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Debate: Was William Wilberforce a freedom fighter?

By The Ligali Organisation | Tue 20 May 2008

A year after Britain’s bicentenary Wilberfest celebrations government funded bodies are still attempting to propagate the discredited notion of parliamentarian William Wilberforce as a freedom fighter for African people.


A recent exchange between Ms Serwah of The New African Perspective, Tony Warner of BlackHistoryWalks, 100 Black men of London and those Andrew Nelson, editor of the ‘Recovered Histories’ brochure produced in association with Anti-Slavery International recovers the truth and buries the myth. This is an edited version of the email debate on the issue.

The case for Wilberforce as a freedom fighter;

1. The ultimate aim of William Wilberforce, was the emancipation of enslaved Africans. However, he believed that this should take place gradually for strategic reasons as well as his belief that Africans should needed to be "prepared" for freedom.

2. Wilberforce should not be disqualified from being referred to as a freedom fighter based on his approach of gradualism towards the freedom of enslaved Africans, he had this goal in common with Nana of the Maroons, Toussaint L'Overture and Queen Nzinga, and his conviction and contribution to the complete end of slavery should not be denied.

3. Wilberforce and the abolitionists were operating, during a period when the political dynamics of the times meant there was little in the way of public knowledge of the atrocity of slavery. Therefore gaining public and Parliamentary support for their campaign had to be painstakingly developed. Bearing in mind that there was little in the way of mass media, this would prove to be an extremely difficult task. On the other hand, the wealthily slavers would stop at nothing to prevent any effort to bring about abolition. These are realities that abolitionists had to work with and it is in this context that we should consider what informed their stance at any given time.

4. Whilst the abolition of slavery was an important issue to African people, for much of the campaign, it was not a priority of parliament. Numerous other issues occupied the minds of Parliamentarians such as several major wars and trade issues. The abolitionists had to find strategies for keeping abolition on the agenda while at the same time not to be seen as undermining British interests.

The case against Wilberforce as a freedom fighter;

1. Regarding the argument about the historic context, English men like Granville Sharp who lived in England at the same time as Wilberforce, saw things differently, and argued that the struggle should be to end enslavement, and not just the trafficking of enslaved Africans. The argument of context can be seen as an attempt to re-write history, and gloss over the fact that Wilberforce did not fight for the immediate abolition of enslavement.

2. Placing Toussaint L’Ouverture whose Haitian revolution in St. Dominique 1791-1804 led to the freedom of enslaved Africans, in the same category as Wilberforce who opposed Toussaint’s revolution is perverse. Not only did Wilberforce not think it vital that enslaved Africans should be freed immediately from the cruelties they endured under enslavement, but he actively sought to undermine what Toussaint had achieved, and voted to send British troops to quell Toussaint’s revolution. Had this succeeded, the emancipated Africans would have gone back to enslavement. It is for this amongst other reasons why although Wilberforce can be described as an abolitionist he must not be referred to as a freedom fighter. The Haitians ultimately emerged victorious to become the first independent African nation in the 'New World'.

3. The image on the back of the Recovered Histories brochure describes William Wilberforce as a freedom fighter when in reality he is only responsible for leading the parliamentary struggle to end the British ‘slave trade’.

4. Wilberforce was a member of the Clapham Sect, who was persuaded to lead the Parliamentary struggle to abolish the so called ‘slave trade’, he was not a freedom fighter. Indeed in 1807, he is reported to have written in a pamphlet that "it would be wrong to emancipate (the enslaved Africans). To grant freedom to them immediately would be to insure not only their masters' ruin, but their own. They must (first) be trained and educated for freedom…”

5. It must be noted that one could lead the Parliamentary struggle against the slave trade and yet be against the immediate abolition of enslavement. This is because the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act did NOT seek to abolish the enslavement of Africans, and did not free enslaved Africans. The 1807 Act merely abolished the unlawful trafficking of enslaved Africans. It was the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act that sought to abolish enslavement.

6. Wilberforce opposed Elizabeth Heyrick of the Female Anti-Slavery Societies, who in 1824, published a pamphlet entitled ‘Immediate not Gradual Abolition’, and argued for the immediate emancipation of enslaved Africans. She is reported to have come into conflict with Wilberforce, who instructed leaders of the anti-slavery movement not to speak at women's anti-slavery societies. Wilberforce denounced Heyrick claiming “such things were not the concern of women”. He was also opposed to women to having the right to vote. (Ref: Williams Capitalism and Slavery 1997 p.182)

7. Although Wilberforce was eventually persuaded to join the anti-slavery campaign, he retired from the House of Commons in 1825, and did not play a pivotal role in the passing of the Abolition of Slavery Act of 1833.

8. Granville Sharp, one of the founding members of the Clapham Sect and Abolition Society, was the lone dissenting voice against the Society focusing on the abolition of the ‘slave trade’, rather than on the abolition of enslavement, and removing the abolition of enslavement from the Society’s objectives. William Wilberforce voted with the majority. In 1769 Granville Sharp published a pamphlet entitled ‘A representation of the injustice and dangerous tendency of tolerating slavery in England.’ He also applied for habeas corpus in the landmark Somerset case of 1771.

