Comment: Classic Podium: It's time to abolish slavery

From a speech by William Wilberforce, MP, supporting a bill for the abolition of slavery introduced by his friend, the Prime Minister, William Pitt (12 May 1789)
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The Independent Culture
WHEN WE consider the vastness of the continent of Africa; when we reflect how all other countries have for some centuries past been advancing in happiness and civilisation; when we think how in this same period all improvement in Africa has been defeated by her intercourse with Britain; when we reflect that it is we ourselves that have degraded them to that wretched brutishness and barbarity which we now plead as the justification of our guilt; how the slave trade has enslaved their minds, blackened their character, and sunk them so low in the scale of animal beings that some think the apes are of a higher class, and fancy the orang-utan has given them the go-by.

What a mortification must we feel at having so long neglected to think of our guilt, or attempt any reparation! It seems, indeed, as if we had determined to forbear from all interference until the measure of our folly and wickedness was so full and complete; until the impolicy which eventually belongs to vice was become so plain and glaring that not an individual in the country should refuse to join in the abolition.

Let us then make such amends as we can for the mischiefs we have done to the unhappy continent; let us recollect what Europe itself was no longer ago than three or four centuries. What if I should be able to show this House that in a civilised part of Europe, in the time of our Henry VII, there were people who actually sold their own children? What if I should tell them that England itself was that country? What if I should point out to them that the very place where this inhuman traffic was carried on was the city of Bristol?

Ireland at that time used to drive a considerable trade in slaves with these neighbouring barbarians; but, a great plague having infested the country, the Irish were struck with a panic, suspected (I am sure very properly) that the plague was a punishment sent from heaven for the sin of the slave trade, and therefore abolished it.

Let us put an end at once to this inhuman traffic - let us stop this effusion of human blood. The true way to virtue is by withdrawing from temptation; let us then withdraw from these wretched Africans those temptations to fraud, violence, cruelty, and injustice, which the slave trade furnishes... let us not traffic, only that we may set kings against their subjects, subjects against their kings, sowing discord in every village, fear and terror in every family, setting millions of our fellow-creatures a-hunting each other for slaves, creating fairs and markets for human flesh through one whole continent of the world, and, under the name of policy, concealing from ourselves all the baseness and iniquity of such a traffic.

Why may we not hope, ere long, to see Hanse-towns established on the coast of Africa as they were on the Baltic? It is said the Africans are idle, but they are not too idle, at least, to catch one another; 700 to 1,000 tons of rice are annually bought of them; by the same rule, why should we not buy more? At Gambia 1,000 of them are seen continually at work; why should not some more thousands be set to work in the same manner? It is the slave trade that causes their idleness and every other mischief.

I have one word more to add upon a most material point but it is a point so self-evident that I shall be extremely short. It will appear from everything which I have said, that it is not regulation, it is not mere palliatives, that can cure this enormous evil. Total abolition is the only possible cure.

The Jamaica report, indeed, admits much of the evil, but recommends it to us to regulate the trade, that no persons should be kidnapped or made slaves contrary to the custom of Africa. But may they not be made slaves unjustly, and yet by no means contrary to the custom of Africa? I have shown they may, for all the customs of Africa are rendered savage and unjust through the influence of this trade; besides, how can we discriminate between slaves justly and unjustly made? Or, if we could, does any man believe the British captains can be prevailed upon to refuse all such slaves as have not been fairly, honestly, and uprightly enslaved?

But granting even that they should do this, yet how would the rejected slaves be recompensed? They are brought, as we are told, from 3,000 to 4,000 miles off, and exchanged like cattle until they reach the coast. It is the slave trade that is the spring of all this internal traffic, and the remedy cannot be applied without abolition.