Monday 23 April 2012

William Wilberforce

The African presence in North and South America and the Caribbean defines the character of the New World. Without it, the western hemisphere would merely be an extension of Europe. The African presence of the New World commenced with slavery, which was seen by many cultures - not only Europeans - as an economic necessity at various times. In the case of the Americas, slavery provided cheap and abundant labour for the plantations. It did not run counter to the beliefs and ideas of people both in Africa, the Middle East or Europe. Slavery, serfdom and servitude had been known the world over for countless generations.
By 1800, however, slavery had become expensive and wasteful in the eyes of European thinkers and economic planners. Also, beliefs and convictions of people had changed. The ideas that had evolved towards the end of the 18th century, from the 1760s onward, called the "enlightenment", brought with them the philosophical concept of the rights of man. The enlightenment helped to provoke the French Revolution in 1789 and the beliefs that brought about the evangelical revival  that changed the attitudes of countless thousands of Europeans.
By 1800, there were many influential and powerful people who felt that African slavery was fundamentally wrong and morally indefensible. Perhaps more significantly, there were many others who regarded it as an economic waste. Another voice, that of self-interest, was the voice of planters and merchants in the West Indies. They held a monopoly of trade, and set themselves to destroy it. The days of African slavery, at least in the New World, were numbered. Sad to say, slavery, in particular and the enslaving of women and children, continues in Africa and some Asian and Muslim countries to this day.
Let us look, however, at the efforts of some of the men who fought against slavery because they thought it morally wrong.
When William Wilberforce, one of those who fought hardest against African slavery in the colonies, was a boy of about 6 or 7 years, one of the first blows against African slavery was struck by a man named Grenville Sharp. He was in the house of his brother William Sharp, a doctor in London, one day in the year 1765, when a slave called Jonathan Strong came in, asking for help. Jonathan had been so badly treated by his owner David Lisle, who had brought him from Barbados, that he had become lame and unfit for work. His master turned him out.
Dr. Sharp helped Jonathan and found a job for him after he had recovered from his wounds and had caught himself. Unfortunately, one day Lisle came on Jonathan, saw that he was fit for work, hired two men to kidnap him and proceeded to sell him for £30 to a Jamaican by the name of John Kerr.
The Sharp brothers managed to have Jonathan set free, but only with great difficulty. The entire affair seemed so unfair to Grenville Sharp that he set to study the law himself. Lawyers told him that he was wasting his time and that Jonathan was in fact the property of his master. But Grenville would not accept that. He was determined to find out for himself. After three years of work and study, he wrote and published a book claiming that it was against the law for anyone in England to remain enslaved. In 1772, he was given the opportunity to prove his point. Another slave, James Somerset, had fallen ill and had been turned away by his master. With the help of the Sharps, Somerset got better, and as soon as he was well and back on his feet, his master claimed him. Sharp took the matter to court and on June 22, 1772, Chief Justice Mansfield ruled that as soon as any slave sets foot on English soil he becomes free. By this decision, the 10,000 Negro slaves who were in England at that time all became free men and women.
In the wake of this victory, a religious sect, the Quakers, formed a anti-slavery society, which was jointed by Clarkson Sharp, Ramsay and others, and they began to tell people in England how wicked the slave trade and plantations worked by slave labour were. There were terrible accounts to relate of the suffering and loss of life on the long sea voyage from the coast of West Africa to the West Indies and of the harsh and brutal punishments of the plantations.
By and large, it was a cruel age, when men had little pity for each other. The poor of Europe had few rights, lived in great want and experienced profound distress. The sailors in the British navy were subject to terrible floggings, and a man could be hung for stealing a loaf of bread.
Yet, there was a wind of change in the air. The preaching of John and Charles Wesley and of John Whitfield [WHO WERE THEY?] had touched the hearts of many people, both rich and poor. Others were beginning to think about ideas like liberty and the common brotherhood of man.
However, there were those who did not think that the West Indian planters should be the only ones to have the right to sell sugar in Britain, and who wanted to build up the East Indian trade. Political avarice, heinous as it is, served in the abolition movement of the day.
By this time, William Wilberforce, who now had a seat in the English parliament, joined the anti-slavery society and became its leader. William was slightly built and frail in body, and had been so delicate as a child that his parents had often been anxious about him. He was near-sighted, stooped a little and was no good at out-of-door games. He was nonetheless possessed of a gentle, bright spirit and was such a mimic that he could keep a group laughing at the way he made jokes and poked fun at others.
Above all, William had great courage, a very quick mind and was a fine orator. One who heard him speak to a large crowd of people on a bleak and windy day in the open air, said that he saw "what seemed a mere shrimp mount upon the table, but as I listened, he grew and grew until the shrimp became a whale".
In the 1780s, the antislavery society grew in numbers. Public meetings were held all over England and support increased. In 1791, Wilberforce introduced a bill in the House of Commons to abolish the slave trade, saying "As we have been great in crime, let us be early in repentance". The bill did not pass. England then went to war with Napoleon. Delay followed delay until at last the great day dame. Sixteen long years after Wilberforce had moved the first bill, in 1807, the English parliament voted to abolish the slave trade. As members cheered, William Wilberforce was seen with tears streaming down his face. 

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