Originally posted on Pambazuka News on March 7, 2007. Part 2 of a two-part article.
Wilberforce: Government agent and bogus anti-slavery ‘leader’?
The recruitment of Wilberforce by the Prime Minister is an important clue suggesting that he may have been appointed to perform a subversive role designed to hold up the abolition process. Pitt was determined that Wilberforce, a backbencher, should be the official spokesman for the abolition society and in that role, present the abolition bill in Parliament. This is very surprising since the bill would have stood a much greater chance of success if the Prime Minister had taken it on as part of government business, headed and presented by a cabinet Minister. If he had really wanted to abolish the ‘slave trade’ he could have used the full power of his office to make it happen. The truth is that the Prime Minister’s situation was delicate as he wanted to appear to be in favour of abolition, whilst in reality being doggedly opposed to it.
Pitt was forced into giving the false impression that he favoured abolition because of the growing awareness about: (i)the barbarity, wickedness and general evil of slavery, and (ii)the large number of deaths of British seamen, soldiers and other personnel overseas. The resulting and ever growing outcry from the British public for the abolition of the ‘slave trade’ increased the pressure on him and his government to act. This then created serious problems for a government that relied heavily on the income that it received in the form of taxes from enslavers and others who profited from the human misery of enslaved Afrikan people. Pitt’s tactical response was to send in his close and trusted friend Wilberforce; so close that at one time they even lived in the same house (Howarth, 1973). Wilberforce’s role was to function as the society’s mouthpiece with the latent agenda of containing, stifling, thwarting, delaying and otherwise redirecting the pressure on government so as to stave off the abolition of slavery.
There are signs that initially Wilberforce was not quite up to the task of infiltrating and undermining the organised structures and processes developed to achieve the abolition of slavery. It evidently became necessary to coerce him into stepping more fully into the bogus leadership role ascribed to him because in 1787 Pitt found it necessary to warn Wilberforce that: ‘… if he did not bring the motion in [to the House of Commons], somebody else would …’ (James, 1963). The thought of somebody else stealing his limelight seems to have helped him overcome his reluctance.
Some readers might find it strange to think in terms of Wilberforce having operated as an under cover government spy working to subvert the abolitionist movement. However, we know that Pitt was really against the abolition of slavery because of his response to the Haitian revolution. When the world saw the Afrikan people in Haiti rise up and abolish slavery, Pitt failed to offer them either his government’s support or even its official recognition. Instead he sent 60,000 British soldiers, mostly to die, in an unsuccessful attempt to crush the Afrikan people there in order to return them back into slavery (James, 1963). Pitt’s actions must have been designed to maintain slavery, because he did not send his troops into nearby France to assist attempts to crush the revolutionary Jacobins who were fighting a similar cause.
Instead of correcting his close friend the Prime Minister and championing the cause of the Afrikan people fighting for their freedom in Haiti, Wilberforce publicly supported Pitt’s decision to send British forces into Haiti in order to fully re-instate slavery on the island. There can be little doubt that this action was specifically against the enslaved Afrikan people who were fighting for freedom. We know this because in 1792 he used the Haitian revolution as a pretext for abandoning the bill to abolish the ‘slave trade’ that had already successfully passed through the House of Commons (Hart, 1997). It was agreed that this bill would bring the slave trade’ to an end on 1 January 1796. That they should be prepared to go to such lengths is proof conclusive that both Wilberforce and Pitt were unequivocally and fundamentally opposed to the abolition of slavery. Any other utterances that they made were just anti-slavery rhetoric designed to camouflage their real agenda. It is just not possible for an honest and objective observer to consider these facts and reasonably draw any other conclusion.
In addition, there is documented evidence confirming that governments of that period in British history actively used their own under cover agents as spies against groups that they did not approve of. Afrikan anti-slavery and anti-imperialist heroes such as William Davison (Fryer, 1984) and William Cuffay (Fryer, 1984) were executed or otherwise persecuted as a direct result of the subversive activities of government sponsored undercover agent provocateurs. The Briton Arthur Thistlewood suffered a similar fate (Foot, 2002).
As will be seen, Wilberforce consistently behaved in ways that ran counter to the objective of abolishing slavery. It is his consistent pattern of blatant anti-abolitionist, blatant racist and blatant sexist behaviours that lay him open to the accusation of being a subversive government agent. It is also interesting to note that all the time William Pitt, the man who appointed him, was Prime Minister all bills to abolish the kidnapping and deportation of Afrikan people failed to make their way through Parliament. It was only after the death of Pitt in 1806 that the abolition of the slave trade bill finally made it onto the statue book.
