The Clapham Sect and its part in the slave trade

by
28 July 2010

THE first British colony in Africa, Sierra Leone, was an abolitionist project of the Clapham Sect, the Evangelical activists of whom William Wilber­force is the best known.

It was founded to resettle former slaves, and to establish commerce between Britain and West Africa which would undermine the slave trade. It also wanted to export “Christianity and civilisation”. And yet, after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, the authorities in Sierra Leone, with the knowledge and support of Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect, introduced slave labour, reduced freed people to slavery, and bought and sold them as slaves.

Wilberforce and his friends also used their influence to dismiss and silence the man who tried to stop the abolitionist slavery taking place in the capital city, Freetown.

That reformer was Lt Thomas Perronet Thompson, the first Crown Governor of Sierra Leone.

A 25-year-old Evangelical abolition­ist soldier, he was officially ap­pointed by Lord Castlereagh in 1808, but was effectively the choice and protégé of Wilberforce.

From 1791 to 1807, the colony had been run with no great success by the Clapham Sect themselves. Their Sierra Leone Company had lost its whole capital of £240,000, failed to establish agriculture or trade, and provoked armed rebel­lion from the settlers.

Record-breaking rains, desolating disease, and a French invasion did not help, but neither did the fact that they had little idea what they were doing. Sierra Leone then be­came a Crown colony, but the Clapham Sect remained closely in­volved.

Record-breaking rains, desolating disease, and a French invasion did not help, but neither did the fact that they had little idea what they were doing. Sierra Leone then be­came a Crown colony, but the Clapham Sect remained closely in­volved.

WHEN he arrived there, in July 1808, Thompson was appalled by what he saw. The British had been faced with the problem of what to do with African captives rescued from slave ships now that the Navy was patrol­ling the Atlantic to enforce the Abolition Act. The solution was to bring them to Sierra Leone, and 167 had been handed over to the auth­orities in Freetown.

Governor Ludlam had paid naval officers their bounty, and, to recoup the money, he made the captives apprentices to settlers in Sierra Leone, who paid £20 per man. The women, Thompson said, euphemis­tically, “were given away”. Ap-prentices were given nothing but their provisions, forced to work, and imprisoned if they tried to escape. The maximum term was 14 years.

One master, finding his eight-year-old “apprentice” unsatisfactory, burned her back repeatedly with an iron, telling Thompson that “he paid money for the girl and there­fore she is his.” A slave trader pro­posed to bring 300 slaves to Free­town to have Thompson apprentice them back to him, renew the term when it expired, “and by that time I think they will have pretty well worked themselves out.”

In his book General T. Perronet Thompson 1783-1869: His military, literary and political campaigns, Leonard G. Johnson quotes Thomp­son as saying: “These apprentice­ships have, after 16 years’ successful struggle, at last introduced actual slavery into the colony.”

As incongruous as it is with the humanitarian passion of the Clap­ham Sect, that, it appears, is the truth of it. They disputed the term “slavery”, but it was forced labour under the threat of punishment, involuntarily entered into, and without recompense — the only difference from full British slavery being the maximum term.

Thompson reported the situation to Castlereagh and Wilberforce, saying he would resign before ac­cepting apprenticeship. He was confident that they would share his outrage, but was unaware that they knew about apprenticeship and accepted it — Wilberforce re­luc­tantly, and Castlereagh with alacrity.

Thompson immediately declared all apprenticeships null and void, without compensation to the masters, released from jail runaway apprentices who had been recaptured, and declared slave-holding and slave-trading felonies.

When 118 more “liberated Africans” were delivered to Free­town that year, he gave them paid work on alternate weeks, leaving them to work on their own houses and land the rest of the time.

When 118 more “liberated Africans” were delivered to Free­town that year, he gave them paid work on alternate weeks, leaving them to work on their own houses and land the rest of the time.

CASTLEREAGH delegated Sierra Leone matters to the Sierra Leone Company, leaving the issue in the hands of Wilberforce and his close friend, the company’s chairman, Henry Thorn­ton, of Clapham. The two of them had misgivings about appren­ticeship, but told Thompson he was being rash in abolishing it and unreasonable in refusing to re­compense the masters.

Thompson insisted that the trans­actions he had made void were effectively slave trading, and there­fore illegal under the Abolition Act. Thornton replied that, on the con­trary, the Act required the appren­ticeship of redeemed slaves.

The truth was somewhere in between: the Act explicitly allowed their apprenticeship, without re­quiring it. What was happening in Freetown was legal, and it was government policy, however badly it compromised the Clapham Sect’s abolitionist stance.

In his book, Johnson records that Wilberforce told Thompson: “I wish I had time to go into particulars respecting the difficulties which forced us into acquiescing in the system of apprenticing.”

