Gaining the moral high ground

20 March 2007

The buying and selling of slaves was an integral part of the global economic system — so much so that sections of the Church even owned slaves. James Walvin charts the rise of Christian outrage that ended the transatlantic slave trade

Human traffic: Wilberforce acted as founder vice-president of the Church Missionary Society (CMS), which formed out of the anti-slavery movement in 1799. Its archives contain items such as slave drawings (below left) and sales bills (above), documenting the slave trade’s inhumanity

Human traffic: Wilberforce acted as founder vice-president of the Church Missionary Society (CMS), which formed out of the anti-slavery movement in 1...

IN 1807, MOST PEOPLE agreed that the slave trade was an ethical and religious outrage. But why had they not done so in 1707? Few raised their voice against the Atlantic slave trade until the mid-18th century.

There had been isolated objectors, but it was almost as if the slave trade was morally neutral. Occasional Christian denunciation of slave-trading had come most notably from early Puritans and Quakers: George Fox had denounced it as early as 1673. But, as ever more people and industries were involved in feeding the slave ships, and as the material bounty from the slave colonies flowed back to Britain, criticism was drowned out by the sound of profitable trade.

In the century before abolition in 1807, the British shipped more than three million Africans to the plantations. The Africans’ suffering on the ships and plantations was undeniable, but raised barely a whimper. Godly men came to think of the trade as a simple fact of life.

George Whitefield, Calvinistic Methodist evangelist in America, did not approve of slavery, but none the less owned slaves. The young slave captain John Newton (the author later of “Amazing Grace”) saw nothing odd as he put his rebellious Africans in the thumbscrews before settling down to pray for a safe and profitable passage to the Americas. Newton came to regret his slaving past, but his conversion was less a sudden revelation than a gradual dawning. He personifies the shift between the 1750s and 1780s when Britain, like Newton, changed its mind.

THROUGH all this, the Church of England was, by turns, complicit and transformed. Its overseas missionary society, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, founded in 1701, had owned plantations since 1710, mainly in Barbados, inherited from Christopher Codrington, a former soldier, government official, and planter.


The plantations and their resident slaves were managed like any other absentee plantation. Their sugar-based profits flowed back to their owners. The slaves were branded — a common pattern in the islands — and concerns were occasionally expressed about their well-being.

In 1760, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Secker, wrote: “I have long worried and lamented that the Negroes in our plantations decrease. . . Surely this proceeds from some Defect, both of Humanity, and even of good policy. But we must take Things as they are at present.” And so it continued, until, at full emancipation in 1833, the Church was compensated to the tune of £8823 for its loss of slaves on the Codrington estates.

Anglican clerics in the Caribbean were infamous for their indifference to the slaves, and for serving the planters and slave-owning class. A serious attempt to minister to the enslaved did not emerge until Nonconformist missionaries, led by Baptists and Methodists, made headway in the early 19th century.

Anglican clerics in the Caribbean were infamous for their indifference to the slaves, and for serving the planters and slave-owning class. A serious attempt to minister to the enslaved did not emerge until Nonconformist missionaries, led by Baptists and Methodists, made headway in the early 19th century.

There is another parallel story that has a resonance down to the present day, but which generally goes unnoticed in the scrutiny of Christian involvement with slavery. Islam’s dealings with slavery are equally confusing. There had been Islamic slave routes linking black Africa to the Mediterranean and Arabia long before, and long after, the Atlantic slave trade. The numbers of African slaves transported into the Islamic world were on a par with the numbers shipped into the Americas.

There is another parallel story that has a resonance down to the present day, but which generally goes unnoticed in the scrutiny of Christian involvement with slavery. Islam’s dealings with slavery are equally confusing. There had been Islamic slave routes linking black Africa to the Mediterranean and Arabia long before, and long after, the Atlantic slave trade. The numbers of African slaves transported into the Islamic world were on a par with the numbers shipped into the Americas.

But religious objections, notably against the enslavement of co-religionists, were ineffective here, too. Modern readers may find it bizarre that slave-trading went mostly unchallenged by people of either faith. That changed, and changed quite dramatically from the mid-18th century, when a concerted Christian voice was raised first against the slave trade, then against slavery itself.


