Handing the commentary over to William Wilberforce, in the words he urged on the House of Commons in 1789:
When we consider the vastness of the continent of Africa; when we reflect how all other countries have for some centuries past been advancing in happiness and civilization; when we think how in this same period all improvement in Africa has been defeated by her intercourse with Britain; when we reflect it is we ourselves that have degraded them to that wretched brutishness and barbarity which we now plead as the justification of our guilt; how the slave trade has enslaved their minds, blackened their character, and sunk them so low in the scale of animal beings that some think the apes are of a higher class, and fancy the orangutan has given them the go-by. What a mortification must we feel at having so long neglected to think of our guilt, or to attempt any reparation!
It seems, indeed, as if we had determined to forbear from all interference until the measure of our folly and wickedness was so full and complete, until the impolicy which eventually belongs to vice, was become so plain and glaring that not an individual in the country should refuse to join in the abolition; it seems as if we had waited until the persons most interested should be tired out with the folly and nefariousness of the trade, and should unite in petitioning against it.
The mischiefs we have done…
Let us then make such amends as we can for the mischiefs we have done to that unhappy continent.
Let us recollect what Europe itself was no longer ago than three or four centuries. What if I should be able to show this House that in a civilized part of Europe, in the time of our Henry VII, there were people who actually sold their own children? What if I should tell them that England itself was that country? What if I should point out to them that the very place where this inhuman traffic was carried on was the city of Bristol? Ireland at that time used to drive a considerable trade in slaves with these neighbouring barbarians; but a great plague having infested the country, the Irish were struck with a panic, suspected (I am sure very properly) that the plague was a punishment sent from Heaven, for the sin of the slave trade, and therefore abolished it.
All I ask, therefore, of the people of Bristol is, that they would become as civilized now as Irishmen were four hundred years ago. Let us put an end at once to this inhuman traffic. Let us stop this effusion of human blood. The true way to virtue is by withdrawing from temptation. Let us then withdraw from these wretched Africans those temptations to fraud, violence, cruelty, and injustice, which the slave trade furnishes.
Wherever the sun shines, let us go round the world with him, diffusing our beneficence; but let us not traffic, only that we may set kings against their subjects, subjects against their kings, sowing discord in every village, fear and terror in every family, setting millions of our fellow-creatures a hunting each other for slaves, creating fairs and markets for human flesh, through one whole continent of the world, and, under the name of policy, concealing from ourselves all the baseness and iniquity of such a traffic.
Hans-towns established on the coast of Africa…
Why may we not hope, ere long, to see Hans-towns established on the coast of Africa as they were on the Baltic? It is said the Africans are idle, but they are not too idle, at least, to catch one another. Seven hundred to one thousand tons of rice are annually bought of them. By the same rule, why should we not buy more? At Gambia one thousand of them are seen continually at work. Why should not some more thousands be set to work in the same manner? It is the slave trade that causes their idleness and every other mischief. We are told by one witness, “They sell one another as they can.” And while they can get brandy by catching one another, no wonder they are too idle for any regular work.
I have one word more to add upon a most material point. But it is a point so self-evident that I shall be extremely short.
It will appear from everything which I have said, that it is not regulation, it is not mere palliatives, that can cure this enormous evil. Total abolition is the only possible cure for it.
The Jamaica report, indeed, admits much of the evil, but recommends it to us so to regulate the trade, that no persons should be kidnapped or made slaves contrary to the custom of Africa. But may they not be made slaves unjustly, and yet by no means contrary to the custom of Africa? I have shown they may; for all the customs of Africa are rendered savage and unjust through the influence of this trade; besides, how can we discriminate between the slaves justly and unjustly made? Can we know them by physiognomy? Or, if we could, does any man believe that the British captains can, by any regulation in this country, be prevailed upon to refuse all such slaves as have not been fairly, honestly, and uprightly enslaved? But granting even that they should do this, yet how would the rejected slaves be recompensed? They are brought, as we are told, from three or four thousand miles off, and exchanged like cattle from one hand to another, until they reach the coast.
We see then that it is the existence of the slave trade that is the spring of all this internal traffic, and that the remedy cannot be applied without abolition.
Again, as to the middle passage, the evil is radical there also; the merchant’s profit depends upon the number that can be crowded together, and upon the shortness of their allowance. Astringents, escarotics, and all the other arts of making them up for sale, are of the very essence of the trade; these arts will be concealed both from the purchaser and the legislature. They are necessary to the owner’s profit, and they will be practiced. Again, chains and arbitrary treatment must be used in transporting them; our seamen must be taught to play the tyrant, and that depravation of manners among them (which some very judicious persons have treated of as the very worst part of the business) cannot be hindered, while the trade itself continues.
As to the slave merchants, they have already told you that if two slaves to a ton are not permitted, the trade cannot continue; so that the objections are done away by themselves on this quarter; and in the West Indies, I have shown that the abolition is the only possible stimulus whereby a regard to population, and consequently to the happiness of the negroes, can be effectually excited in those islands.
I trust, therefore, I have shown that upon every ground the total abolition ought to take place.
I have urged many things which are not my own leading motives for proposing it, since I have wished to show every description of gentlemen, and particularly the West India planters, who deserve every attention, that the abolition is politic upon their own principles also.
A principle above everything…
Policy, however, sir, is not my principle, and I am not ashamed to say it. There is a principle above everything that is political; and when I reflect on the command which says, “Thou shalt do no murder,” believing the authority to be divine, how can I dare to set up any reasonings of my own against it? And, sir, when we think of eternity, and of the future consequences of all human conduct, what is there in this life that should make any man contradict the dictates of his conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion, and of God.
Sir, the nature and all the circumstances of this trade are now laid open to us; we can no longer plead ignorance, we cannot evade it, it is now an object placed before us, we cannot pass it. We may spurn it, we may kick it out of our way, but we cannot turn aside so as to avoid seeing it; for it is brought now so directly before our eyes that this House must decide, and must justify to all the world, and to their own consciences, the rectitude of the grounds and principles of their decision.
A society has been established for the abolition of this trade, in which dissenters, Quakers, churchmen, in which the most conscientious of all persuasions have all united, and made a common cause in this great question.
Let not Parliament be the only body that is insensible to the principles of national justice.
Let us make a reparation to Africa…
Let us make a reparation to Africa, so far as we can, by establishing a trade upon true commercial principles, and we shall soon find the rectitude of our conduct rewarded by the benefits of a regular and a growing commerce.
- William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner by William Hague
- An Appeal to the Religion, Justice, and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire by William Wilberforce
- The Slave Ship by Marcus Rediker
- The Last Slave Market: Dr John Kirk and the Struggle to End the East African Slave Trade by Alistair Hazell
- Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave by Zora Neile Hurston
- An Essay on the Management of Slaves, and Especially, on Their Religious Instruction: Read Before the Agricultural Society of St. John’s Colleton by Whitemarsh Benjamin Seabrook