William Wilberforce on the Abolition of Slave Trade

Session 3

William Wilberforce on the Abolition of Slave Trade

Session 3

Executive Summary

Wilberforce (1759-1833) was a British statesman, Anglican, and the leading force behind the 1807 abolition of the slave trade and the 1833 abolition of slavery in Great Britain. His anti-slavery campaign meticulously gathered information about the brutal realities of slavery and publicized it widely. He influenced Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

  1. “Slave Trade is the greatest practical evil that ever had afflicted the human race.” Its effects reach into all levels of all societies. It is immoral, inhumane, and impractical.
  2. The continued abasement of the continent of Africa is a consequences of the slave trade. Instead of beneficial trade for a region emerging from barbarism, slavery provides material incentives that become “the chief cause of wars in Africa."
  3. The realities of slave transport reveal its inhumanity: 600-700 people  in tight spaces, beaten, abused, and even forced to entertain the crew. The death rate is appalling: 12.5% die in the Atlantic crossing; 4.5% more die of disease on shore before they are sold. "Upon the whole, however, here is a mortality of about 50 per cent" within the first year of being in the New World.
  4. That is worsened by the psychological dissolution of individuality. Slaves are not allowed to marry, forced into excessive labor, and given insufficient provisions. These “unoffending fellow creatures” become resentful and tempted to violence in response.
  5. Great Britain’s Parliament authorized the slave trade, yet it produced “a most pernicious effect” on the British themselves, making a benevolent and happy nation become cruel and malicious. It corrupted enlightened men and created the basis for such inhumane and irrational beliefs as racism.
  6. Mere reform cannot achieve justice in a system so abhorrent by nature. Abolition is the only possible cure. Parliament “must decide, and must justify to all the world, and to their own consciences, the rectitude of the grounds and principles of their decision.”
  7. Moreover, the slave trade is a dangerous, costly enterprise that stifles Africa’s economic potential. Since improvements there have been “defeated by her intercourse with Britain,” the British have a duty to “make a reparation to Africa … by establishing a trade upon true commercial principles.”
  8. Failure to act will be punished by Providence through the inevitable gradual decline of the countries dependent on slavery.
  9. Wilberforce thus urges Britain to lead the world in abolishing slavery and to begin executing its economic activities consistent with the Enlightenment and Christian moral principles it espouses.

This summary is based on Wilberforce’s A Letter on the Abolition of Slave Trade and his 1789 Abolition Speech in the House of Commons. Summary by Andrei Volkov, 2020.

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