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Residual causes: Wilberforce and forced labour

William Wilberforce is held up as a hero of the contemporary antislavery movement, but his legacy is tainted by his participation in government repression and his opposition to labour rights.

William Wilberforce (1759-1833) engraving from 1833. Georgios Kollidas/Shutterstock. All Rights Reserved.

Anti-slavery campaigns commonly hold up William Wilberforce as a hero of the antislavery movement. In this vein, Free The Slaves offers William Wilberforce awards to individuals who have ‘moved a major institution, government, business or large groups of people to take significant action to fight slavery.’ Wilberforce was undoubtedly a key figure in the drafting of the 1807 Abolition Act, and the Antislavery Society favourably compares his and other abolitionists’ activities to common forms of political activism today:

Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionists introduced a variety of new tactics, which today are common to all campaigning, ranging from holding public meetings to publicising powerful images…

Here the Antislavery Slavery Society suggests Wilberforce shares common political cause with other progressives past and present. Yet Wilberforce was a much more ambiguous figure in the history of anti-slavery and activity against forced labour than we normally choose to remember.

Wilberforce was actively involved in government repression in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. Wilberforce helped draft the Sedition legislation and opposed a public inquiry into the Peterloo Massacre, as the historian E.P. Thompson outlines in his seminal The Making of the English Working Class. His Society for the Suppression of Vice and Encouragement of Religion was active in suppressing the nascent working class, the trade union movement, and their demands for political and labour rights.

Political criticism of Wilberforce is not simply the condescension of history, but was made by contemporaries. The radical writer William Hazlitt scathingly writes of Wilberforce in his 1825 book Spirit of the Age:

Mr. Wilberforce's humanity will go all lengths that it can with safety and discretion; but it is not to be supposed that it should lose him his seat for Yorkshire, the smile of Majesty, or the countenance of the loyal and pious. He is anxious to do all the good he can without hurting himself or his fair fame…Mr. Wilberforce is far from being a hypocrite; but he is, we think, as fine a specimen of moral equivocation as can be conceived. 

Lord Byron’s poem 1821 Don Juan links Wilberforce to the conservative figure Malthus rather than progressive figures and ironically described the price of slaves being doubled by Wilberforce’s abolitionism:

Twelve negresses from Nubia brought a price
Which the West Indian market scarce would bring;
Though Wilberforce, at last, has made it twice
What 't was ere Abolition.

So how do we explain that a figure closely identified with the emancipation of slaves should be at the forefront of suppressing political and civil rights? Wilberforce’s abolitionist philosophy was essentially a spiritual concern for religious salvation, both of a slave-owning society and the slaves themselves. Indeed, Wilberforce advocated gradual emancipation of slaves, fearing immediate emancipation would lead to ‘universal anarchy and distress’. The slaves had to first be educated for (moral) freedom, just as the population domestically had to first be educated before any expansion of the franchise.

Such was Wilberforce’s concern with spiritual well-being, he feared improved living standards might make the poor more sinful. But Wilberforce’s vision of spiritual improvement inevitably had an apologetic air to a population suffering pauperisation and whose social demands he sought to suppress.

Furthermore, antislavery has been analysed as a residual progressive cause among the rising middle classes now fearful of radical political change following the French Revolution. The writer William Cobbett observed in 1824:

Rail they do…against the West Indian slave-holders; but not a word do you ever hear from them against the slave-holders in Lancashire and in Ireland. On the contrary, they are continually telling the people here that they ought to thank the Lord (Cobbett in E.P. Thompson).

Anti-slavery could give a sense of moral purpose to, and answer the psychic needs of, the progressives otherwise indifferent to the poverty around them because Wilberforce’s welfare concerns were essentially about the spiritual, not the material.

Similar contradictory impulses may be seen in today’s human trafficking campaigns. They too have come to prominence in a period of political retreat, and may represent a residual progressive cause against the demise of labour activism and more radical political movements. Moreover policies against human trafficking may undermine individuals’ freedom of movement and make them more at risk of exploitation. Wilberforce’s politics helped hold back labour rights for decades. If we want to prevent exploitation of migrants, challenging migration controls and supporting freedom of movement is crucial.


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