Slavery, rebellion, abolition

IssueApril 2007
Feature by Milan Rai , Emily Johns

A myth is being created. The myth of William Wilberforce, the great white liberator, as perpetuated by Amazing Grace, the Hollywood version of the abolition of the slave trade.

The reality is captured in Adam Hochschild's magisterial study, Bury the chains: the British struggle to abolish slavery, which brings to life “a pioneering mobilisation of public opinion, via boycotts, petitions, and great popular campaigns, all powerfully reinforced by the armed slave revolts”.

A crucial role was played by working-class British people, by white women otherwise denied a role in political life, and by the repeated slave uprisings abroad that finally led to the abolition of slavery itself in the British empire in 1833.

Hochschild writes that in 1833, “Freeing the slaves was the only alternative to a widespread war that might be beyond the government's military capacity.”

This military capacity was maintained in the late eighteenth-century by the “press-gang” - random, violent conscription - which kidnapped and enslaved tens of thousands of young white British men into the navy. Hochschild suggests this may be why Britain had a mass antislavery movement, but no other European slavetrading nation did.

A grassroots movement

The grassroots antislavery movement's impatience with its “leadership” was expressed by Elizabeth Heyrick, who in 1824 criticised the mainstream antislavery figures for their “slow, cautious, accommodating measures”.

Wilberforce delayed the adoption of a sugar boycott by the national antislavery committee for several years (even after 300,000 people had stopped using the product of slavery).

Wilberforce thought that once slavery was abolished, the exslaves would become a “grateful peasantry” (“taught by Christianity” to this view). Wilberforce played an invaluable role, but he was not a saint.

As with most social movements, abolitionist “leaders” were often pushed along by the force of those they supposedly “led”.

We should celebrate the courage of the tens of thousands of slaves who rebelled at the cost of their own lives, and the tenacity of the white women and men of all classes who created a nonviolent abolitionist force that could not be ignored.

Topics: History