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March 25,1807- the Day

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Next Sunday, March 25, countries in the Caribbean and other parts of the world will hold celebrations commemorating the bicentenary of the abolition of the British Slave Trade. It was on this day 200 years ago that royal assent was given to the Act that ended the British Slave Trade. The bill to do so was piloted through the House of Lords by Prime Minister Lord Grenville and succeeded by a margin of 100 to 34. It next went to the House of Commons where the eloquent and indefatigable William Wilberforce led the charge and it was passed 283 to 16 on February 23.{{more}} It is Wilberforce’s name that is mostly associated with this momentous act as the recently released movie ‘Amazing Grace’ testifies. Hugh Thomas in his work on the History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440- 1870 states, “Wilberforce’s achievement is one of the most remarkable examples of the triumph of an individual statesman on a major philanthropic issue and at the same time one more reminder that individuals can make history” It is reported that on the passage of the Bill the whole House of Commons rose to applaud him for his efforts.

But the movement to end the slave trade was spearheaded by a number of other persons including Thomas Clarkson and a small group of Quakers. Others included the Methodists John Wesley and the Reverend John Newton formerly the Captain of a slave ship and persons such as James Stephen and Zachary Macaulay members of the Anglican Evangelicals called the Clapham Sect, Olaudah Equiano a former slave and a host of others. Wilberforce who had entered parliament at the age of 21 as Member of Parliament for the constituency of Hull was identified as the individual to take charge of the proceedings in the House. The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed in 1787. It must however be noted that even before this a number of individuals had begun to attack the slave trade based on their religious convictions or on positions formed on economic, moral or philosophical grounds. Among these were persons associated with the ‘Enlightenment’, among them Adam Smith the author of the Wealth of Nations, the bible of capitalism.

Early efforts to secure passage of an abolition bill were unsuccessful. Following the French Revolution and the death of Louis XVI that ushered in radical republicanism and the French and Napoleonic war and war hysteria in Britain, the climate was not ripe for any radical movements including movements calling for social and political reforms. As was to be expected domestic politics influenced efforts to bring about abolition. But the social, economic and political context formed the basis of what transpired. Today a lot more attention is being focused on the role of the slaves in influencing the developments that led to abolition and ultimately emancipation. The Haitian Revolution, the only successful slave revolt impacted on the atmosphere, frightened the planters and colonial officials in the English colonies and convinced many that if efforts were not made to end or at least modify slavery and the slave trade, it would be destroyed from below. Even without revolts activities by slaves that resulted in fires to plantations and the destruction of equipment, made the system more costly and impacted on the cost and system of production.

One of the questions which needed to be asked and about which Eric Williams in his Capitalism and Slavery provided an answer was why were earlier efforts to bring about abolition unsuccessful given the traditional view before that it was all about people in England being convinced that slavery was an evil. I had made reference earlier to British domestic politics and the prevailing atmosphere in Britain but one has to also emphasize the fact that economic changes in Britain and to some extent Europe held the other key. Britain, according to Williams was in the process of a transition from an agricultural economy to one based on industry. The irony was that the slave trade stimulated the industrial revolution but an industrial Britain considered slavery anathema since it associated the high cost of materials with slavery and needed more than ever a free working population to be able to buy its cheap industrial goods. While Britain was an agricultural economy the landed gentry dominated the social, economic and political life and defended slavery to the hilt. An industrializing Britain was bringing a new class into positions of power and was changing the social, political and economic landscape.

In the final analysis any efforts from on top to abolish the slave trade and emancipate the slaves had to come from the parliament of Britain since the Caribbean territories as colonies of Britain were subjected to the dictates of the British government. Although the agricultural interests had long put up a fight there were contradictions among them. The long established planters feared competition not only from foreign colonies that were supplied with slaves from British ships but also from the newly conquered British territories such as St.Vincent, Trinidad and British Guiana. The abolitionists preyed on these contradictions and carefully built their strategies to win some measure of support from the older planters.

It has to be remembered that what we are celebrating is the two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, not of slavery itself. In fact despite efforts to enforce the act and to get other countries to follow suit it is reported that between 1821 and 1842 over 11/2 million slaves were exported from Africa. The abolition bill of March 25, 1807 was effective for ships clearing Britain from May 1, 1807 and on March 1, 1808 for those arriving in the colonies. Despite Eric Williams and Richard Hart with his emphasis on the Slaves Who Abolished Slavery we should not underplay the activities of persons associated with the abolition movement who led a long campaign in England and fought hard battles in Parliament. On board the movement, were members of the churches that had once strongly supported Slavery and the Slave Trade. Slavery, it must be remembered was a legal entity which made comments by Lord Grenville during the debate in the House of Lords quite interesting. He referred to the trade as criminal and detestable and found it ‘contrary to the principles of Justice, humanity and sound policy.’

A call has been made for Caribbean countries to observe one minute of silence at midday on Sunday to mark an event that prepared the way for full emancipation in 1838.