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I speak of Africa

William Wilberforce

Title page of; William Wilberforce. A letter on the abolition of the slave trade: addressed to the freeholders and other inhabitants of Yorkshire. Third edition. London: printed by Luke Hansard & Sons, for T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1807 [FCO Historical Collection HT1162 WIL ]Title page of; William Wilberforce. A letter on the abolition of the slave trade: addressed to the freeholders and other inhabitants of Yorkshire. Third edition. London: printed by Luke Hansard & Sons, for T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1807 [FCO Historical Collection HT1162 WIL ]In 1787 the abolitionists recruited William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the brilliant young MP for Yorkshire, as their principal advocate in the House of Commons. A man of strong religious beliefs and a powerful speaker, he possessed the influence as well as the perseverance needed to push the Abolition Bill through parliament.

Nevertheless, it was not until 1807, at the fourteenth attempt, that the Bill was passed, making participation in the slave trade illegal for British subjects. Wilberforce’s Letter on the abolition of the slave trade was published in January 1807, three weeks before the Bill received its second reading in the House of Commons. It was not until July 1833, however, three days before Wilberforce’s death, that slavery itself was abolished in Britain’s Caribbean possessions, paving the way for the emancipation of existing slaves.

Once Britain had ceased to participate in the Atlantic slave trade, the British government made strenuous efforts to encourage other European and American powers engaged in the trade to do likewise. As Oliver and Fage point out, this was not prompted purely by philanthropy or moral self-righteousness (although these undoubtedly played an important part) but for sound commercial reasons. The slave trade being still a highly profitable venture for those countries taking part, it tended to stifle other possible areas of trade with Africa, thus placing Britain at a disadvantage.

The British policy was two-pronged: diplomacy and enforcement. By 1820 France, Spain and Portugal had all been persuaded to declare the slave trade illegal for their subjects, but other nations, such as the United States, Brazil and Cuba, continued to import slaves in large numbers and Portugal was reluctant to enforce its ban on slave-trading. The burden of enforcement was borne almost entirely by Britain, whose West Africa squadron, hampered by inadequate rights to search and frustrated by the subterfuges adopted by the slavers (flying false flags, producing false papers and so on), faced an uphill task.

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