From H. E. Marshall ‘Our Island Story’ – a book written for children in 1905

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From H.E. Marshall ‘Our Island Story’ – a book written for children in 1905.

“Another great thing which happened during the reign of William IV was the freeing of slaves. For many years people had been in the habit of stealing black people from their homes in Africa, and selling them as slaves in the colonies. People had grown so used to it that they did not see how wicked and cruel this was. These poor black people were taken to market and sold like cattle, they were branded like cattle, and beaten like cattle. They had to work very hard, were paid no wages, and were often very cruelly treated. All masters, of course, were not cruel, some of them were even kind to their poor slaves, but still they had very unhappy lives. They had no rights whatever, their children might be taken from them and sold, sometimes even husbands and wives were sold to different masters, and never saw each other again. A master might treat his slaves as badly as he chose, and no one could punish him.

In the old, rough, wild days no one cared about the sufferings of these poor black people. They were only niggers, and made for work and suffering, and nothing was thought about it.

But, as time went on, people became less rough and more kind-hearted, and good men began to try to make people see the wickedness of slavery. For some years, a man called Wilberforce had been doing his best, and now he was joined by others, among whom was Macaulay, the father of the great writer. Mr. Macaulay had himself been a manager of a sugar plantation in the West Indies where slaves worked. But he gave up his post because he could not bear to see the misery and unhappiness of the slaves, and came home to try to do something for them.”

It was not a very easy thing to do, because all the work on the sugar and coffee plantations in the West Indies was done by slaves. The planters said they would be ruined if the slaves were made free, as the black people would not work unless they were forced to do so. Besides, they had paid a great deal of money for their slaves, and it seemed unfair that they should be made to lose it all.

But, at last, all difficulties were smoothed away. The British Parliament said they would give twenty millions of money to the planters to make up for what they would lose in freeing their slaves, and, in the year 1834 A.D., most of them were set free.”

The popular view about slavery abolition that your grandmother might have learnt

William Wilberforce was the man responsible for the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807. He came from Hull and was a Member of Parliament for Yorkshire for 45 years. A very devout, Christian man, he campaigned tirelessly to end the trade in black people from Africa to the Caribbean. He was inspired by God to work for many years to stop this terrible trade. Finally in 1807 Parliament voted to end the slave trade, however slavery still continued. Although he was getting old and ill and he had retired as an MP in Parliament, Wilberforce continued to give support to the campaign to abolish slavery altogether. He continued to give speeches and chaired the Anti-Slavery Society. He died in 1833, just after slavery was abolished. Wilberforce also campaigned for the rights of animals.

Dear Grandmother

At school you may have learnt that William Wilberforce was the man responsible for the abolition of the slave trade. You may have been taught that he and a few other saintly men persuaded Parliament that the slave trade was cruel. Actually, the story of the abolition is much more complex and interesting. Many more people were involved and the campaign is still very relevant today. So why did you only learn about a small part of the story? I’m going to explain why the interpretation you learnt at school was incomplete.


William Wilberforce and his memory

Wilberforce was a Conservative. He believed that Britain was a wonderful place and that British people were happy and well-contented. He was horrified by revolutions and campaigns for chance to give more rights to working men and even women. He had many powerful friends and admirers who were very important in British society. Within hours of his death, these people wrote to request that Wilberforce be buried in Westminster Abbey, London. The members of Parliament went to his funeral. He was hailed as a ‘pure and virtuous man.’ In his birthplace of Hull he was celebrated with a large monument opened in 1835. It is still there today. His sons wrote a book about him in which they praised Wilberforce as the hero of the abolition of the slave trade and deliberately ignored the role of others in order to make their father more of a hero. In 1906 his former home in Hull was opened as a museum. A plaque in the house describes him as a 'statesman, orator, philanthropist, saint'. Some people seem to have been pleased to follow the view that wealthy men had looked after Britain and made it a better country.

Slave revolts

In 1804, the newly independent republic of Haiti was declared. Black slaves, led by a man called Toussaint l’Ouverture, had successfully freed themselves. Haiti, formerly the island of St Domingue, had been a French colony. A revolution had begun in France in 1789, inspired by ideals of freedom. For a short time the new French government had even abolished slavery, but it had then been reinstated. Inspired by ideas of freedom and taking advantage of chaos in France making it hard for them to control their colonies, the black slaves of St Domingue rebelled. They were attacked by the British navy and still managed to stay free. The British were very worried that ideals of freedom would spread to their colonies, such as Jamaica. In Jamaica, successful rebel slaves set up Maroon communities in the heart of the island. The British government found it impossible to beat Haiti, despite spending a lot of money and losing many soldiers and sailors to diseases and the fighting, the British gave up after 5 years. Perhaps slavery could not be maintained in the future. Would the costs be too high? The idea that slaves themselves helped to end slavery was not encouraged in Britain 100 years ago. British people regarded themselves as superior human beings and it was much nicer to tell a story about British people being good and giving up slavery and the slave trade, rather than making out that Britain was forced to give them up.


