On a summer evening in 1787, a trio of 27-year-olds sat under an oak tree in the Kent countryside south of London. These days, age 27 is considered awfully young to impact the world. But these guys were different. They decided that evening to commit themselves the ending the worst injustice of their time: the African-Atlantic slave trade.
In their day, European ships were carrying African slaves to the sugar and tobacco plantations of the New World at a pace of more than 100,000 per year. The slaves were part of a great Triangular Trade: European manufactured goods to Africa; African slaves to the Americas; and American sugar and tobacco to Europe. A lot of people were getting rich, and many more were suffering unspeakable horrors. Over time, more than 10 million Africans were seized, chained, and dragged ship-board to a life of misery, or death en route. And more than 40% of them were carried in British ships.
|Slaves from Africa were the lynchpin of the Atlantic trade
It happens that all three young men were named William. Two of the Williams would serve as Prime Minister (Pitt and Grenville). The other (Wilberforce) would become a tireless crusader against the slave trade, inspired by his new-found faith in the Christian gospel, to confront entrenched injustice upon which much of British wealth relied. It’s probably just as well that he didn’t know how desperately the beneficiaries of the trade would fight him, and how much of his life the fight would consume.
It might have seemed pretty easy, at first. After all, his friend and ally Pitt was a hugely popular Prime Minister (even at age 27), and many newly-awakened Christian churches were beginning to raise their voices against slavery. When Wilberforce introduced his slave-trade-abolition bill in 1787, Pitt mobilized the Privy Council to assemble data and testimony from many regarding the horrors of the trade.
As a result, Parliament was confronted with real data on the trade for the first time: the inconceivably cramped conditions aboard ship; mistreatment, rape and killing of slaves at the hands of sailors; the continual use of chains and shackles to prevent overboard suicides; the Caribbean practice of starving aging slaves at the end of their “productive” lives; and other disclosures unfit for civilized eyes.
|This diagram of the slave ship Brookes shocked many Britons into action
But money talks. The British economy of the day reaped huge benefits from the Triangular Trade. From the textile mills of Manchester and London to the shipyards of Liverpool and Bristol, the British prospered on the backs of the captive Africans. In any age, you don’t take on the “engines of prosperity” without bare-knuckle consequences. So perhaps it’s not surprising to hear the arguments marshaled by the establishment:
– The slaves lived much better in the Americas than tribal princes did in Africa;
– Slaves sang and danced for their amusement every day aboard ship;
– Slave quarters were washed and fumigated with frankincense and lime juice every day;
– Ending the trade would cost 58,000 poor Britons their jobs, throwing countless men, women and children into destitution (our economy will suffer);
– France and Spain would fill the void if the British outlawed the trade (our enemies will prosper); and
– A black market in slaves will arise, and the onboard conditions will be worse than with the legal trade (the slaves will suffer even more).
The pro-slave-trade lobby even found churchmen willing to give the slave trade the sanction of divine authority, citing Bible passages that recognized the existence of slavery. And they persuaded others by redirecting the focus to domestic ills, calling for “reform at home before venturing to make romantic trials of compassion abroad!”
|Few Britons ever saw slaves in chains
As the debate wore on the following year, they had persuaded many MP’s of the value of collecting more evidence: Who knew if they could trust the Privy Council testimony? And once testimony began, filibuster tactics virtually ground things to a halt.
But nothing happens in a vacuum, does it? Across the Channel, the French had risen up against their king and nobility. Early English approval turned to disgust and alarm as royal heads began to roll. Anything looking like a challenge to the status quo began to look like the beginnings of revolution in the British Isles. And so, when Wilberforce’s vote was finally called in 1891, it failed by a 2-to-1 margin. And the slave trade continued unabated for another 15 years, before Wilberforce could marshal enough votes to finally kill it.
The delay cost 1.5 million additional human souls their freedom or their lives.
Last Monday, the EPA announced that it was delaying by two months the release of a proposed rule on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other major pollution sources, in the face of intense opposition in Congress and from industry.
“The agency said it was pushing back the new greenhouse gas proposal to the end of September to allow more time to consider comments from generators of electricity, environmental advocates and others during public-comment sessions,” reported the NY Times.
But nothing happens in a vacuum, does it?
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.