Two hundred years ago this spring, Britain ended its Atlantic slave trade, an event of immense importance, because the country then dominated the traffic in human beings. From the mid-1700s on, roughly half the captive Africans taken to the Americas had been transported in British ships. Ever since, Parliament’s vote to end the slave trade and then, a quarter-century later, to end British slavery itself have fascinated historians, because in both cases it seemed that a country acted contrary to its economic self-interest. How can they be explained?
This is the question addressed by the new film Amazing Grace, directed by the talented Michael Apted, which opened recently to generally enthusiastic reviews. The scriptwriter, Steven Knight, is also the writer of Dirty Pretty Things, a memorably bold look at the gritty underside of immigrant life in today’s London. The cast of Amazing Grace includes some of the finest British actors, starting with Albert Finney. Most promising of all, recent decades have opened up some fresh ways of looking at British abolition.
For many years, almost all the credit for ending the slave trade was given to William Wilberforce, the eloquent, widely respected leader of the abolitionist forces in the House of Commons and a convert to the new evangelical strain of Anglicanism. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, centering the story on Wilberforce satisfied many people. It allowed Britons to acknowledge that they had been involved in something horrendous, while at the same time giving Wilberforce credit for inspiring a great act of national benevolence. And for the Victorian age and after, Wilberforce made a good schoolbook hero. He was rich, philanthropically generous, and deeply religious; and in a raucous, hard-drinking, high-living era, he was faithful to his wife, with whom he had six children.
In 1933, England marked the centenary of Wilberforce’s death with parades, church services, wreath-layings, and memorial lectures; a ceremony in his home city of Hull included 20,000 spectators, Negro spirituals, a trumpet fanfare, the unfurling of the flags of fifty countries, and an aircraft fly-by. Several dozen biographies of Wilberforce have appeared over the years, most of them by evangelicals. Among their titles one finds God’s Politician, He Freed Britain’s Slaves, A Hero for Humanity, Statesman and Saint, and The Man Who Freed the Slaves.
As with many myths, large parts of this one are true. Against powerful opposition, Wilberforce doggedly promoted the cause of abolition in Parliament for more than three decades. When the House of Commons passed its ban on the slave trade in 1807, it gave him a rare standing ovation, and he deserved it. From the accounts of his friends, he was a man of deep personal kindness and great charm: he sang magnificently and was a splendid mimic. He was famous for never having the heart to let …