Racist Wilberforce opposed the abolition of slavery
Another of the methods used by imperialism to propagate its lies is to create or control organisations that pretend to champion particular just causes whilst, at the same time, adopting the hidden agenda of derailing or containing that just cause. The actions of the so called ‘Abolition Society’ were consistent with that pattern in that despite its progressive sounding name, it openly boasted that it did not seek the abolition of the enslavement of Afrikan people. For instance, on 12 August 1788 just months after Wilberforce started operating as its ‘unofficial’ Parliamentary spokesman, the ‘Abolition Society’ issued its first public statement: ‘… proclaiming that the abolition of slavery was not their objective’ (Hart, 2006). The following year 1789, a Privy Council report concluded that free waged labourers were three times more productive than enslaved people (Ferguson, 1998). There was an increasing realisation that enslaved people had no purchasing power and that this was as an obvious impediment to the development of the capitalist market system of distribution and exchange (Hart, 1998).
The society appears to have been completely unmoved by the mounting sources of information and pressure supportive of the abolition of slavery. They still stubbornly refused to advocate for the abolition of slavery and on 31 January 1792 Wilberforce’s friends in the ‘Abolition Society’ issued their second public statement: ‘… proclaiming that the abolition of slavery was not their objective’ (Hart, 2006). If these actions were not enough to demonstrate the desire of Wilberforce and his friends to hold back progress towards gaining the ‘freedom’ of enslaved Afrikan people then, on 29 March 1797 the case was sealed; three years after Wilberforce officially joined, the disingenuous nature of the ‘Abolition Society’ was confirmed when it issued its third public statement: ‘… proclaiming that the abolition of slavery was not their objective’ (Hart, 2006). From the point of view of Afrikan people, this is an aspect of Wilberforce’s ‘help’ that we could have done without.
The success of the Haitian revolution and the Haitian declaration of independence in 1804 forced all of the imperialist nations to reconsider their approach to the enslavement of Afrikan people (James, 1963). All of Pitt’s and Wilberforce’s attempts to support the maintenance of slavery on that island had ended in unmitigated disaster. The experience forced them and other imperialists to accept that they could be militarily defeated by enslaved Afrikan people. It also forced them to accept that if they continued to kidnap and deport Afrikan people to the Americas that they would be adding to the military might of the already powerful enslaved Afrikan people resisting their enslavers. This in turn would lead to the inevitable demise of their European kith and kin living in and colonising those lands.
Denmark wasted no time and abolished the ‘slave trade’ in 1802 (Greenwood, 1980). Britain’s response was slower: Since the 1790s the British Parliament had developed the habit of thwarting all attempts to abolish the kidnapping and deportation of Afrikan people into enslavement. Despite their military defeats at the hands of Afrikan people in Haiti. Some sections of the British establishment refused to accept the need to abolish. Over a period they began to accept reality, Britain changed stance and a bill for the abolition of the ‘slave trade’ was, though not for the first time, approved by the House of Commons in 1804. It was however, held up by the intransigence of House of Lords (Hart, 1998).
When in 1807 the House of Lords finally capitulated under the overwhelming pressure to abolish the practice of kidnapping and deporting Afrikan people, Wilberforce attempted to put the breaks on the Afrikan liberation process by publicly denouncing the idea of emancipating enslaved Afrikan people (Williams, 1944). Following that, Wilberforce was to go on to prove just how reactionary he actually was when he and his friends delayed advocating the ‘gradual emancipation’ of enslaved Afrikan people until 1923 – 16 years (Hart, 2006). It is clear that he did not feel it necessary to consult with enslaved Afrikan people since he expressed the opinion that we were not yet: ‘… fit … to bear emancipation …’ (Martin, 1999). Wilberforce’s actions are clearly consistent with those of a person who was completely opposed to the idea of Afrikan people being freed from imperialist oppression.
Racist Wilberforce delayed the abolition of slavery
After the abolition of the ‘slave trade’ in 1807, the next logical step for those in favour of Afrikan emancipation was the immediate abolition of the institution of slavery itself. However, Wilberforce found curious ways of showing his ‘support’ for the cause of immediate abolition. In addition to openly opposing immediate abolition, he practiced behaviours which did not fall far short of those carried out by the racist fascists who controlled the abhorrent anti-human Apartheid system in South Afrika. For instance in 1816, when he claimed to be advocating for ‘equality’ and the ‘emancipation’ of Afrikan and other oppressed people, Wilberforce chaired a dinner of the friends of Afrikans and Asians Society and: ‘… the token Afrikans and Asians invited to the gathering were separated from the other guests by a screen set across the end of the room.’ (Fryer, 1984).
Wilberforce was not shy in demonstrating his apparent ‘compassion’ for enslaved Afrikan people in other ways. For instance, he advocated the idea that Afrikan people should only be whipped at night – presumable so as not to adversely affect production, which took place mainly in the day (Hochschild, 2005). Furthermore, our ‘great hero and saviour’ recommended that Afrikan people be bred like animals as a substitute to boosting our population in the Americas through the kidnapping and compulsory deportation of our people – otherwise referred to as the ‘slave trade’.
