As Tony Blair Expresses His 'Deep Sorrow'over the Slave Trade, Why Didn't He Mention the Courageous British Man Who Brought It to an End?

Daily Mail (London), November 28, 2006 | Go to article overview

As Tony Blair Expresses His 'Deep Sorrow'over the Slave Trade, Why Didn't He Mention the Courageous British Man Who Brought It to an End?


Byline: CHRISTOPHER HUDSON

TONY Blair yesterday expressed 'deep sorrow' at the sale of millions of Africans into slavery more than two centuries ago. The Prime Minister said: 'I believe the bicentenary [of the Slave Trade Act in March] offers us the chance not just to say how profoundly shameful the slave trade was . . .

but also to express our deep sorrow that it could have happened.' But Mr Blair failed to mention that Britain was the first country to outlaw slavery and explain how British MP William Wilberforce was almost single-handedly responsible for the abolition of the brutal trade. . .

THE CONDITIONS on a slave ship during the 1700s were barbaric. All that mattered to the ship's captain was the profit he made by carrying as much human cargo as his hold would take. Slaves were packed like sardines and made to lie in their own excrement. One 18th-century surgeon on a British slave ship noted that the floor of the slave hold 'was so covered in blood and mucus which had proceeded from them in consequence of the [dysentery] that it resembled a slaughterhouse'. The air was so foul that a candle would not light in it.

On the worst voyages, skippered by men too drunk or too callous to take care of their charges, slaves attempted to jump overboard; others tried to kill themselves by refusing food, in which case the slave was forced to his knees and a burning coal was applied to his mouth to make him scream - then a metal implement called a Speculum Oris was forced between his jaws so that food could be emptied down his throat.

Even when the ships reached their destination in the West Indies, the brutality of a slave's life was only just beginning. Traded as though they were commodities and treated with unfettered cruelty, they lived short, joyless lives.

In that respect, Tony Blair's expression of 'deep sorrow' for the slave trade hardly seems to do justice to the horror to which he refers. But what was particularly unfortunate about the Prime Minister's remarks was that they omitted any reference to the fact that Britain led the world in abolishing the trade in slaves.

The Slave Trade Abolition Act, which came into effect in 1807, remains possibly the greatest act of altruism in political history.

The man behind it, William Wilberforce, was buried with solemn honours in Westminster Abbey in 1833. It was crass that Mr Blair did not so much as mention his name.

The 1807 Act was passed in the teeth of violent opposition from most of the moneyed classes in Britain. By the late 18th century, we led the world in trading slaves, buying and selling as many African slaves - up to 35,000 each year in some 90 vessels - as the rest of Europe put together.

Liverpool was the biggest carrier of slaves of any city in the world; Bristol was not far behind.

All but the poorest classes benefited from the slave trade. Tobacco, coffee, tea and especially sugar were on every table. Almost everyone of influence, from the Lord Chief Justice of England downwards, either owned slaves or had a commercial interest in trading them. Many plantation owners brought slaves home: by the 1780s, there were nearly 20,000 of them in the UK.

This was the vested interest against which Wilberforce and his allies fought - although the impetus behind it had begun before Wilberforce was even born.

This was the evangelical movement, very similar to the shift towards evangelical Christianity today, in which believers found their faith in their own hearts rather than in the conventional ceremonies of the established Church of England.

It was this evangelical revival which Wilberforce harnessed to his crusade against slavery. Born in 1859, he was small and slight, with weak eyesight and indifferent health, but he overcame these disabilities with his enormous energy, compelling charm and open, spontaneous generosity.

HIS FAMILY was rich enough to send him to university, where he met his lifelong friend and invaluable supporter, the future Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger. …

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