WHAT began as tiny shifts in the tectonic plates of British political life — with the Quakers, in Philadelphia and London — were to have a profound effect. The Quakers’ unease about slavery and the trade was expressed in tracts, notably by John Woolman and Anthony Benezet, which were widely read in Britain. The American War of Independence (1776-83), however, put American Quakers on the defensive, for fear that criticism might seem treasonable. But change quickly followed the British defeat in 1783.

Abolition’s first great steps involved the experience of the British black community. Its legal struggle to secure full rights in England had been led for 20 years by a resolute but eccentric Anglican, Granville Sharp. The arrival in London of freed slaves from America and the dissemination of the language of equality from America and (after 1789) France began to tug at the fabric of the slave system.

Sharp was a one-man industry, dashing off a string of pamphlets to prove that slavery was illegal in England, and that slavery was contrary to Christian tenets. His theological and legal arguments forced clerics to confront the awkward frictions between the brutalities of slavery and the evidence of biblical analysis. Almost single-handed, Sharp redirected religious and political attention. But he was greatly helped by the Quakers.

In the rise of abolition, the Quakers’ work proved critical. For a start, they had a national organisation, run from London, which was efficient and businesslike. They were highly literate, had their own publishers and distribution systems, and offered support and accommodation to travelling sympathisers.

Thus, when the first abolition organisation was formed in 1787, the Quaker core of that movement offered the abolition campaign a ready-made national system and propaganda machine. The Abolition Society, dominated initially by Quakers, was joined by a small band of early Evangelicals. The outcome was the launch of an instantly successful and widely based national movement against the slave trade.

THEY wanted to end slavery, but accepted that it was more realistic and feasible to tackle the slave trade. The pioneering group was tiny (12 men) but, like the Quakers as a whole, it came to exercise an influence out of all proportion to its numbers. It set about pressuring the good and the great, and winning over a string of powerful converts to the idea that the slave trade was fundamentally wrong — whatever its material benefits.

Important groups and organisations quickly swung behind abolition. John Wesley, persuaded by reading Quaker tracts, helped to align the growing number of Methodists against the slave trade. Baptists and Presbyterians similarly joined the cause, edged that way by American preachers and writers. But all were won over by the appalling information about the slave trade accumulated by the early abolitionists, most notably by Thomas Clarkson.


Clarkson’s Cambridge prize-winning essay (published in 1788) on the evils of enslavement diverted him from a clerical career into a full-time lifelong devotion to abolition. He criss-crossed the country, visiting the slave ports and ships, and accumulated witnesses to the slave trade, and volumes of information about it, which he fed to the public in tracts, and to Parliament and its various hearings, in the evidence of witnesses. What he revealed was a story of scarcely credible violence and suffering — all for British profit, and to sweeten the nation’s food and drink.

This information was devoured by an increasingly literate British people: the more they heard and read about the brutality of the slave trade, the more they turned against it. Tens of thousands of men and women, high and low, signed abolition petitions in an unprecedented wave of popular feeling. Within two years of its foundation, the Abolition Society had become the spokesman for genuinely national feeling.

In Parliament, abolition was led by William Wilberforce, nudged to adopt the cause by William Pitt and John Newton. As Wilberforce submitted his various Bills to end the trade, the movement in the country as a whole was galvanised to bring popular opinion to bear. Year after year, after 1791, Wilberforce brought a Bill to Parliament. Sometimes it passed in one House but not the other, though the Lords remained doggedly opposed.

Success was not guaranteed. Powerful interests were represented in both Houses. Merchants and shippers in London, Bristol, and Liverpool, aristocrats with West Indian properties — all united in their belief that an end of the trade would bring economic collapse in the islands, and disaster for Britain. But, by the early 1790s, their arguments were effectively overwhelmed by the sentiment in the country. Abolitionists had secured the moral high ground.

It was, from the first, a form of grass-roots Christian outrage: churches, chapels, and ministers rallied their flocks to direct their voice to Parliament. When the slave trade was ended in 1807, the British simply assumed that they had ended a blot on the nation’s Christian conscience. But that sense of outrage was of very recent origin; and slavery itself survived.

A small band of London-based Africans had lent their own distinctive voice to the campaign. An important assertion of female complaint against the trade had been allied to a sugar boycott. In the background lurked the slaves themselves, and the fear of slave revolts, especially after the explosion in St Domingue (Haiti) in 1791.