Following the rebellion of enslaved Afrikan people in Demerara in 1823, calls for the immediate abolition of slavery once again grew amongst the British public. Wilberforce and his friends had successfully held back the aspirations of those people genuinely desiring the immediate abolition of slavery until that year, but the pressure was now becoming too great. The mounting public pressure compelled Wilberforce and his friends to launch the Society for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery (SGAS) (Hart, 2006). They launched the society as a last ditch tactic to further delay the prospect of ending the institution of slavery. Since it was becoming clearer that they could not stop the progress towards abolition, they would drag it out and delay it for as long as possible. The SGAS advocated ideas and policies that would help slavery to survive for a further 100 years. Its members openly boasted that they wanted slavery to gradually: ‘… die away and to be forgotten …’ (Williams, 1944).
Wilberforce’s anti-abolition position was completely out of touch with the will of the British people and diametrically opposed to the majority of the membership of his own organisation. In May 1830 the SGAS passed a resolution for the immediate abolition of slavery against the wishes of its ‘leadership’ i.e. Wilberforce and his new side kick Buxton (Hart, 2006). This was an important catalyst in the history of the abolition movement. Wilberforce and his friends had successfully delayed, suppressed and contained the demand for the immediate freedom of enslaved Afrikan people for over 40 years. Wilberforce was clearly an enemy of Afrikan people, not a friend.
Sexist Wilberforce opposed women’s groups advocating the abolition of slavery
In Britain, women were, after the Afrikan community itself, the most radical advocates for the abolition of slavery (Martin, 1999). Whilst Wilberforce was openly advocating against the abolition of slavery, women’s groups were actively campaigning to achieve immediate abolition. One example comes via Elizabeth Heyricke who wrote a pamphlet entitled, Immediate Not Gradual Emancipation (Martin, 1999). Women were also prolific in the amassing of millions of signatures for anti-slavery petitions. More importantly, they led the mass boycott campaigns that damaged the economic interests of the plantation enslavers and their allies. Peckham Ladies Anti-Slavery Association is an example of a women’s group that contributed to the organisation of the campaign to boycott West Indian sugar (Williams, 1944).
Wilberforce actively opposed female anti-slavery associations and their role in organising boycott campaigns (Williams, 1944, p. 182). Wilberforce refused to accept women’s signatures on anti-slavery petitions (Martin, 1999). He tried to discourage and silence the political activities of women’s groups working for the anti-slavery cause. If he was genuinely in favour of the abolition of slavery, he would have thanked and encouraged the women’s groups for the sterling work that they were doing to advance the cause that he claimed to stand for. In failing to do so he was demonstrating his overt sexism and simultaneously harming the prospects of Afrikan people being freed from the bondage of imperialism. His undermining behaviour was clearly inconsistent with that of person sincerely working to achieve the abolition of slavery.
Whilst he vociferously denounced the idea of women being involved in open political activity aimed at abolishing slavery, he made no such condemnation of the public exploitation of women as prostitutes in brothels. During that period innocent Afrikan women were kidnapped, transported from their homes and held captive as sex slaves in British brothels. If he was genuinely against the enslavement of Afrikan people, he would have used his position in Parliament to help outlaw this most despicable of human abuses. However, instead of condemning this outrageous practice as a crime against the humanity of Afrikan women, he joined the exploitation process. He personally participated in systematically organised episodes of rape perpetrated against these defenceless Afrikan women, whose misfortune it was to be imprisoned in British imperialism’s brothels.
This aspect of his behaviour was brought to the attention of the public by cartoonists in the national press (Howarth, 1973). Wilberforce does not appear to have denied these public accusations, nor did he take legal action to protect his ‘good name’. He would have had some difficulty defending himself given that his secret mistress Agnes Bonte described as a ‘prostitute’ actually set up and ran a ‘top people’s’ brothel in London. She is said to have developed her liking for bondage after going on private boat trips with Wilberforce where he demonstrated the way in which Afrikan people were held in chains on the human trafficking ships of the time (Agnes Bronte 1813-1892).
Perhaps one reason why he was so openly against the abolition of slavery is that it could have led to a personal ‘loss of privileges’ on his part, by denying him his unrestricted access to the group of disempowered Afrikan women whom he used as sex toys. Wilberforce’s perverted, misogynistic and racist behaviour falls significantly short of that which should be expected of anybody posing as an ‘Afrikan liberator, hero and saviour’.
* Part 1 was published in Pambazuka News 293 www.pambazuka.org/en/category/features/40032
* Bro. K. Bangarah is a member of the Global Afrikan Congress, based in the UK,
* Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or comment online at www.pambazuka.org
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