William Wilberforce, a Lettre and An Appeal: abolitionism between campaigns, 1807-1823

Ahead of tonight’s Parliaments, Politics and People seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, we hear from Anna Harrington, a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. She spoke at our previous session on 25 February about her research into the campaigning of William Wilberforce following the abolition of the slave trade in 1807…

William Wilberforce (1759-1833) is remembered as the MP who championed the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. He retired from the House of Commons in 1825, after forty-five years as an MP (1780-1825). My PhD thesis, which is a reassessment of Wilberforce’s abolitionist activity throughout his career, argues that in many ways the years after the abolition of the slave trade reflect what Wilberforce had done within that first campaign.

William Wilberforce by William Say, mezzotint (1820), CC NPG

Wilberforce was as active an abolitionist in the second half of his career as he was in the first, but after the abolition of the British slave trade, abolitionist activity developed three distinct branches: the first enforcing British abolition, the second encouraging other nations to abolish their slave trades, and the third attempting to reform slavery.

None of these aims were new. Opponents of abolition had claimed that it would be unenforceable in the parliamentary debates on the matter. In the late 1780s, Wilberforce and William Pitt had made overtures to the French government in the hopes of securing promises on the slave trade. In his speeches on abolition, Wilberforce had claimed that ending the slave trade would encourage slave-owners to treat enslaved persons better, to reduce mortality rates and increase birth rates, thereby reforming slavery through abolition.

W. Wilberforce, Lettre à l’Empereur Alexandre sur la traite des noirs (1822)

In February 1822, Wilberforce published Lettre à l’Empereur Alexandre sur la traite des noirs (A Letter to the Tsar Alexander on the Slave Trade). Thirteen months later, in March 1823, he published An Appeal to the Religion, Justice and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies. These two publications, I argue, marked the final shift in mainstream abolitionism from a focus on the slave trade to the wider issue of slavery.

During the 1810s, the majority of Wilberforce’s efforts were focused on enforcing British abolition and securing European abolition. After the passage of the Slave Trade Felony Act in 1811, the abolitionists lobbied for a register of slaves to be created, to suppress the illegal slave trade. In 1806, Wilberforce proposed an Address to George III, asking him to negotiate with foreign powers to establish an agreement for abolishing their slave trades, which he repeated several times during the following decade.

W. Wilberforce, An Appeal to the Religion, Justice and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies (1823)

This continued to be the focus of his energies beyond the resurgence of the popular movement in 1814 and the general declaration against the trade made by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Abolition measures were, as a result of abolitionist pressure, included in treaties made with various nations throughout the decade.

His Lettre to Tsar Alexander I, in 1822, had two purposes. Firstly, it asked the Tsar to encourage other European powers, especially the French, to abolish their slave trades. Secondly, published eight months before the Congress of Verona, it was the latest in a series of pamphlets written by British abolitionists to be circulated abroad with the aim of increasing public awareness of, and support for, the abolition of the slave trade.

W. Wilberforce, A letter to His Excellency the Prince of Talleyrand Perigord, on the subject of the slave trade (1814)

In 1814, Wilberforce published a similar ‘letter’, addressed to Prince Talleyrand, the French Minister for Foreign Affairs. This earlier pamphlet had been published in both French and English, to raise awareness abroad and to reassure the recent petitioners that the matter was being pursued. The 1822 Lettre was only published in French, reflecting a decrease in interest in the slave trade in Britain as the conditions of slavery became a more pressing concern.

From 1818 to 1823, Wilberforce was increasingly active in his public efforts to ameliorate slavery, and less active in efforts to expand slave trade abolition. Between 1811 and 1816, he had been a member of a Commission managing crown-owned estates, and enslaved persons, in Berbice. Despite the relative failure of the Commission, and the criticisms made by the West India interest, many of the instructions given by the Commission – religious education, encouraging Christian marriage, prohibiting the use of the whip – were included in the abolitionists’ plans for ameliorating slavery.

An 1802 map of the Dutch colony of Berbice, which was formally ceded to the UK in 1815. Wilberforce was a member of the Berbice commission from 1811. Map by F. Bouchenroeder (1802)

In April 1818, he moved for copies of all laws regarding the treatment of enslaved persons to be presented to the House of Commons, which went on to form the evidence base for pro-emancipation literature published in 1823. In 1820, he considered retirement, but decided to continue as an MP for at least another two years because he ‘should like to lay a foundation for some future measures for the emancipation of the poor slaves.’

In 1823 Wilberforce (centre) handed over the abolitionist baton to Thomas Fowell Buxton (bottom left) ‘Heroes of the Slave Trade Abolition’ (c. 1833) CC NPG

Seven months later, Wilberforce invited Thomas Fowell Buxton to take over the leadership of the abolitionists in parliament. Buxton and Wilberforce were founding members of the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Dominions in January 1823.

In March 1823, the same month that he published An Appeal, Wilberforce presented a Quaker petition for emancipation to the Commons. After the accompanying speech, George Canning, the Foreign Secretary, asked if Wilberforce planned a motion on the topic. Buxton responded, giving notice of his intention to do so. The petition was planned to be the ‘opening of the parliamentary campaign’ (according to Buxton’s memoir) and worked as a public handover of the abolitionist baton to Buxton.

Anna Harrington

Our next seminar takes place at the IHR on 10 March at 17:15 in N202, when Sean Kelsey will be speaking on ‘The Bonfire Night coup: power politics at the Putney debates’.

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