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5 Wilberforce and slavery

5.1 Leading the fight against slavery

Wilberforce’s name has been most famously associated with the issue of slavery. His success as a leader of the cause against slavery stemmed from his capacity to marshal a formidable range of argumentation, including secular as well as spiritual factors, and practical considerations as well as statements of principle. This section will examine extracts from two of Wilberforce’s writings on slavery, A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1807) and An Appeal to the Religion, Justice and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire, in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies (1823). This will also lead to an examination of interactions between Britain and the non-European world. The focus here will be on Wilberforce’s religious arguments against slavery. As might be expected from the arguments in A Practical View, Wilberforce’s religion was a fundamental feature of his anti-slavery motivation.

In his commitment to the campaign against the slave trade Wilberforce both represented and encouraged a growing identification of the Evangelical movement as a whole with the anti-slavery cause. In 1774 John Wesley had published a powerful denunciation of the trade, ending with a direct appeal to ships’ captains, merchants and slave-owners to repent of their sinful involvement in it or risk incurring the wrath of God. Both the authors of the Olney Hymns contributed their eloquence to the campaign. In 1788 John Newton published his Thoughts on the African Slave Trade, in which he began by confessing his own past involvement. Although he had found it ‘disagreeable’ he had not had moral scruples at the time. He saw his own subsequent change of heart as perhaps representative of the nation at large. He now saw the slave trade as a wickedness that would lead to ruin and, vividly drawing on his first-hand knowledge, exposed the cruelties and degradation to which the Africans were subjected. In the same year Cowper wrote ‘The Negro’s complaint’, in which the poet perceived natural disasters as divine punishment for oppression and exploitation:

Hark – He [God] answers. Wild tornadoes

Strewing yonder flood with wrecks,

Wasting Towns, Plantations, Meadows,

Are the voice with which he speaks.

(‘The Negro’s complaint’, ll.33–6)

In April 1792 he addressed a sonnet to Wilberforce, encouraging him to persist in his labours:

Thy Country, Wilberforce, with just disdain

Hears thee by cruel men and impious call’d

Fanatic, for thy zeal to loose th’enthrall’d

From exile, public sale, and Slav’ry’s chain.

Friend of the Poor, the wrong’d, the fetter-gall’d,

Fear not lest labour such as thine be vain.

Thou hast atchiev’d a part; hast gain’d the ear

Of Britain’s Senate to thy glorious cause;

Hope smiles, Joy springs, and though cold Caution pause

And weave delay, the better hour is near

That shall remunerate thy toils severe

By Peace for Afric, fenced with British laws.

Enjoy what thou hast won, esteem and love

From all the Just on earth and all the Blest above.

(‘To William Wilberforce, Esq.’)

In the 1790s the campaign against the slave trade nevertheless languished in the face of a sense of national crisis due to the war with France, rebellion in Ireland and unrest at home. There was a temporary peace with France in 1801, but war resumed in 1803 and was to continue until the battle of Waterloo in 1815. It was in 1804, however, that the political tide began to turn decisively in Wilberforce’s favour, and in 1806 he seemed at last to be on the verge of victory. In this context early in 1807 he published his Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade Addressed to the Freeholders and Other Inhabitants of Yorkshire. Despite its title this was no short pamphlet, but a 350-page book intended to restate the abolitionist arguments used during the previous two decades in time for the parliamentary session in which, Wilberforce hoped, the measure would eventually be passed. It was formally addressed to his Yorkshire constituents, but the real target audience was the members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons on whose votes the outcome now depended.

Wilberforce began the book by affirming that his dominant motive for writing was concern for ‘the present state and prospects’ of Britain. He continued:

That the Almighty Creator of the universe governs the world which he has made; that the sufferings of nations are to be regarded as the punishment of national crimes; and their decline and fall, as the execution of this sentence; are truths which I trust are still generally believed among us … If these truths be admitted, and if it be also true, that fraud, oppression and cruelty, are crimes of the blackest dye, and that guilt is aggravated in proportion as the criminal acts in defiance of clearer light, and of stronger motives to virtue… have we not abundant cause for serious apprehension?… If… the Slave Trade be a national crime… to which we cling in defiance of the clearest light, not only in opposition to our own acknowledgements of its guilt, but even of our own declared resolutions to abandon it, is not this, then a time at which all who are not perfectly sure that the Providence of God is but a fable, should be strenuous in their endeavours to lighten the vessel of the state, of such a load of guilt and infamy?

(Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1807, pp. 4–6)

In the body of the book Wilberforce concentrated on a systematic overview of the sufferings and hardships of the slaves. He began by looking at the situation in Africa, during which analysis he referred extensively to the evidence provided by Mungo Park’s Travels. He then turned to the horrors of the voyage across the Atlantic, and finally and most extensively to conditions in the West Indies themselves. He argued that these would be improved by the abolition of the slave trade because the plantation owners, no longer able to obtain fresh supplies of labour, would be obliged to treat their existing slaves better. Repeatedly however, amidst the accumulation of factual evidence and carefully reasoned argument, Wilberforce’s religious zeal resurfaced. Thus for him exploitation of Africa was especially reprehensible because it was a barrier against ‘religious and moral light and social improvement’ and was a persistent depraving and darkening of ‘the Creation of God’. The material sufferings of the slaves in the West Indies were bad enough, but worst of all was the denial to them of ‘moral improvement, and the light of religious truth, and the hope full of immortality’.

Click to view Extracts from Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Exercise 7

Click the pdf (above) to read short extracts from the Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade which come from part of Wilberforce’s discussion of conditions in the West Indies, and then from the concluding section of the book. They enable you to get something of the flavour of the style and argument, particularly in illustrating the religious motivation for Wilberforce’s campaign. As you read, consider the following questions and note your answers.

  1. What arguments for abolition does Wilberforce put forward here?

  2. How do you think his arguments were received by Parliament in 1807?


  1. First, no serious attempt is made to convert the slaves to Christianity, the only thing in Wilberforce’s eyes that would represent some recompense, if not justification, for their bondage. Second, whereas Christianity was instrumental in bringing about the abolition of slavery in the ancient world, Protestants are now conniving in a particularly unpleasant form of contemporary slavery, being shamed by the superior humanitarianism of Roman Catholics, Muslims (‘Mahometanism’) and even pagans. Third, unless the trade is abolished, the ‘heaviest judgements of the Almighty’ will ensue, an argument to which Wilberforce gives particular weight and with which he concludes the Letter. Note that when Wilberforce writes of divine judgement he is not envisaging dramatic and unexpected fire and brimstone, but rather the ongoing ‘operation of natural causes’ by which ‘Providence governs the world’. His conception of God in this passage is thus of a rational and consistent deity who controls the world in an orderly and predictable fashion through the normal processes of nature and human society, an essentially Enlightenment rather than Romantic understanding of the cosmos.

  2. Britain was at war in early 1807 (Nelson’s victory and death at Trafalgar had occurred little more than a year before in October 1805). In this context of insecurity, therefore, arguments presenting the slave trade as a blot on national moral righteousness, and suggesting that decline and disaster might be the price to be paid for continuing it, were likely to fall on receptive ears. Wilberforce turned on its head the widespread perception in the more immediate aftermath of the French Revolution that significant change was too risky to contemplate: his stance now was that it was too dangerous not to change.