A really rather strange book about slavery

As the great anti-slavery campaigner and Christian statesman hero, William Wilberforce\’s reputation shines undimmed almost 180 years after his death.

But new research may stain the character of the British politician and evangelical philanthropist, with claims that he was himself implicated in slave trading – after the abolition of the trade.

Well, yes, sorta. What the book is saying is that slaves freed from transports (which the Royal Navy was doing by 1808) and put ashore in Sierra Leone were not freed, but sold into \”apprenticeships\”. Wilberforce and his buddies were the de facto rulers of Sierra Leone.

I\’m not sure if it\’s the book of the Guardian\’s review that manages to get this part wrong:

His condoning of the practice and his collusion in keeping it quiet conspired to ensure that Sierra Leone\’s capital, Freetown, would be the last place in the British empire where Africans could still be legally bought and sold into forced labour.

No, slavery was still entirely legal in British colonies (although not in England itself) including the sale and purchase of slaves. What was not legal was the inter-territorial trade: intra-territorial was still entirely legal. This was the situation up until the 1833 Act which abolished slavery itself….and worth noting that said abolition didn\’t happen overnight either. It was replaced by a 6 year system of \”apprenticeships\” and only in 1840 were former slaves truly freed (as laid out in the 1833 Act).

So it isn\’t true that Sierra Leone was the last part of the Empire where Africans could be legally bought and sold into forced labour. It was, however, the last place that Africans could be brought in from outside the territory and so sold. For example, the poster for an 1829 auction of slaves in Jamaica.

5 thoughts on “A really rather strange book about slavery”

  1. So Much For Subtlety

    I think that slavery survived in India until 1848 or so. And in Hong Kong well into the Twentieth Century – I dimly remember a date in the 1970s.

  2. I doubt that Hong Kong would have actually had slavery into the 70s – sweat shops are a slightly different thing.

    But slavery was certainly still legal in Saudi Arabia to the 50s, and in Yemen until 1962. Moreover, in Mauritania slavery was criminalized in 2007 but there are still estimates “that up to 600,000 black Mauritanians, or 20% of the Mauritania’s population, are currently enslaved.”


  3. When did slavery die out in England? I don’t mean the 18th century law case which was taken to confirm that it was illegal, but when did the habit perish of Anglo-Saxons and Danes owning slaves?
    Ditto in Ireland: when did Gaelic slave-owning end? Was it when English Law purportedly replaced Brehon Law, or was it actually later yet? Or earlier? Wales, anyone? Scotland – I know that there was a late, failed attempt to reimpose serfdom on miners, but when did slavery end in the different parts of the country? Could some have lingered on in the Highlands to the ’45?

  4. I’ve heard several pieces to the effect that Wilberforce didn’t implement a perfect solution- by todays lights-to the problem of slavery, and therefor he was no good. So he wasn’t a saint, nor was he all powerful- neither are his detractors, few if any of whom have achieved a tenth as much.

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