Was Wilberforce the only influential parliamentarian abolitionist? Certainly not…

Joining the History of Parliament on work experience this summer, A level student Georgina Hands explained that she had heard about the Trust after using our website for research in to a school history project. Here she blogs for us about her research in to the parliamentary abolitionists…

Britain’s slave trade is a part of history which is often overlooked. Despite the practice of the trade occurring until the relatively modern time of 1833, I was shocked when I came to the sudden realisation of how ignorant I was of the abolition movement and the individuals involved. After being given the opportunity to write and research an in-depth piece on any historical topic of my choosing, I decided to look at the movement to learn more about it. Although William Wilberforce is considered to be one of the most, if not the most, influential political figures in fighting for the eradication of slavery, I decided to explore who else was involved. I set off on my quest, curious to understand the other personalities which helped bring the abolition case into the political sphere.

A simple online search did resemble something of a Wilberforce shrine, but also presented campaigners such as Olaudah Equiano as well as the lesser known Elizabeth Heyrick. But I kept asking: what about individual parliamentarians? Upon further digging I learned more of the likes of Henry Brougham, Sir Fowell Buxton, and James Stephen. I wished to further my awareness about those who supported anti-slavery, and pondered on the following questions: Did their personal background help formulate their views? Was their support purely for the sake of political advantage? Did they always believe in the case against slavery? This directed me to use the History of Parliament website. As slightly biased I may be, I have always found the site very user friendly and accessible, undoubtedly making life a little brighter. I had formerly explored the website on my reoccurring odd research tangents (I assure you this is a lot more hip than it sounds) but not for any serious enquiries. With my hit-list of names I embarked into going through the biographies.

First up: Henry Brougham. He was certainly an interesting chap. In 1803 he published Enquiry into the Colonial Policy of European Powers, and it is clear the abolition of the slave trade was of serious interest to him right from the beginning. Unfortunately he was met with some hostile reception, especially from the Whig Dr James Currie, who suggested Brougham was simply a “scatter-brained fellow” and possessed a talent of “putting obscure sentences together”. As harsh as this may be, it interested me as it painted Brougham as something of an underdog. As a result of this kind of charm, it seems somewhat fitting his anti-slavery beliefs coincide with the ideal of people being treated fairly and equally. His need for employment led him on an unofficial fact-finding mission, resulting in him publishing the work: Concise statement of the question regarding the abolition of the slave trade, which gathered much public attention. Having an impressive parliamentarian career, it is clear Brougham served as a hard worker, and went far enough to look past the abuse he received from others. The published works led to Wilberforce labelling Brougham as a “shrewd man”. This is perhaps a perfect description of somebody who was a bit of an outsider, but went on to fight against the norm and the enslavement of others.

Sir Fowell Buxton was unmistakably a determined fellow. After Wilberforce he served as a prominent figure in the anti-slavery crusade. Adopting the maxim “always fight” for the cause, it was clear he possessed passionate evangelical conviction. His willpower to make sure his anti-slavery motion was proposed simply speaks for itself. One of his largest concerns was to allow children born in to slavery freed, an area not already targeted. Speaking out against the petition of the West India planters and merchants in 1830, demonstrates his courage of not being afraid to ruffle a few feathers (or in this case, quite a lot) in order to further his moral campaign. His perseverance of religious and philanthropic views continued throughout his life, conceivably showing that he was not just a man of politics, but a man of principles.

James Stephen was a strong associate of Wilberforce, and one might even argue, chum. Stephen contacted Wilberforce back in his prime, and acted as a source for private information to strengthen Wilberforce’s arguments. Writing anonymously for the Morning Chronicle as an abolitionist, it is apparent how strong his views were on the movement. He also developed his religious beliefs, becoming influentially involved in the Clapham Sect. Stephen was a lifelong associate of Wilberforce, and more: Stephen married Wilberforce’s sister and even became his neighbour. Akin to Brougham he published anti-slavery material, but dissimilarly his work was well received. Stephens’s 1802 pamphlet: The crisis in the sugar colonies was a success. His continuing ways as an altruist allowed him to strengthen the abolition cause within parliament, and aided Wilberforce to glorify the cause to a much larger extent.

Although history primarily can be seen as a study of particular events, the individuals acting as a driving force for such large cultural and social change is an area which I am deeply fascinated with. For this reason, I am glad I have discovered more of the abolition cause, digging deeper into the movement than only Wilberforce, as there were evidently other noteworthy political figures. I found myself questioning why the people I read of cared so much about eradicating slavery. But I have come to this conclusion: it is much easier now to feel proud of relatively privileged individuals who campaigned against the practice rather than to fully comprehend the atrocities which occurred and confront why the social change was even needed in the first place.

GH

Georgina is continuing her A level studies this year, and is applying to study history at University.

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