Not Just William ; Wilberforce Has Traditionally Been Given Much of the Credit for the Abolition of Slavery, but a New Biography Points out That Many Other Activists - and the Slaves Themselves - Also Played a Part
Bostridge, Reviewed Mark, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
By William Hague
Harper Press [pound]25
William Hague's biography of his fellow Yorkshireman, William Wilberforce, arrives a little too late to join in with all the commemorations of the bicentenary, back in February, of Britain's abolition of its Atlantic slave trade in 1807. Perhaps this is just as well. The focus of many of the commemorative events this spring seems to have tried deliberately to avoid being labelled as a "Wilberfest", and in so doing has moved beyond the traditional concentration on Wilberforce as the prime advocate of abolition in Parliament to wider consideration of the part played by many other hardworking activists for the cause.
The decisive role of the Quakers, and of individuals such as Elizabeth Heyrick, who argued for speedier tactics to bring about abolition in place of the gradualism of the Westminster approach, and who grasped the importance of pressure-group politics, especially among women, are now properly given their due. And, of course, the revolts of the slaves themselves, most of all the massive, bloody but successful 1791 uprising in Haiti led by "the black Napoleon" Toussaint L'Ouverture, were for a long time patron- isingly overlooked by white historians, but are increasingly regarded as having hastened not only the abolition of the slave trade, but to have also brought about the end, within the British Empire, of slavery itself, in 1833, as Wilberforce lay dying.
Anyone still seeking the William Wilberforce of storybook history will have had no trouble finding him in Michael Apted's recent film Amazing Grace. This Wilberforce biopic, not surprisingly, portrays abolition as essentially a one-man show (and, as Adam Hochschild has recently pointed out, was financed by Philip Anschutz, a major backer of America's Christian right, members of which believe that, were he alive today, Wilberforce would be a crusader against abortion). The locations and costumes are mesmerising, but the script and situations resemble a Warner Brothers biographical epic from the 1930s. The casting of a strapping Welsh actor, Ioan Gruffudd, in the lead role, when Wilberforce was small, physically fragile and suffered from terrible eyesight, may have made for good box office, but certainly contributed to a sense of disbelief.
The first thing to be said in favour of William Hague's book is that he works hard to see Wilberforce's character and attitudes in the round. This is no one-dimensional hero. In the first major biography for almost 30 years, Hague rightly lauds the achievements which Wilberforce's Evangelical faith and convictions, and his political determination, brought into existence. In the long, exhausting, and often dispiriting haul, which started in 1786 and was only brought to a climax 20 years later when the slave trade was voted into history, Wilberforce remained the strong beacon of hope that kept the cause alive.
He would, however, have been unable to do so without Thomas Clarkson's extra-parliamentary campaign, which Hague at one point describes as Wilberforce's army and his ammunition, nor without his band in Parliament of Clapham "Saints" (though like just about every other writer on the subject in the last 100 years, Hague downplays the contribution of the Unitarian MP, William Smith, to the mustering of support in the Commons). …