Success was delayed until 1807 because of internal political wrangles, changes of governments and ministers, and, above all, the confusions created by the war with revolutionary France: wartime did not seem an appropriate time for so great a change. In the end, abolition came almost by sleight of hand. The Foreign Slave Trade Bill of 1806 banned the trade to foreign islands. But, by then, that accounted for the bulk of the British slave trade. The slave lobby had been caught unawares. All that was left to do was to kill off the trade fully the following year.

Slavery was not outlawed in the British colonies until 1833. It survived in the United States until 1865, and in Brazil until 1888. Despite an aggressive Royal Navy, an illicit slave trade continued to ship Africans, mainly to Cuba and Brazil, until the 1860s.

Still, in 1807 the British turned their back on a trade that they had perfected. The campaign drew together a small band of friends and relatives — the Clapham Sect — whose intellectual and political efforts were to flourish later in the renewed campaigns against slavery, and in various African causes. Wilberforce, Thomas Babington, Zachary Macaulay, James Stephen, and Henry Thornton remain among the best-remembered abolitionists. But it was not the intellectual leadership or the eminence of such leaders that ultimately swung it. As the Edinburgh Review noted in 1807, “the sense of the nation has pressed abolition upon our rulers.”

YET the historical conundrum remains. Why did they do it? After all, there was no sign that the British slave trade was in economic crisis. In the years when abolition came to prominence, the trade boomed. British ships, now led by Liverpool, carried more Africans than ever. British industries were packing the holds of outbound slave ships with every commodity required for trade in West Africa and life and labour on the plantations. All those most intimately involved remained vocal in their support of the trade. If contemporaries thought that the trade was in economic decline, they kept their worries to themselves.

It is true that there was early economic criticism of slavery itself, with the suggestion that normal free trade might be better. Adam Smith said it; so, too, did Clarkson and the African Olaudah Equiano. The chest that Clarkson carried around the country was filled with African produce and commodities — proof that normal trade would easily replace the trade in humanity.


The overwhelming bulk of the criticism of the slave trade was inspired by religious and moral sentiment. This was not, perhaps, surprising. For a start, much of the abolition activity focused on churches, but especially on dissenting chapels. By, say, 1789, churches of all sorts had sided with abolition. A generation earlier, they had remained silent or indifferent. Now, time and again, Christian abolitionists laced their writings with biblical denunciations.

There was of course, an abundance of biblical material to quote on the other side: the Old Testament was peppered with evidence in favour of slavery, as Christian supporters of US slavery discovered in the 19th century. But in the late-18th-century British debates, the tide ran largely in the other direction.

What made the Christian attack so potent was that it harnessed itself to more mundane detail. The evidence printed by the Abolition Society and presented to parliamentary hearings was grim and unremitting: a string of eyewitness accounts of the maltreatment of Africans, and a litany of African sufferings which, even by the standards of the late 18th century, was unconscionable.

What many found unacceptable was that the whole episode was orchestrated by a Christian nation — the British. Two key themes came together, very quickly: raw suffering fused with Christian outrage. Christians felt that here was a disgrace to their faith, and non-believers or the indifferent could join them by sensing that the slave trade was inhuman. Both sides could agree that nothing justified what happened daily on British slave ships.

Equally, both sides rallied around the central and core belief of the abolition movement: the idea of equality, enshrined in the American constitution and later in the French Revolution, was fundamentally corrosive of slavery. If black and white were equal, slavery was impossible to justify. But this secular philosophy was grounded in religious sentiment. Early Christian abolitionists asserted the unity of mankind, and dismissed the self-serving arguments of the slave lobby and their scribes that Africans were different and unequal, and had been born to be the beasts of burden to their white masters.

At first, this assertion of Christian equality was the work of a small band of writers and activists, but, after 1787, it quickly blossomed into a widespread and deeply rooted belief. It was sustained and nourished by the secular attachment to the rights of man. Indeed, it was often hard to distinguish the secular from the religious arguments.


Compounding this abolitionist surge was the rise of Christianity among the slaves. There were, of course, Africans in London, most of them freed slaves, who denounced the trade and offered their own proofs, both of the iniquities of slavery, and of what might be achieved under freedom. It was a story promoted most notably by Olaudah Equiano in his self-published autobiography of 1789. But that book was also one man’s account of finding his way to Christianity despite everything that slavery could throw at him. The moral was clear: freedom could lead the slaves to Christianity.

The Nonconformist missionaries in the Caribbean were intruding similar ideas and beliefs into the slave quarters — against the wishes of the planters. Christian slaves became literate slaves, and the lessons of the Bible, expounded by slave preachers, would be corrosive of slavery itself.

