Sunday marked the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in the United Kingdom. What is surprising about the observance is the heat the issue raises, even so long after the event.
White British people had perhaps assumed that they were entitled to a degree of self-congratulation for abolishing a lucrative trade for reasons of morality. They have been met with a resounding “Yes, but,” both from descendants of enslaved people and historical revisionists.
The former point out that Britain did very well out of the trade for many years before deciding to abolish it. The Empire was built with the help of unwillingly enslaved black people.
The latter point both to pragmatism behind the decision to abolish the trade. The increasing restiveness of the enslaved workers was becoming what we would now call a security issue.
We need to hear loud and clear, too, the fact that Wilberforce’s was not a one-man crusade, and that anti-slavery campaigners were not all white and British.
Evangelicals in particular point with pride to abolition as an example of what Christianity can do when it has a cause to fight for. But accurate history has a way of being very awkward for those who see the past in terms of what we called as children goodies and baddies.
It is difficult to imagine a more God-denying, systematically evil enterprise than the transatlantic slave trade. Neville Callam is willing to compare it with the Holocaust.
But at the time it was by no means obvious. The evangelical hero John Newton made several slaving voyages after his conversion, with no apparent qualms of conscience, and the abolitionists faced opposition from Bishops in the House of Lords as well as from London merchants.
Nothing can devalue Wilberforce’s efforts in the cause of abolition and later emancipation, but in other matters he was notably illiberal, and opposed extending the franchise to working class voters.
It needs to be said, too, that black Africans were eagerly complicit in the sale of black Africans. Rulers sold their own people, or made war on neighboring tribes purely to keep up the supply. The chiefs of several Ghanaian tribes have apologized for their predecessors’ roles.
Close reading of history should make us wary of the broad-brush approach, in which an over-simplified reading of the past shapes our understanding of the present. For instance, there is a strong case for saying that Britain should just apologize for the trade, rather than patting itself on the back for abolishing it. Put that way, it’s like a mugger wanting to take credit for stopping hitting his victim.
But what does “Britain” mean? Conditions on the plantations of the Caribbean or the Americas were little different in degree from those in some of Britain’s burgeoning factories and mines. Was it in Jamaica or Manchester that small children had their ears nailed to tables for minor breaches of discipline? Manchester, actually. So are the descendants of these white, British slaves responsible for Britain’s slave trade?
We are entitled to both our heroes and our villains, but we have a responsibility to see the issues as clearly as we can.
Nevertheless, abolition–however tardily it came and however muddied the waters were at times–was a singular victory for evangelical Christians. As Simon Schama says in a Sunday Times article, abolition was “a spectacular act of irrationality, of the like one seldom sees.” Abolition, he continues, was “not just a moral act, but something that was inconceivable without evangelical Christian religion.”
History forces all sorts of ifs and buts upon us. Like the present, the past was messy. But analysis of the past should not lead to paralysis about the present. Many, many millions are slaves today, either through trafficking or economic bondage.
It was wrong 200 years ago, we should be able to see even more clearly today that it is wrong now. Why, then, do evangelical Christians tolerate it? 200 years is a long time to rest on our laurels.
Mark Woods is editor of The Baptist Times.