From the Editor’s Keyboard

Will the real William Wilberforce please stand up?

11 March 2007 at 09:57 | 597 views

Bro. K. Bangarah argues that it was a series of military, economic and political forces, as well as the actions of a group of Afrikan activists in Britain that led to the abolition of slavery - and not William Wilberforce. In the first part of this serialised article, Bangarah says Wilberforce merely claimed leadership of the movement.

By Bro. K. Bangarah, Guest Writer.

On 25 March 1807 British imperialism claims to have abolished one of its own institutions. It was an institution that brought with it such a level of human misery that it amounted to an unremitting act of genocide against Afrikan people. The imperialists refer to that genocide as the ‘slave trade’. The first point this raises is evident: British imperialism is so obscenely and profoundly barbaric that it required an act of Parliament to get it to stop kidnapping Afrikan people, chaining and deporting us from our homeland in conditions worse than those suffered by cattle.

The British establishment have totally failed and continue to fail to acknowledge this and their other acts of genocide against Afrikan people as a crime against humanity. Their actions were and are completely and utterly wrong and morally indefensible. In their attempts to mislead Afrikan, British and other peoples of the world, they are trying to claim the credit for bringing this genocide to an end. The truth is that they did not stop kidnapping and deporting our people because they realised how evil and wrong their behaviour was. They did it because they were forced to; the unstoppable forces emanating from Afrikan people determined to liberate themselves from bondage, left them with no other choice.

World military, political and economic forces overwhelmed the institution of slavery

One of the most critical of these forces was the British working classes. They were involved in petitions against the kidnapping and deportation of Afrikan people because they were concerned about the mounting loss of British lives on the high seas and abroad. In order to kidnap and deport Afrikan people from their homes, it was necessary to have able kidnappers; British imperialists called them ‘sailors’. In addition to being evil, theirs was a dangerous occupation, because out of a total of 12,263 kidnappers, 2,643 perished as a direct result of their ‘work’. When the British public learned that almost a quarter of their kidnapper sons were killed or lost (Williams, 1944; Martin, 1999), they engaged in the mass petitioning of Parliament. It was through this process that abolitionists perfected the modern tactics of lobbying Parliament and pressuring MPs (Walwin, 1993).

A few very important forces came via the British enslavers themselves. The older British colonies already had large numbers of enslaved Afrikan people who substantially out-numbered their enslavers (Ferguson, 1998) (James, 1963). Their numbers were in fact the real basis of their enslavers’ prosperity. The existing large numbers was a double edged sword for their enslavers because it meant that it was too risky for them to import any more Afrikan people. The enslaver planters were living on a knife edge, in constant fear of the rebellions and raids mounted by enslaved and marooned Afrikan people. Rebellions whether successful or unsuccessful, could lead to their deaths, the loss of colonial lands and the loss of the stolen free labour of enslaved Afrikan people. Any further importation would simply reinforce the battalions of Afrikan maroon communities and rebel Afrikan people on the plantations. Therefore, if they could prevent further imports to the colonies this would be a good method of preserving their own lives whilst at the same time allowing them to keep control.

They also feared being undercut by competitors from the newer British colonies as well as from other imperialist colonies in the Caribbean. British and French imperialists were constantly warring with each other over Caribbean lands that they each had stolen from the indigenous American Indians (Greenwood, 1980, p. 10-15). In the course of the warring Britain managed to steal two additional Caribbean colonies, Guiana and Trinidad. Both were underdeveloped and desperately needed the labour of enslaved Afrikan people in order to prosper. However, the longer established British colonials recognised that the two new colonies with their virgin soils would offer them stiff competition and they were willing to try any measure that might stave off financial disaster. If they could prevent the new colonies from importing Afrikan people, their position would be protected.

Furthermore, 50 per cent of enslaved Afrikan people kidnapped and deported by Britain were sold to French enslavers and the French ran their sugar colonies more profitably than the British. The importation of more kidnapped Afrikan people meant that the French could undercut the British in the imperialist sugar markets (Ferguson, 1998). This scenario had the added irony that the British trafficking of Afrikan people was helping the French to out-perform them economically. If they could prevent the further importation of kidnapped Afrikan people, they could cut the supply of the much needed Afrikan labour to the French and gain the economic upper hand. In other words, the cutting of the supply of kidnapped Afrikan people would solve all of their major problems in one fell swoop. Therefore, in the spirit of self-preservation, the solution adopted by the older established British enslaver colonists was to join the growing demand to outlaw the process of kidnapping and deporting of Afrikan people to Caribbean colonies.

Another critical force came via the imperialists based in Britain. They were primarily concerned with immediate losses in their own profits and revenue that resulted from the uprisings of enslaved Afrikan people. Additionally that the process of rapid industrialisation, which they were undergoing, would give them a longer term competitive advantage over the other imperialist nations. They therefore had an eye on the potential super profits that could be made from the pending transition from an agricultural based economy relying on enslaved Afrikan people, to an industrial based economy which needed low paid workers. They came to the realisation that giving Afrikan people the illusion of freedom through the paying of wages would make them much richer in the long run. With these changes, even some of the imperialists began to worm to the idea of abolition.

All of the factors mentioned above were far more important contributors to the abolition of the so-called ‘slave trade’ than anything that Wilberforce ever did. They formed part of the range of forces that compelled the British government to change its approach to kidnapping and deporting Afrikan people from their homes. Wilberforce, who was unofficially appointed to his ‘abolitionist leadership’ role by the government, did little more than navigate his way through these forces: it is these forces that drove Wilberforce; not the other way round. Furthermore, an honest analysis reveals that the fundamental cause of all of these forces was the activity and resistance of the Afrikan people.

