In April 1791, a Bill was presented to Parliament to end the British transatlantic slave trade. For the previous two years a Parliamentary committee had been hearing evidence from all sides, much of it grim beyond expression. Tens of thousands of people had signed petitions supporting abolition, and the former slave Olaudah Equiano, the best known voice of the African community in London, had led a deputation to make representations. His autobiography, published in 1789, was a continuous best-seller. By the time the Bill was debated it was, as its proponents pointed out, impossible for MPs to be under any illusion about what they were voting for or against. And yet the Bill failed. Even after the largest public campaign ever seen, the British legislature consciously chose by a margin of almost two to one to do evil. The shock to the system for the ‘do-gooders’ of the abolition campaign was visceral, and struck at the roots of their faith in what it meant to be British.
Then as now, most Britons thought of themselves as a force for good in the world, and large numbers of people saw slavery as a foul stain on their country’s reputation, both at home and abroad. This did not necessarily mean that all of their views would be acceptable now, but on the fundamentals of most moral and ethical issues there was always a choice, and many people, including large numbers of those in the emerging working-classes, made the right one.
Thus anti-slavery campaigners in 1791 had hoped that, presented with incontrovertible facts about the slave trade – not to mention slavery itself – the political establishment would do the right thing. Anti-slavery organisations went to great lengths to produce detailed evidence about what the slave trade involved. Huge efforts were made to engage public opinion and support. There were petitions and letter-writing campaigns, and people were encouraged not to buy slave-produced sugar, sales of which dropped by well over a third. One petition was signed by over a fifth of the population of Manchester. Newspapers published campaigning articles and public meetings passed resolutions opposing the trade. Nowadays, we see the anti-slavery campaign mainly in terms of white middle-class individuals – William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and others – but in fact it was one of the first campaigns to engage the ordinary public in ways which are recognisable still. Hopes for success were high.
Unfortunately, the forces ranged against the Bill were very powerful and perfectly happy to push out as much fake news as possible. The closest equivalent to the West Indian lobby two hundred years ago is the gun lobby in the United States today. Plantation owners, sugar merchants and slave traders were well represented in Parliament, and could bring vast amounts of money to bear on the debate. Many small investors had funds in slave-owning companies, and they were more than willing to believe the stories about happy slaves working in idyllic circumstances on paternalistic plantations. Many simply could not bring themselves to believe the horror stories, particularly if they themselves were involved as beneficiaries of the system. Most small-scale slave-owners had never been to the West Indies and chose to accept what they were told, or at least not to question it too closely. Some simply didn’t care.
It was this attitude that the abolition campaign set out to demolish, but it was much more easily said than done. People who thought of themselves as ‘good’ often chose to look the other way, or thought that the many cases of murder, torture and daily brutality put before them were invented. People believed fake news as easily then as now. But parliamentarians were in a different category; they had heard two years-worth of evidence given and recorded in all its dreadful detail. Many abolitionists just could not believe that anyone could know the full hideous truth about the trade and deliberately choose not to act to end it. As the radical poet and polemicist Anna Laetitia Barbauld wrote of Britain: ‘She stamps her infamy to future time/And on her harden’d forehead seals the crime.’ History, she believed, would judge harshly a nation which, in full knowledge of the evil it did, still chose to persist.
Of course, there is a great deal more to black history than slavery, and a great deal more to the history of slavery and its abolition than the white European campaigns. But the mythology around Britain’s attitude to slavery – that we abolished both the trade and the institution, and that these actions were a credit to us – often prevents us from seeing the truth of our history. People objected to slavery from the very beginning, but it still took over two centuries to get the British economic and political establishments to do the right thing. Although Wilberforce put a Bill to abolish the transatlantic slave trade to Parliament every year for nearly twenty years, it was not finally abolished until 1807, whilst slavery itself had to wait until 1833. Britain regarded – and sometimes still regards – itself with delusional pride as the fount of liberty, but it had to be dragged kicking and screaming into freeing to its slaves, and even then it ultimately did so on terms which, though generous to slave-owners, were so punitive for the slaves themselves that they ensured that the West Indies and its black inhabitants were kept in poverty for generations.
The failure of the 1791 Bill is now a little-known episode in our history, not least because it is obscured by a certain smugness about the success of 1807. But the campaign fought for that early attempt, and the huge numbers of ordinary women and men involved in it, demonstrates that there was, then as now, always a choice, and always people willing to make the right one despite the odds.