Presumably, the abolitionists believed that the Bill would not pass the Lords without that provision, and that apprenticeship was a price worth paying for the success of the Bill after 20 years of failure.

IN FAIRNESS, it is hard to dis­pute the first point at a distance of 200 years from the backroom deals of the Abolition Act, and, if it is true, then the second surely follows: the Abolition Act outlawed a traffic that claimed 40,000 people a year, while condemning hundreds of them to a lesser form of slavery in Freetown.

And yet, if “authorising indented servants”, as Thornton preferred to call it, was the lesser of two evils, it was still an evil, and a shocking one, and between them Thompson, Wilberforce, and Thornton had the opportunity to overturn it, but failed.

If Thompson had sought their support for suspending the system, they would, I think, have given it, and Castlereagh would have left them to it. Instead, he misguidedly complained to Castlereagh, bitterly and repeatedly, that the Sierra

Leone Company had become an illegal and dishonest slave-trading operation, carrying out “the grossest system of prevarication and per­version”.

Thus he alienated Wilberforce and Thornton, and other ardent abolitionists in the company, choosing instead for his ally a minister who cared nothing for slaves and had opposed abolition. By acting like an abolitionist fire­brand, and overturning government policy that Wilberforce had ac­ceded to, Thompson put his patron’s political reputation on the line.

Thus he alienated Wilberforce and Thornton, and other ardent abolitionists in the company, choosing instead for his ally a minister who cared nothing for slaves and had opposed abolition. By acting like an abolitionist fire­brand, and overturning government policy that Wilberforce had ac­ceded to, Thompson put his patron’s political reputation on the line.

THE company directors, in­cluding Wilberforce and Thornton, agreed un­an-imously that Thompson should be dismissed. Wilberforce advised him to go quietly for the sake of his career, which he did, and proved the value of the advice by rising to the rank of General and becoming an MP.

It was not until 1815 that the controversy was made public by the disgruntled former Chief Justice in Freetown, Robert Thorpe. After his dismissal in a dispute over money with the Colonial Office, Thorpe published a book, A Letter to William Wilberforce, which included Thompson’s accusations, along with scathing criticisms of the Clapham Sect’s other dealings in Sierra Leone. He concluded that their colonialism and abolitionism in general were a front for cynical profiteering.

Thorpe’s case was marred by his willingness to throw in anything he could find to embarrass or discredit his opponents, including obviously wild allegations. His case was also marred by the fact that he had been removed from his post for using those accusations to try to blackmail the Colonial Secretary, after he had sat quietly on the information for several years. Nevertheless, it was a hugely damaging scandal for the Clapham Sect, which lost them much of their in­fluence in British colonies in Africa.

Apprenticeship continued in Sierra Leone even after it was ended in the Caribbean in 1838, after the abolition of slavery. A Parliamentary inquiry in 1842 reported that there were 2684 apprentices in Sierra Leone, on terms of three to seven years, and that the price was now £1 each.

THE question how Wilber­force’s conduct should be judged is not made any easier by the strong feelings he elicits: some see him as a hero of the faith and/or the nation, while others disparage him on the grounds that his admirers have exaggerated the importance of Christianity and/or white Englishmen in the abolition.

I have spent much of the past five years first writing his biography, and then researching the story of the Clapham Sect, and I find myself a critical admirer. He was a man of remarkable integrity, passion, and extraordinary stamina in his great causes. His most important failing was preferring to speak and act for the poor and slaves rather than let them speak or act or themselves; something that blighted the Clapham Sect’s dealings with Freetown.

That is not a factor that might have come into play here, however. Perhaps they were influenced by the fact that in managing Sierra Leone they were, in a sense, working for the government, and so were not able to see slavery as ideologically as they were used to. But members of the Clapham Sect, especially Wilberforce, proved repeatedly willing to sacrifice political in­fluence and friendships to their all-consuming causes and ideals; so it seems that this factor cannot have made a very great difference.

It is more likely that they were convinced that opposing the ap­prenticeship clause of the abolition Bill would have cost them the whole Act, and that, regrettable as it was, it came down to a question of arith­metic: 40,000 people a year were to be saved from slavery by the Act, minus a few hundred to Sierra Leone.

It is certainly a terrible shame that Wilberforce and Thompson could not between them have managed to reform the system acceptably. But there is no way of reading the situation which would overshadow Wilberforce’s central and indispensable part in the aboli­tion of the slave trade, and the fairest judgement is that, while his hands were not as clean as we might have thought, he was faced with an uncomfortable choice, and chose what he thought was the lesser of two evils.

The Clapham Sect: How Wilber­force’s circle transformed Britain is published on 20 August (Lion, £10.99 (CT Bookshop £9.90); 978-0-7459-5306-9).

Manuscripts are in the Colonial Office papers at Kew, specifically the collection CO 267/24.

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