Afrikan people in Britain drove the diplomatic front for abolition
The first group of kidnapped Afrikan people forcibly deported to Britain, arrived in 1555 (Martin, 1999). By the last quarter of the 18th century, British imperialist kidnapping and compulsory deportation of Afrikan people resulted in 10,000 to 15,000 of London’s 80,000 population being Afrikan people (Martin, 1999). The total population of Afrikan people throughout the whole of Britain was estimated at 20,000 (Martin, 1999). The majority of the Afrikan people in Britain were held captive and enslaved by British citizens. However by employing a variety of ingenious strategies and methods, a small percentage of them managed to procure their personal ‘freedom’.

It is evident that of all of the groups of people in Britain, Afrikan people had the most to gain from the abolition of slavery and the so-called ‘slave trade’. For this reason it is likely that they had a tendency to be amongst the most sympathetic advocates of the anti-slavery cause as well as amongst the most active groups of people fighting for the abolition of slavery. The evidence of their involvement whether enslaved or ‘free’ is scant, but it is possible to trace some of the names of Afrikan people involved in the broad anti-slavery movement in Britain.

There is documented evidence of the involvement of Afrikan people such as 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. However, this list of names cannot do justice to either the volume or quality of activity that would have been forthcoming from the 20,000 strong Afrikan community based in Britain. It seems that their role has been played down by imperialist ‘historians’.

Some of the Afrikan people named here were involved in important anti-slavery court cases; others wrote and narrated their biographies telling of the brutality they suffered and experienced; others still wrote about the cruelty of slavery and others engaged in revolutionary political activity against the imperialist perpetrators of slavery. They tended to ally themselves with groups of British people who established organisations with a progressive attitude towards the abolition of slavery. Their stories were fed into the organised groupings of which they were part, and then cascaded to the British public at large.

Their stories had a massive impact on the British public, most of whom were ignorant about the evils and injustices of slavery. The evidence provided by Afrikan people in Britain was the crucial spark that ignited mass movements for justice among the working classes. The release of their information raised consciousness amongst the masses of Britons to a point where they began to seriously challenge the British establishment about both the plights of the working classes and the suffering of enslaved Afrikan people. It was therefore the political and diplomatic work of Afrikan people, working in an extremely hostile British environment, which led the national processes that brought about the abolition of slavery and the so called ‘slave trade’. It most certainly was not some character called Wilberforce as some portray.

One of the methods of lying used by imperialism to distort history is simply to omit or prevent the emergence of relevant facts in historical discourse: failing to tell the whole truth. In the case of Afrikan enslavement, an army of imperialist liars presented to us as ‘historians’ have insulted the memory of our Afrikan ancestors who fought for Afrikan liberation in Britain. They have done this by under-representing the contributions of Afrikan people, and by presenting William Wilberforce as some kind of leader in the Afrikan liberation process. Some of these ‘historians’ have taken the lies to even higher levels of distortion by attempting to present Wilberforce as the saviour of enslaved Afrikan people.

Wilberforce: a drug addict and latecomer to the abolition cause
Afrikan people resisted our enslavement from the very first day that European imperialism attempted to steal our people. However, it was not until 1776 that the world began to hear the first openly anti-slavery utterances from the British establishment. This happened when David Hartley condemned the ‘slave trade’ in the House of Commons (Hart, 2006, p. 1). It had taken British imperialism well over 200 years to begin to notice that there might be something wrong with kidnapping, deporting, holding in bondage, enslaving, murdering and otherwise abusing Afrikan people. Another initiative followed in 1783 when the Quakers petitioned parliament against human trafficking (Hart, 2006, p. 1). Wilberforce was not involved in any of these early anti-slavery initiatives.

On 22 May 1787 a group of British people gave themselves the official sounding title ‘The Abolition Society’ and declared their existence to the British establishment. The society gave the outward impression that it was against the enslavement of Afrikan people, although its activities often suggested otherwise. 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.

The process of recruiting Wilberforce was probably made easier by the fact that he had a related personal vested interest; his family were wool merchants. There is no doubt that he took his family interest seriously since he operated as the official Parliamentary spokesman for the wool industry (Williams, 1944, p. 160). It is likely that he would have perceived the cotton industry, with its abundance of unpaid labour stolen from enslaved Afrikan people, as a rival with a competitive advantage that was unfair even by primitive capitalist standards (Martin, 1999).

The choice of Wilberforce for the anti-slavery ‘moral crusade’ was an interesting one. Throughout his adult life, he is reported to have suffered significant health problems (Howarth, 1973). This is hardly surprising given the fact that he was a known drug addict. Apparently he was a junkie, unable to wean himself off his reliance on hard drugs. British historians inform us that: ’William Wilberforce ... took opium every day for 45 years’ (Howarth, 1973). This evidence reveals the fact that Wilberforce demonstrated a greater level of commitment to the consumption of hard drugs than he ever did to the abolition of slavery. Evidence concerning whether he took hard drugs more often than he prayed is inconclusive. As if that was not enough, he was also known to indulge in drinking and gambling (Howarth, 1973). The appointment of a known drug addict and apparent drunkard as the champion of the abolition movement suggests that the British establishment had no real intention of abolishing the kidnapping, deporting and enslavement of Afrikan people.

* Bro. K. Bangarah is a member of the Global Afrikan Congress, based in the UK.

Source: Pambazuka News.