The 25 March 2017 marks the 210th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Some of you may know that William Wilberforce was the driving force behind this campaign. Wilberforce was born in Hull on 24 August 1759, he studied at Saint John’s College, Cambridge where one of his best friends was William Pitt the Younger.
At one time, Wilberforce considered becoming a priest but many of contemporaries suggested he should use his gifts of public speaking in the public arena and not the church. Wilberforce committed himself to a parliamentary career dedicated to bringing about social reform with a distinctly Christian ethos and was given the accolade ‘The Conscience of Parliament’. Wilberforce was particularly challenged by what the Bible taught in Galatians 3:28 about human beings being created equally in the image of God:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Jesus.
And so began a campaign, which had often seemed quite hopeless, with many setbacks due to the indifference of MP’s (and the Church hierarchy) who had a vested, financial interest in supporting a ‘successful’ slave trade. There were also concerns that the political unrest behind the French Revolution would spread to Britain.
Undeterred, Wilberforce kept researching and speaking and bringing his Bills to Parliament, keeping the issue alive in the public arena for twenty years. Thousands of ordinary men and women supported his campaign signing petitions urging Parliament to abolish the trade. There was the famous boycott of sugar produced by slave-owning planters and hundreds of thousands of people either gave up sugar or substituted it with honey or maple syrup and, from 1795, there was a progressive boycott of slave-produced goods.
Finally, at 4.00 am on Wednesday 25 March 1807, the Abolition of the Slave Trade Bill was passed by a landslide majority with 16 no’s to the left and 283 ayes to the right. Suddenly, MPs were fighting to pay tribute to “That exalted and benevolent individual” clapping and cheering – a display unprecedented in parliamentary history.
Wilberforce devoted the rest of his life to the abolition of the slave trade throughout the British Empire and on 26 July 1833 his lifelong dream became a reality. On hearing the news, Wilberforce cried:
Thank God that I have lived to witness the day in which England is willing to give £20 million for the abolishment of slavery.
Three days later, on 29 July 1833, William Wilberforce died.
The Government paid compensation to slave owners according to the number of slaves they had – 40% of its annual budget! It’s said that the Bishop of Exeter had 655 slaves and received £12,700. By the time the slave trade came to an end, approximately 12 million men, women and children had been sold into slavery. The historian, W.E.H. Lecky, wrote that the Act of Abolition, and the struggle that led to it:
Marks the very few perfectly virtuous pages in the history of this nation.
There are an estimated 27 million slaves in the world today. People trafficking is the fastest growing means by which people are enslaved and one of the largest sources of income for organised crime, involving: forced marriage; sexual exploitation; domestic servitude; child soldiers; drug trade; benefit fraud etc., see www.stopthetraffik.org/uk Some people say the church shouldn’t get involved in socio-political activism, but that’s not what the Bible says. In Proverbs 31:8-9 we read:
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed. Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless …
What might you be able to do, as we enter the season of Lent (a time of introspection and of seeking God’s will for our lives and his world) to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves?
This is a copy of my article for the March 2017 edition of the Billericay ‘Around Town Magazine’
My article Amazing Grace might be a helpful read alongside this article.