clapham Sect.

In 1825, he gave in to his wife and doctor, and resigned from Parliament. Leadership of the parliamentary campaign passed to Thomas Fowell Buxton, MP who told Wilberforce of the passing of the Abolition of Slavery Bill on 26 July 1833. Three days later, Wilberforce died in London, most likely from pneumonia. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.

[Source: Reporter July 2006]


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