William Wilberforce: Abolitionist or Opportunist?

Interestingly imperialism’s ‘great saviour and hero’ Wilberforce was not amongst the original grouping (Hart, 2006, p. 1). Nor did he end up joining the society of his own volition or as a matter of conscience. Instead he was ‘recruited’ and sent into the abolition movement by the then Prime Minister William Pitt (Ferguson, 1998, p. 132; Williams, 1944, p. 123). The fake cover story about his moral and religious conviction compelling him to work for the abolition of slavery was made up later.

Excerpted from “Will The Real William Wilberforce Please Stand Up?”

The film „Amazing Grace“ gives the impression that Wilberforce recruited William Pitt, not the other way around.  It places him as a moral compass when he really was a political opportunist.


The first enslaved Africans were brought to Britain in 1555.  They were likely kidnapped or deceived by slave traders and unscrupulous chiefs and elders.  An 11 million Africans were trafficked in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, about 1.4 million died during the voyage.  That’s a mortality rate of about 8%.  [Hochschild, Adam, Bury the Chains, The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery, London: Macmillan, 2005]

It is also interesting to note that all the time William Pitt, the man who appointed him, was Prime Minister all bills to abolish the kidnapping and deportation of Afrikan people failed to make their way through Parliament. It was only after the death of Pitt in 1806 that the abolition of the slave trade bill finally made it onto the statute book.

(Formerly) Enslaved Africans Freed Themselves

Too many ppl mistake abolition & nominal/legal emancipation for freedom. The fact remains that enslaved Africans claimed their freedom before emancipation. Without the active lobbying of Africans like Mary Prince, Olaudah Equiano, Ottobah Cuguano, Jonathan Strong, James Somerset, Joseph Knight, Ayuba Diallo, George Bridgewater, Ignatus Sancho, William Davison, Robert Wedderburn, Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, John Ystumllyn, William Cuffay and Julius Soubise there would have been no bill abolishing the slave trade in Britain’s territories.  There were 20,000 Africans living in Britain at the end of the 19th century, a significant number were free.  There are published autobiographies detailing the horrors of slavery.

The abolition of the slave trade in Britain occured at the confluence of several socio-political events

The Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) stirred fears of slave uprisings in British colonial holdings.  In some parts of the colonies, the population of enslaved Africans was nearly equal to the population of European settlers. In fact, the abolition bill was postponed when the Haitian Revolution erupted and the British sent troops to suppress the revolution.  It soon became clear that the continued importation of enslaved Africans would only fortify a slave  rebellion.  In March 1807, Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act. (Denmark abolished slavery in 1802.  The US abolished slavery in 1808)

However, making the law doesn’t make the crime go away. Don’t confuse legal/nominal emancipation for freedom. Don’t confuse abolition for freedom.  The state was required to compensate merchants for the cessation of the trade.  The British gov‘t depended on the tax revenue from slave-owners.  The law only abolished the slave trade- not slavery.  It did not make provisions for the emancipation of enslaved Africans, nor did it address the deportation of free Africans in Britain.  Slavery was not abolished in Britain’s territories until the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.  Wilberforce, in an effort to prove that he was not a reactionary, opposed the emancipation of enslaved Africans, instead calling for the gradual emancipation.  He deemed enslaved Africans unfit for emancipation.  (There is anecdotal, nay, documented evidence that Wilberforce was a virulent racist.  He refused to allow the few African and Asian guests he had to eat at his table, instead forcing them to eat behind screens where they were out of sight).

Another factor in the abolition of the slave trade was the French colonies’ dependence on British slavers.  The French bought up to 50% of the slaves that Britain imported for its sugarcane plantations, which were much more productive than Britain‘s.  Abolishing the slave trade would undercut their comparative advantage (a specious term, yes) insofar as the slave population wasn‘t self-sustaining (generational slavery).  Basically, the cessation of the slave trade was advantageous to the British, because it meant that the French had to rely on Portuguese or Spanish slave traders (who were a smaller part of the slave trade).  It also meant that the French colonies would likely have to depend more heavily on multi-generational slavery, whereby enslaved Africans were “bred” for labor.

Another factor was the French Revolution.

Wilberforce’s Economic Interest in the Abolition of the Slave Trade

Wilberforce‘s family was heavily invested in the wool industry & the boom of cotton in the colonies was a threat to his family‘s holdings.  In essence, the abolition of the slave trade was a strategic move on Wilverforce’s part, to influence the global prices of cotton and wool- presumably to his advantage.

Wilberforce was not a men whose religious convictions compelled him to crusade against the continuance of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.  He was compelled by his friend, William Pitt, to carry out an act of political and economic expedience.  It is nothing short of revisionist history to asset that William Wilberforce was an abolitionist of any sort.  He was simply a man acting in his own self-interest.

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