9. William Wilberforce should not be mentioned as a Freedom Fighter in the same context as Toussaint, Nana or Queen Nzinga for the simple fact that he did not risk life and limb unlike Mandela, Huey P Newton, Steve Biko, Malcolm X, Thomas Sankara, Paul Bogle, etc. It has been argued that Olaudah Equiano, Ottobah Cuguano, etc did not use physical violence to fight

10. Wilberforce was well known to have white supremacist views and any decision to oppose Africans fighting for their freedom, as Toussaint did, is incompatible with being described as a "freedom fighter". His perverse idea of ‘breeding’ new property is incompatible with the label freedom fighter.

11. Where Wilberforces’ missionary work is concerned it is important to remember what Malcolm X, Archbishop Tutu, Patrice Lumumba and indeed Queen Nzinga said about missionaries; that they were most often imperial agents of another form of enslavement that worked through colonialism on the behalf of empire.

12. The role of the Royal Navy in rescuing enslaved Africans is grossly exaggerated. Many 'rescued' Africans were either 'sold' on in Brazil or forced to join the British Army/Navy and suppress other enslaved Africans labouring on plantations.

13. The British did not abolish slavery in Sierra Leone until 1927 and were using forced labour in the Jos plateau of Nigeria during World War 2.

14. Wilberforce stated that 'negroes minds are uninformed and their moral characters are debased'. It is argued that it is for these reasons that his name does not appear as a reference in Olaudah Equianos’ book although Clarkson, John Wesley, and Sharp do.

15. Wilberforce was not a life-long abolition activist. He only became involved in the anti-slavery movement when he was sent in by Prime Minister William Pitt. William Pitt was engaged in the 'sale' of Africans for forced recruitment into the West India Regiment, which was then used to suppress African uprisings, after which the soldiers were released back to Africa to engage in further wars against other Africans. (Ref: First Black Britons Tony Tee 2006)

16. Wilberforce was not against cruelty to African people. He suggested that Africans should only be whipped at night, as this was better for production. He was also an advocate for African men being put to work in 'breeding' farms. This immoral process became more popular after the 1807 abolition act, meaning an increase in rapes of African girls and women and more forced pregnancies and abortions. (Ref: Hochschild, Bury the Chains 2005 p.314)

17. Wilberforce practiced racial discrimination "When members and friends of the African and Asian Society dined at a tavern in 1816, with Wilberforce in the chair, the token Africans and Asians invited to the gathering were separated from the other guests by a screen set across one end of the room" (P. Fryer Staying Power 1984 p.234)

18. Wilberforce deliberately subjugated African spirituality through Christian evangelism. When he retired from his campaigning, Wilberforce became heavily involved in training missionaries. Christianity was a key component in enabling and sustaining slavery, a fact that which prompted an apology by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2006.

White supremacists were aware that African spiritual beliefs were one of the major factors leading to the success of the Haitian revolution. These systems of spirituality alongside an innate respect for nature served as a unifying factor sustaining the identity and self- esteem of enslaved Africans' throughout centuries of enslavement. As a result of the revolution, and as a means of suppressing the future use of African spirituality for such communal empowerment purposes, there was a concerted effort by missionaries to denigrate and discredit African spiritual beliefs. This was done by promoting an ideology asserting the inferiority of all indigenous traditional beliefs, medicines and technology belonging to Africans. The cultivation of this anti-African attitude still continues to this day.


Immediate After Effects of the Haitian revolution

1. African people all over the world are inspired to fight harder and longer than they are already doing.

2. Haiti supplies fighting revolutionaries to other Caribbean islands.

3. The fear of having too many Africans fresh from Africa contributes to the abolition act of 1807.

4. Inhumane ‘breeding’ programmes and the systematic rape of African women is increased to make up for the loss of African labour.

5. Cultural subjugation of African peoples becomes institutionalised - African linguistic and religious expressions are criminalised.

6. Increase in missionary activity in colonies to convert Africans to Christianity.

7. France and America set up a trade embargo on Haiti which ruins the economy.

8. In 1825 France demands reparations for destruction of its property during the revolution.

9. A weakened France is forced to sell New Orleans and the Louisiana territory,74 times the size of Haiti, in what is now the USA for 60 million francs.


External Links
New African perspective - Was William Wilberforce REALLY an anti-slavery PIONEER?
Black History Walks
Recovered Histories
Counterpunch - Whitewashing the Slave Trade


Ligali is not responsible for the content of third party sites


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Was William Wilberforce a freedom fighter?
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Not only did Wilberforce disagree that enslaved Africans should be freed immediately, but he actively sought to undermine the Haitian revolution that led to the freedom of enslaved Africans, had he succeeded, the freed Africans would have been re-enslaved


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