An unamiable trade

I’ve fairly recently finished reading William Hague’s lengthy biography (500+ pages) of William Wilberforce, the independent MP and evangelical Christian who spent twenty years campaigning in Parliament for the abolition of the slave trade. His efforts eventually led to the Slave Trade Act of 1807.

This is a very thorough and likeable book, well-written and giving a picture of a man who seems to have been enormously steadfast, conscientious in his many duties (including representing the huge constituency of Yorkshire), generous, pacific, and charming, if occasionally slow to answer letters. Despite poor health, he travelled indefatigably and was a voracious reader, carrying books with him wherever he went, and frequently leaving dried flowers between their pages (as bookmarks?) His evangelical principles never allowed him to rest content with himself, and he constantly wrote notes on his own hardness of heart, and failure to concentrate on prayer. (This self-condemnation seems to be a feature of 18th century Evangelicals, contrasting sharply with the modern church.)

Hague says wryly that his unbusinesslike ways made him unsuitable for ministerial office, and he remained all his lengthy Parliamentary career an independent, although the best friend of longterm Prime Minister William Pitt.

Some may complain that Hague, as a politician, gives a lot of attention for example to details of 18th-century electioneering, at the expense perhaps of Wilberforce’s very respectable but extraordinary private life. Having lived as an apparently contented bachelor to the age of 37, he proposed to twenty-year-old Barbara Spooner eight days after meeting her, and married her the following month. He remained devoted to her all his life, and he was a hands-on and playful father to their six children.

Like one of the reviewers, I did finish this book liking both Hague and Wilberforce!

However, I wanted to read it partly because I thought it would be interesting, having seen the film “Amazing Grace”, starring Ioan Gruffud; but also for a more devious reason.

Believing, as I do most of the time, that the church needs to change its view on same-sex relationships, despite certain often-quoted Bible verses, I was curious as to how Christians in the past had managed to change their views of what is and isn’t allowed. I thought the story of Wilberforce and the abolition of the slave trade might help.

It did not, for two reasons.

Firstly, the traditionalists are right when they point out to people like me that the two issues are not really comparing like with like. Slavery is assumed and condoned in the Bible, to a degree that modern readers find distasteful and troubling. But it is not commanded. Wilberforce and his many allies were not encouraging people to do or approve what those people genuinely believed to be wrong.

Secondly, however, the battle Wilberforce fought was not mainly about the morality of the slave trade. This surprised me.

He and his friends did not often have to argue against anyone saying that Africans ought to be slaves; and that slave-owning was God’s command, wish or grant to white peoples, or any peoples. For this argument, perhaps I should have gone one or two hundred or so years earlier, or perhaps even to the early Church Fathers.

In the late 18th century, the absence of nationally accepted statistics and documentary film meant that the Society for the Purpose of Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade did have to challenge misinformation as to the treatment of slaves, and how they liked their situation. It was for example alleged that captured Africans were so happy to be being transported to America that they were observed dancing on the decks of the slave ships. The Society had to point out carefully that they were forced by their captors to dance with whips, in order to give them healthful exercise, and make them more saleable.

But the principle itself presented the Society with comparatively little difficulty. The House of Commons actually voted for a “gradual abolition” of the slave trade in 1792. This was a compromise and a delaying tactic, and it succeeded.

“Gradual abolition” took fifteen years, and often seemed to be getting nowhere.

The battle fought by the abolitionists was almost entirely economic. Britain had to maintain the slave trade to save its workers and businesses. If we didn’t trade in slaves, our competitors would. Some of these competitors were also enemies, of course – the wars sparked off by the French Revolution were being fought throughout this period.

Wilberforce obtained the first major debate on the slave trade in 1791, having with his friends spent years gathering evidence. His eloquent and passionate speech “received the strong support of the two leading politicians of the land” (Pitt and Fox). But the mood of the House was more with the speaker whose name Hague does not give, but who is quoted in Hansard as saying

He must acknowledge that the slave trade was an unamiable trade; but he would not gratify his humanity at the expense of his country, and he thought we should not too curiously enquire into the unpleasant circumstances with which it was perhaps attended.” (Hansard, quoted in Hague on page197).

I am haunted by this surely honest and human quote. Our country needs the slave trade; let’s not look too closely. Perhaps my constituents, my family, my comfort needs the slave-trade.

How long it took for supposedly civilised people to do what was obviously necessary and humane!

We also are supposedly civilised people. What are the things that I should more “curiously enquire into”?

“I must acknowledge that the consumerist extreme capitalist culture, by which I demand unlimited energy, air travel, cheap clothes, and gadgets possibly sourced in conflict zones, may be an unamiable one…”

Love from the PPI Blogger

  • Alan Darley

    10th November 2017 at 6:15 pm Reply

    Thank you for this interesting and informative post. Have you also read John Wesley’s prophetic book, ‘Thoughts on Slavery’? Wesley passed on the mantle to Wilberforce.

  • Ruth Price

    10th November 2017 at 8:44 pm Reply

    What a thought provoking piece of writing. Thanks Penny…

  • Malachi Malagowther

    12th November 2017 at 4:03 pm Reply

    In terms of modern analogies I think the key term is the word “trade”. Wilberforce wasn’t trying to abolish slavery directly – most of the countries that practiced slavery on a large scale, like the USA, were not under British control. In the case of the USA we didn’t even have much influence as the war of 1812 showed. What we could control, to some extent, was trans-Atlantic and other sea-borne trade.

    Is there any modern situation where oppressed people are denied their basic human rights and forced to undergo perilous journeys, risk death by drowning, disease or man’s inhumanity on a large international scale? I would have thought that the modern equivalent to the slave trade is the forced expulsion of millions of refugees whether from Myanmar, Syria or Sudan. We don’t control these countries but through our membership of the UN and in other ways we still have some influence and involvement in trying to find solutions for the homeless refugees. Angela Merkel’s solution was to welcome over a million refugees into Germany during 2016 and Germany is paying a steep political and economic price. In the light of this Britain’s response of grudgingly accepting several hundreds of unaccompanied children and having an International Development secretary, whose innovative new idea seemed to be to send money to the Israeli army to subsidise their field hospitals in the occupied Golan heights, seems a bit inadequate. If Wilberforce were around today wouldn’t he want to do a bit more?

  • Stephen Hall

    15th November 2017 at 10:30 am Reply

    We spent our October break in Richmond, North Yorkshire, which was William Hague’s parliamentary seat. Our rental property was opposite the Conservative Club. Several people we spoke to said what a nice man he was/ is, willing to wait for two hours outside the butchers on Christmas Eve with the hoi polloi to collect his turkey rather than pulling rank and jumping the queue.

    Is your final sentence a quote from Hague’s book, or your own musings?

    • Penelope Wallace

      16th November 2017 at 9:26 am Reply

      My final sentence is my own take on the long-ago MP’s musings. It’s not by Hague. How fantastic to hear that he he remembered in this way, 200 years after his death.

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