On this day, 188 years ago, The Slavery Abolition Act finally took effect. It was the result of decades of persistent, patient, committed advocacy led by William Wilberforce. He and those who stood with him faced constant opposition within parliament, even after public opinion began to turn. But they were motivated by a simple, yet profound truth: God made human beings in His image. Amongst other things, that means that all are equal. In light of this truth, the slave trade was an assault upon the dignity of fellow image-bearers. As such, it had to be stopped.
This was a truth that needed to be heard. For too long, the British Parliament had been complicit in the trading of millions of slaves. Men, women, boys and girls were forcibly taken from their homes and transported to the West Indies where they worked in the most appalling conditions.
Speaking in the House of Commons in 1789, Wilberforce said:
Transatlantic Slave Trade
Although slavery had been practiced long before 1789, when Wilberforce began his work, it was the scale of slavery that had grown to never seen levels. The Transatlantic Slave Trade connected Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Numerous goods produced in Britain were very valuable in African colonies. For example, cities like Bristol and Birmingham produced guns, brass pans and kettles and these cities thrived selling these goods to slavers.
These goods were then exchanged with the enslavers for African men, women, and children. The middle passage from Africa to the Americas took around three months. Those on board wore chains around their necks, shackles on their feet and they were densely packed together in the hold of the slaver ship. Many died on route because of overcrowding and disease. By the 1700s, Britain had become the largest trader on enslaved people, reportedly transporting around 2.8 million Africans between 1700-1800.
After unloading slaves in the Americas, the ships would be loaded up with goods from the plantations – sugar, tobacco and cotton which would then be sold in Britain. It was a triangle of trade that brought profits for rich owners and utter misery for the millions of slaves who died in the most horrendous circumstances.
Into this appalling, brutal reality, Wilberforce, and those with him called for an end to slavery.
A Parliamentary Campaign
The movement to abolish the slave trade drew on a remarkable range of activities. The campaigners collected signatures on petitions, distributed first hand stories, created graphic images to get their key messages across.
But at its heart, it was a parliamentary campaign. It began in 1780 and by 1792, the issue had been entrenched as a key issue in parliament. In 1788, the then Prime Minister and contemporary of Wilberforce, William Pitt, set up an enquiry into the slave trade and its report was laid before parliament in April 1789. Despite this growing pressure, there was no breakthrough. In 1805, an abolition bill failed in parliament – the 11th in 15 years. Within parliament, those with vested interests in keeping the slave trade going fought back relentlessly against every new Bill.
Many would’ve given up and there’s no doubt, Wilberforce entertained doubts about whether he would ever succeed. But in 1806, The Foreign Slave Trade Abolition Bill was put before parliament. The Bill aimed to prevent the import of slaves by British traders into territories belonging to foreign powers. Crucially, it was a government bill rather than than a private members one. This was a huge game-changer.
Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionists cleverly seemed to pay it little attention and played down its significance. The anti-abolitionists were lulled into a false sense of security. It passed its early readings without much notice. Having passed the House of Lords it then arrived in the House of Commons on 10 February 1807. The first major Commons debate lasted some 10 hours and, in the end, MPs voted 283 – 16 for the Bill. Wilberforce received a standing ovation in the Chamber for his efforts. It successfully passed its remaining stages before receiving Royal Assent in March 1807 and came into effect on 1 August 1807.
For anyone involved in Christian advocacy, Wilberforce makes an easy hero. He was an evangelical Christian, committed to the inspiration of the Bible, it’s inerrancy, to core gospel truths like the penal substitution of Jesus Christ for His people and he believed in the Christian’s duty to influence society. His faithfulness under heavy trials and sufferings are an example to us all.
While the transatlantic slave trade doesn’t exist in the same form, the tragic reality is around the world there are 40 million people in some form of modern slavery. Whether it’s labour exploitation, sexual exploitation or domestic servitude, modern slavery is a present evil. Fired by the same ambition as Wilberforce, we at CARE took up this cause in 2006 and since then, we’ve seen every part of the UK past dedicated anti-slavery laws for the first time since Wilberforce’s epic victory.
The Modern Slavery Act in England and Wales, the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act in Scotland and the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act in Northern Ireland. Of these, the law in Northern Ireland is the strongest and includes the criminalization of the purchase of sex – one of the main drivers behind modern slavery.