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5.2 Wilberforce’s anti-slavery campaign in context

Certainly the outcome was a positive one from Wilberforce’s point of view in that abolition of the slave trade in British ships and colonial possessions passed rapidly through both Houses of Parliament, and became law in March 1807. This result in part implied an increased receptivity to Wilberforce’s religious arguments against slavery, but there were also other factors at work. These included the advance of liberal ideas of justice and toleration, themselves reflecting the influence of the Enlightenment, which increasingly made the oppression of Africans seem less acceptable. Crucial too in 1807 was government support for abolition, which had been lacking at earlier stages of Wilberforce’s campaign.

Wilberforce’s campaign against slavery needs to be seen in the context of growing interest in the world outside Europe, a reflection of expanding colonial involvements, notably in India, and increasing cultural interchange. In the specifically Evangelical context this interest was reflected in the foundation of various missionary societies during the 1790s, including in 1799 the Church Missionary Society, in which Wilberforce took an active part. An earlier significant initiative had been the creation in 1791 of the Sierra Leone Company, which Wilberforce and others hoped would provide a basis for legitimate commerce and the spread of Christianity in West Africa. To twenty-first-century secular eyes there might appear something surprising in Wilberforce’s simultaneous involvement in the campaign against slavery, which is still viewed as courageous progressive humanitarianism, and his advocacy of foreign missions, now often perceived as a feature of offensive western cultural imperialism. In Wilberforce’s mind, however, anti-slavery and missions were not only linked but two sides of the same coin. We have already seen this outlook reflected in his concern for the Christianisation of the slaves. It was evident again in 1813 when he vigorously and successfully advocated that missionaries should be allowed to operate in British India. Hindus, he thought, were ‘fast bound in the lowest depths of moral and social ignorance and degradation’. He saw both missions and the campaign against slavery as opening the way to ‘Christian light and moral improvement’ (1813, pp. 48, 106).

In 1814 the initial defeat of Napoleon seemed to Wilberforce and others to provide an opportunity to put pressure on continental European countries to join Britain in abolishing the slave trade. Wilberforce lobbied hard for the peace settlement with the new French government under the restored Louis XVIII to include immediate French abolition in exchange for the return of colonies seized by Britain during the war. He was bitterly disappointed when France only agreed to abolish in five years’ time, a commitment that he feared would be unenforceable. He drew comfort, however, from the strong support for his position expressed not only by British public and parliamentary opinion, but also by Tsar Alexander I of Russia. Moreover, in March 1815 Napoleon, following his return from Elba, reversed his previous policy and decreed the total abolition of the French slave trade. The subsequent Bourbon government stood by this decision, although, as it did not actively enforce it, evasion was widespread. Meanwhile, later in 1815 the Congress of Vienna issued a declaration against the slave trade, which caused Spain and Portugal also gradually to edge towards abolition. Although slavery in the Americas was to continue for many decades and was only to end in the United States in the 1860s after a violent civil war, pressure for abolition was now gathering momentum and becoming internationalised.

In the meantime, the continuing background of armed conflict in the Napoleonic Wars until final victory over Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo in June 1815 tended to reinforce a trend within Evangelicalism towards conceiving God’s intervention in the world in more apocalyptic and less orderly terms. It was a particular religious manifestation of the trend to Romanticism. There was increasing interest in the study and interpretation of the prophetic books of the Bible, particularly Daniel in the Old Testament and Revelation in the New Testament, which were held to include predictions that were as yet unfulfilled. For example, in 1815, shortly before Waterloo, James Hatley Frere (1779–1866) published A Combined View of the Prophecies of Daniel, Esdras and St John [Revelation], Shewing that all the Prophetic Writings are Formed upon One Plan. A central feature of Frere’s argument was the identification of Napoleon with a ‘vile person, to whom they shall not give the honour of the Kingdom’ (Daniel, 11:21, Authorised Version), whose career was foretold in the Old Testament, and whose eventual defeat would usher in the end of the world. Expectation of cataclysmic divine judgement tended, if anything, to gain further ground after 1815, in the face of unrest and hardship in the aftermath of the war. In November 1817 the death in childbirth of Princess Charlotte, second in line to the throne, was widely regarded by preachers as retribution from the Almighty for the sins of the nation.

Wilberforce’s final substantial published statement on slavery appeared in 1823. By this time the evident failure of the abolition of the slave trade to produce a marked improvement in the conditions of those slaves already in the West Indies led him and others to begin the campaign for the freeing of slaves in British colonies. He was now ageing and in failing health and was shortly to retire from Parliament. 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 was therefore something of a political testament. It was intended to motivate his supporters for a sustained further period of agitation in which he himself would be unable to be an active participant. The extracts reproduced here are particularly concerned with the religious arguments against slavery which were, if anything, even more prominent in the 1823 Appeal than in the 1807 Letter.

Click to viewExtracts from 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 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Exercise 8

Click the pdf to read the extracts from the Appeal and note down answers to the following questions.

  1. What are the seven main arguments for freeing the slaves that Wilberforce advances?

  2. What does the text reveal about Wilberforce’s attitudes to the non-European world?



    • (a) Slavery is inherently immoral and unjust because it degrades human beings.

    • (b) The slaves are unable to gain religious and moral instruction.

    • (c) The moral and educational condition of Blacks is worse in the West Indies than it was in Africa before they were enslaved.

    • (d) Slavery is an enormity inconsistent with the Christian and humane professions of the British nation.

    • (e) Personal independence, human dignity, and ‘the consolations and supports’ of religion require emancipation from chattel slavery.

    • (f) Under present circumstances (with the danger of slave revolt) the protection of the colonies is a great burden on British manpower and resources. Freed slaves, on the other hand, will under Christian instruction become a ‘grateful peasantry’, a basis for social and political stability in the West Indies.

    • Above all Wilberforce is fearful of impending divine retribution if slavery continues. Significantly, he has moved away from a perception that God will operate through the predictable if inexorable workings of providence towards a consciousness of more sudden and unforeseeable judgement.

  2. Wilberforce is profoundly unsympathetic to non-European cultures, making hostile comments about both Africa and India. It is evident, however, that this lack of sympathy stems primarily, if not entirely, from the fact that they are not Christian and are hence – inevitably in Wilberforce’s opinion – degraded by superstition and immorality. He is though no racist, as is clear from his comparison of the good qualities of Africans in their homelands with their degraded state when enslaved in the West Indies. Non-European peoples have genuine potential to improve their lot by conversion to Christianity and/or emancipation from slavery.

Wilberforce’s conviction of the central importance of Christian conversion for individuals and societies was thus a consistent theme in his writing and speaking. In 1797 in the Practical View he had presented a recovery of ‘real Christianity’ as the only effective solution to the social and political malaise that he felt afflicted Britain. In relation to slavery, while he was happy to deploy an extensive armoury of rational argument, his underlying preoccupations were that the British nation should be true to its Christian identity, and that the slaves themselves should have the opportunity to hear and respond to the Christian Gospel. Herein for him lay the path not only of religious duty but of national self-interest, because in the West Indies, as in Britain, a Christian people would also be an orderly one.