When abolition finally passed in 1807, it was widely seen as a triumph for Christian feeling — late in rousing itself, but a powerful political force. It left behind a remarkable legacy. Missionaries to slave colonies laid the groundwork for the powerful black Christianity that we see today throughout the West Indies and the US South. And the recent migrations to Europe and to northern US cities have transplanted those black churches into different settings.

Britain is now home to Evangelical and Pentecostal churches that would have amazed Wilberforce and his friends. Yet they are in a direct line of descent from efforts to bring Christianity and freedom to the slave quarters, and to purge the Africans of their indigenous beliefs. We now know, of course, that there was often a blending of older beliefs with the lessons learned from the missionaries.

The painful issue of Christian complicity remains. What should the Churches, and especially the Church of England, say about this? Slavery ensnared each and every institution in Britain, from Parliament to the humblest of workers in slave-related industries. The bicentenary provides the perfect opportunity to confront the awkward historical realities.

Professor James Walvin of the Centre for Eighteenth-Century Studies at the University of York is co-editor of the journal Slavery and Abolition.

The Gallery Trail at the National Portrait Gallery (, until 22 July, highlights portraits in its collection with a link to slavery and abolition. For details of Amazing Grace Sunday, 25 March, visit

Thomas Clarkson

Thomas Clarkson

ALMOST everything written about the 1807 Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade associates it exclusively with William Wilberforce. The biography by his two sons became the documentary history of the abolition of the slave traffic. In it, the names of other people who had helped Wilberforce were effectively written out.


Pre-eminent among these was Thomas Clarkson. His father was the headmaster of Wisbech Grammar School, and later curate of a neighbouring parish. While at St John’s College, Cambridge, Thomas entered and won the Latin prize-essay competition on the subject: “Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?” His research into this essay topic changed the course of his life.

Clarkson had a Damascus-road experience as he journeyed to London, and realised that he was called to take action. This realisation dominated the next 61 years of his life. He was motivated by Christian and humanitarian concerns, though his exact religious affiliations are hard to determine. Although he was ordained, he found among the Quakers his closest associates.

Clarkson faced a formidable task; for there were many who believed that slavery was both necessary and divinely sanctioned, not least by the example of Abraham. As he set out to mobilise and change public opinion, he employed recognisably modern methods. Not only were there petitions to Parliament, and a boycott of slave-grown sugar: women proudly wore a Wedgwood medallion of a chained slave.

It was Clarkson who produced the evidence that allowed Wilberforce to carry the day. He collected the names of 20,000 seamen who had been involved in the slave trade, and sought to persuade them to give evidence before Parliamentary committees. On a single trip, he visited 317 ships in Woolwich, Chatham, Sheerness, Portsmouth, and Plymouth, interviewing most of the crew. His famous plan of a Liverpool slave ship and its 609 slaves, chained to the decking in every available space, touched the hearts of many.

Slowly he found allies, and it was an important meeting with William Wilberforce, in 1787, which recruited the latter to the campaign.

Wilberforce’s sons (Samuel, who became Bishop of Oxford and then Winchester; Robert, who was Archdeacon of the East Riding) resented this assertion. Their biography, published in 1838, was an expression of filial piety which obscured the contribution made by their father’s collaborators — not least, Thomas Clarkson.

Stephen Tomkins, a recent biographer of Wilberforce, acknowledges that the immensely long five-volume work was widely criticised at the time as “unreadably turgid”. Mr Tomkins identifies the fact that the two sons “reworked” some of their father’s original letters and journals (which still exist).

Thomas Clarkson deserves wider recognition. He was a formidable man by any judgement, six foot six inches tall, with red hair and bursting with restless energy. His statue dominates the centre of Wisbech, whose citizens will join together in the parish church to commemorate the efforts of this remarkable man, who played a central part in the 20-year campaign that ended in the legislation of 1807, and who is a towering figure in the history of human rights.


Anthony Russell, Bishop of Ely

William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce

THE ABOLITION of the slave trade in the British Empire 200 years ago owes much to William Wilberforce (1759-1833). The Conservative Christian Fellowship sees him as the model of a compassionate, Christian Conservative politician. It held its annual Wilberforce Address, this year on the theme of the slave-trade bicentenary, on Tuesday.

