The Role Of Africans Overlooked In Anti-slavery Campaign
Opinion piece by Ms Serwah published in The Voice Mar. 12-18 2007, p.11 & 14
As Britain reflects on the abolition of the slave trade, the Africans who spearheaded the end of the Maafa (Kiswahili term that describes the African holocaust), and the slave revolts, particularly those led by Toussaint Louverture in Haiti and Sam Sharp in Jamaica, are largely overlooked. The planned Abolition Of Slave Trade Act celebrations/commemorations are overwhelmingly focused on William Wilberforce. Why is the spotlight not on the likes of Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano, who campaigned against the maafa, or even the Quakers or Thomas Clarkson?
There appears to be confusion between The Slave Trade Act passed in 1807, and the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act, particularly as some ill-informed sections of the media compound the situation by referring to the commemorations as the “abolition of slavery”. The ‘Amazing Grace’ movie seems to add to the confusion by portraying William Wilberforce as an anti-slavery pioneer, when in fact he was against the immediate abolition of slavery.
According to historical accounts, the Society of Friends (Quakers), began the British campaign to end the slave trade, and presented the first anti-slavery petition to parliament on 17 June 1783. In 1787 the Quakers helped form the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The twelve founding members included nine Quakers, and Anglicans Granville Sharp, and Thomas Clarkson, who was known as the architect of the campaign and founding father of the anti-slavery movement in Britain.
In 1787, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, a freed African slave living in England published ‘Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Commerce of the Human Species’, which stirred public opinion against the slave trade.
At the time, only members of the Church of England (Anglicans) could take up seats in the British parliament. Some accounts credit Sir Charles and his wife Lady Middleton with persuading Wilberforce (originally an Anglican) to lead the parliamentary campaign. Other accounts credit Thomas Clarkson. What is not in issue is that William Wilberforce was persuaded to join the campaign, and he made his first parliamentary speech against the slave trade in 1789.
Whilst the likes of Thomas Fowell Buxton argued that the only way to end the suffering of slaves was to abolish slavery, Wilberforce disagreed. He pointed out in a pamphlet he wrote in 1807 that: "It would be wrong to emancipate (the slaves). 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…” . How would we react today to the argument that to immediately free women who have been trafficked for prostitution purposes would ruin those who trafficked them?
In 1824, Wilberforce opposed Elizabeth Heyrick, a key figure in the formation of women’s Anti-Slavery Societies, who published ‘Immediate not Gradual Abolition’ in which she argued for the immediate emancipation of slaves.
With the passing of The Slave Trade Act in 1807, British captains risked a fine of £100 for every slave found on board their ships. When they were in danger of being caught by the British navy, captains often ordered the slaves to be thrown overboard. This situation would have been avoided, if slavery and the slave trade were abolished at the same time.
Should we elevate those whose arguments against the immediate abolition of slavery contributed to thousands of Africans being thrown overboard between 1807, when the Slave Trade Act made trafficking of slaves illegal and 1833 when slavery was abolished?
Thankfully, Wilberforce was eventually persuaded to join the anti-slavery campaign, but as he retired from Parliament in 1825, he did not play a pivotal role in the passing of the Abolition of Slavery Act. It seems a betrayal to Africans to dismiss their contribution, and highlight William Wilberforce as an anti-slavery pioneer.
Conservative estimates put the number of Africans who died as a result of the slave trade at 20 million, more than three times the number of Jews who died through the holocaust. As we reflect on 200 years since the abolition of the slave trade, let us ensure that the truth, no matter how uncomfortable, is told. We should also reflect on why it took the British public so long to express outrage about the dehumanisation, kidnapping, and inhuman enslavement of Africans.