The Campaign to Abolish Slavery Part Three: Setbacks and Stagnation Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Campaign to Abolish Slavery Part Three: Setbacks and Stagnation

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Part One: Am I Not A Man And A Brother? | Part Two: The Abolitionists | Part Three: Setbacks and Stagnation | Part Four: Victory and the Continuing Struggle
Actor Martin Turner as William Wilberforce.

The Public Groundswell

During 1788 and 1789, there was an unprecedented public outcry against the slave trade. 103 petitions arrived in Parliament, signed by perhaps 100,000 people. A public boycott of slave-grown sugar attracted 300,000 people, despite opposition from Wilberforce. The famous diagram of the slave-ship Brookes, showing how tightly packed the slaves were, was produced and became another instant emblem of the abolitionist campaign. Poetry, plays, debates and magazines all promoted the anti-slave trade cause.

So why was there no motion in Parliament? Firstly, over 90% of people did not have a vote. Those who did were largely the rich, many of whom got their money from slavery. Wilberforce was infirm at this time, and not present to present his bill; when he recovered, King George III suffered from a temporary bout of insanity and all parliamentary business was suspended. Then there was a lengthy but fair enquiry by the pro-slavery Lord Hawkesbury, who produced an 850-page report that needed to be read and digested by MPs. When Wilberforce finally spoke in parliament against slavery, he meekly accepted the suggestion that a still more comprehensive report was required, leading to another two years of delays, during which time two of the staunchest supporters of slavery arrived on the scene.

Colonel Banastre Tarleton was a hero of the wars in America, and was elected by the port of Liverpool, whose economy depended upon slavery. The Duke of Clarence - the future King William IV - in the Lords was equally opposed to abolition.

Just as the second report - now 1,700 pages in length - was produced, a slave revolt broke out in Dominica, making it difficult for MPs to vote for a cause that British troops were actively fighting against. Wilberforce's first anti-slavery motion was defeated by 163 votes to 88 in the Commons, with the Lords felt to be even less sympathetic.

1791 saw the largest slave revolt of all time, on the French island of St Domingue. Prices for both sugar and slaves reached an all-time peak, giving the slavery lobby huge spending power. They produced reports stating that slaves lived far better on the plantations than most farmers did in Britain. Nonetheless, the Commons finally passed an anti-slavery bill, calling for the phasing out of the slave trade by 1798, only to have the Lords stall further. Denmark also passed an anti-slave trade bill at this time, which phased the Danish slave trade out over the next decade.

By late 1792, the revolution in France was entering its most violent phase, and war between Britain and France was brewing.

Sierra Leone

Set up in 1788, the Sierra Leone colony was a debacle from the start. One of Granville Sharp's partners, Henry Smeathman, turned out to be an embezzler. The other, Jonas Hanway, was possibly even more eccentric than Sharp, campaigning against everything from tea to ostrich feathers (though he was strongly in favour of umbrellas and peacock feathers). Neither of these men would live to see the colony founded.

When the expedition did set sail in 1787, it was delayed in port by storms and poor provisioning (probably due to corruption). In return for exposing this, Equiano was removed from the expedition with honour but against his will. When they finally arrived in Africa, they found that their chosen site was close to Bance Island, the largest slave depot in Africa. Within a year, disease and lack of supplies would force many of the colonists to seek shelter within the slave fort.

Over the next few years, questionable on-site leadership and downright inept edicts from Sharp in Britain led to further hardship for the settlers. On several occasions they were shelled by French ships, and some of the residents took up employment as slavers at Bance Island. Nevertheless, the colony succeeded, and became Freetown, the modern capital of Sierra Leone.

War with France

By 1794, the war with France had led to a draconian clampdown on civil liberties in Britain. Public meetings were banned, troops were putting down a rebellion in Ireland, and parliament (with Wilberforce's support) had passed the notorious Two Acts that outlawed any kind of dissent, under threat of death.

The abolitionist movement was scattered and ineffective, and these were the years that saw the greatest ever volume of slaves being shipped across the Atlantic. The Sierra Leone colony came under attack by the French navy several times. The abolition of the slave trade was suspended indefinitely, as the pro-slavery lobby argued that to abolish slavery now would hand the French an economic gift horse. Pitt, the Prime Minister, was forced to tone down his own opposition to slavery in order to keep his War Cabinet united.

Despite this, Wilberforce introduced another motion against the slave trade in 1796 that was defeated by just four votes. Wilberforce had failed to ensure that his supporters understood the importance of their attendance, and many of them were watching a comic opera as the vote took place.

Equiano died in 1797, and both Clarkson and Wilberforce married. Wilberforce and several Evangelical friends (including the Bowdlers) moved to Clapham Common, where they became known as the Clapham Set or the Saints.

In the meantime, the revolt in St Domingue rumbled on. Now under the leadership of Toussaint l'Overture, the slaves were enjoying great success conducting a guerrilla-style campaign against the French troops. In 1793, the governor was forced to issue a decree freeing all slaves on the island, and in February 1794 - five years after the Revolution, with its slogan of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité1 - all slaves in France and its colonies were officially freed.

Britain invaded St Domingue and, after some initial success, was sucked into a bloody and protracted war. Further revolts were now breaking out as slaves in the British Caribbean heard of the liberty their brothers in the French Caribbean had taken for themselves, and the abolitionist Pitt was forced to buy slaves to boost the army to put down these rebellions!

In 1802, France, now under Napoleon, invaded St Domingue once again, and captured l'Overture, who died within a year. They restored slavery, secretly at first, but could not hold the entire island. The western half formed the republic of Haiti.

1Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood.

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