But Wilberforce was not just the abolitionist; and the other Wilberforce was not a democrat in the modern sense. In 1780, aged 21, he won his seat in the Commons for Hull by spending £8000 to pay electors. Bribery was accepted. The going rate for a vote was £2. Both within and without Parliament, however, there was growing opposition to the practice.

In the 1790s, Wilberforce spoke strongly against a petition to Parliament for a wider franchise. Near the end of his life, he expressed mild support for the Reform Act of 1832, mainly because he thought it would bring into the House more MPs opposed to slavery.

Wilberforce was a top-down politician. He accepted, almost as a right, that men (not women) who were wealthy should rule. His view of the common people was typical of the wealthy and privileged at this time. He did not see how uneducated labourers could contribute to the decisions that shaped the nation’s policies. He differed from many of his class, however, in feeling compassion towards the poor. He treated his servants and tenants with concern.

After his conversion to Evangelical Christianity, he declared that God had given him two great objectives: the suppression of the slave trade, and the reformation of manners. By the latter, he meant reforming the vice and immorality of Britain. It never occurred to him to involve working-class people in the Proclamation Society, which he set up to reform manners.

Politically, he favoured the repression of the lower orders. He supported the suspension of Habeas Corpus in 1794. A year later, he supported the Gagging Acts, which banned seditious meetings and practices. In 1797, his Proclamation Society instigated the prosecution of a printer who had published Tom Paine’s anti-religious and republican Age of Reason. In Parliament, Wilberforce spoke for the Combination Acts of 1799 to prevent workers combining against their masters.

His support for repression has to be seen in the context of fears that the French Revolution might spread to Britain. But other politicians ridiculed this fear. It certainly opened Wilberforce to the charge of hypocrisy. The radical William Cobbett and the writer William Hazlitt claimed that Wilberforce wanted freedom for slaves abroad, but not for labourers at home.


The views of Cobbett and Hazlitt were not typical, but they were expressed by a significant minority even in the House of Commons. They were taken up by some supporters of the slave trade as mud to throw at Wilberforce. They were most vehemently expressed by the rising number of radicals, often hostile to religion, who wanted political reform. They were angry that Wilberforce was praised for his goodness, while, in their view, he did little good for the lower classes.

Is he really the best model for Christian Conservatives?

REPRESSIVE or not, Wilberforce displayed outstanding positive traits. His dedication to abolition never slackened. Almost certainly, it broke his health and hastened his death. His integrity was displayed in his insistence on doing what he considered to be right. His views on making peace with France angered King George III, who cut him socially, and later sneeringly asked him: “How are your black friends?”

Despite the criticisms of Cobbett and Hazlitt, Wilberforce was compassionate towards the poor in Britain. In Somerset, he funded a school and relief centre. He backed the Factory Act, which limited the hours worked by Poor Law children in cotton mills — and did much more besides.

He did not wish to empower the poor to challenge poverty themselves, but he did want to modify it. He was generous. In the years before his marriage, he gave away a quarter of his income to individuals and agencies. Once wealthy, by the end of his life he faced financial difficulties.

His virtues could well be imitated by other Christian politicians. None should be limited to Conservatives.

IN THE exaltation of Wilberforce as the Tory role-model, one question is overlooked: was he a Tory?

His determination to abolish the slave trade provoked the criticism that it would hinder free trade and reduce commercial profit. Unlike many Tories, free trade was not his prime concern.

Wilberforce was closely associated with his friend, William Pitt, who led the Tory government. But Pitt never made him a minister, and could hardly do so, given that he sometimes voted against the government. In his biography of Wilberforce, (Wilberforce: God’s statesman, Kingsway, 2001), John Pollock writes: “Wilberforce never thought of himself as a party man, certainly not a Tory.”

When he changed his constituency in 1796, he made it clear that he stood as an independent. So Wilberforce cannot be held up as a Tory paragon of virtue. Indeed, he was a mixture of both political virtues and vices. But, above all this, he was an MP with a mission. He put abolition before party or social advancement.

A century after Wilberforce, Keir Hardie was known as the MP for the unemployed. The independent MP Eleanor Rathbone devoted much of her parliamentary life to bringing about family allowances. Today, we need Christian MPs who will make it their mission to serve asylum-seekers, trafficked children, poverty-stricken families, residents of deprived areas, and so on, and to put their mission before personal political advancement and party loyalty. Let Wilberforce be their model.

Bob Holman, Formerly Professor of Social Policy at the University of Bath



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