British Quakers were the first religious group to publically oppose slavery. As early as 1783 they formed a committee to campaign against slavery and the slave trade. They worked ceaselessly as part of the anti-slave trade and slavery movements until both were abolished. It was a Quaker who persuaded Thomas Clarkson to publish his essay against slavery and 9 Quakers made up the committee of 12 people that organised the campaign from 1787. Quakers also had a national network that could be used in campaigning to get the public to support abolition. They also gave a lot of money to the cause. However, Quakers at the time were regarded as odd people who dressed and spoke differently, educated women and regarded women as equal to men. They were not allowed to become MPs, or to take on public jobs. They also did not seek publicity for themselves; there are hardly any images surviving of Quakers from this time. They would not be the sort of people to encourage their role in the abolition of slavery and the slave trade to be remembered; in fact quite the opposite.

Mass public support for the campaign

By the early 1790s there were 100s of 1000s of British people joining in anti-slavery campaigns. Just in 1792, 519 abolition petitions were sent from all over the UK and they carried at least 390,000 names. This was higher than at any time in British history to that point. Petitions were signed in coffee houses, pubs, hotels, banks and town halls. People turned up to public meetings to hear evidence about the horrors of slavery gathered by men such as Thomas Clarkson and to hear ex-slaves tell their life stories. Campaigning techniques that we would use today were used widely for the first time in the campaign to abolish the slave trade. For example, people only bought non-slave plantation sugar (we would call that fairtrade) in order to avoid supporting slavery with their purchasing power. Also, people bought badges, famously produced by the Wedgewood china pottery company, to demonstrate their support for the cause. For over 40 years, many, many British people supported the cause of anti-slavery. The lessons learnt about successful campaigning were to influence many other campaigns in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, theses centuries were also times of great change and the ruling classes of Britain were afraid of mass movements of people. They might cause revolution as had happened in France. Anyway, many of the campaigners were women, and women should know their place in the world and not try to bring about big changes. Many of these women refused to accept this and went on to campaign for many other causes.

Thomas Clarkson

Today the campaign to abolish the slave trade and slavery is seen as a historic, pioneering organising of public opinion and not as a gift to poor slaves by a few godly men. Perhaps the chief organiser of this movement to organise public opinion was Thomas Clarkson. William Wilberforce’s sons wanted to give their father all the credit and so wrote a book which ignored the contribution of Clarkson. Wilberforce was buried in Westminster Abbey, whereas Clarkson did not have his role memorialised there until 1996. However, Clarkson was a member of the abolition committee from 1787, and gave his life to the cause. He and Wilberforce worked together. Clarkson tirelessly gathering the evidence needed to argue against the trade and using it and also giving it to Wilberforce and others to use in their campaigning. Clarkson also toured the country, including the slave trading ports, to campaign and speak to spread the word of the abolition movement. He toured France against slavery and visited the West Indies. At heart he was in sympathy with the Quakers, but he never became one, so that he would not be excluded from public life as they were. All through the later 1790s, when to oppose slavery was to be accused of being anti-British due to the war against France, Clarkson kept on tirelessly campaigning. A few weeks before he died he was visited by younger men trying to abolish slavery in the USA, they came to Clarkson to learn about campaigning. The many Quakers who attended his funeral held him in so much regard that they removed their hats at his funeral; Quakers never usually doffed their hats, even to royalty.

James Stephens

While the public myth about the abolition of slavery and the slave trade 100 years ago was that it was a great god driven task, in which moral leaders had led Britain to do good, the truth is that it took a lot of cunning to get the law passed through Parliament. James Stephen was an abolitionist and also a very able lawyer, specialising in law to do with trading by sea. He persuaded Wilberforce that yet another slavery abolition bill (law introduced into Parliament) would fail again. In a very cleverly worded bill, British shipping businesses were not allowed to get involved in trade that helped any other country. The shipping industry was very complicated and most people did not understand it, but Stephens did. He knew that the effect of this bill, which did not appear to be directly about the British slave trade, would be to cut the trade by two-thirds. The bill passed through the House of Commons (where the MPs sit) and moved into the House of Lords. The Lords were by now aware of what was happening. However, huge public pressure against the slave trade and also a drop in the price of sugar, meaning that plantation owners were buying fewer slaves, persuaded them to pass the bill into law. Stephens clever tactic had paid off. The anti-slavery campaign was enthused and the following year the act to abolish all of the British slave trade was passed. However, complicated law and clever tactics in Parliament did not make such a good story for Britain about why the slave trade was abolished. Also, it was clear that Stephens was successful because of other reasons too, for example lots of public support.

The battle of Trafalgar and the war with France

A powerful argument against the abolition of the slave trade was that Britain would just be handing control of the trade to its great rival, France. From 1793 to 1815, Britain was almost constantly at war with France. Even in peace time they were great economic rivals. However, in 1805 the British navy beat the French navy at the battle of Trafalgar. This was a very important victory. For the next 100 years, the British navy was the most powerful navy in the world. Other ships, and therefore their trade, could be controlled by the British navy. Suddenly, the abolition of the slave trade would not necessarily mean giving the trade to the French. Also, the French island of St Domingue had been a huge producer of sugar and there were fears that the French could dominate the world sugar market. However, by 1804, the island of St Domingue had declared itself free of France. The newly independent island of Haiti had been freed by a huge slave rebellion. Again, the idea of not wanting to give up the slave trade because Britain would lose money, does not make for such a glorious story as focusing upon how convinced British people became of the horrors of the slave trade. Part of the abolition story was a great moral lesson about how British people learnt to be better people. Just wanting to make more money than the French did not fit this narrative.

History lessons at the time of your grandmother’s schooldays

History lessons today are about using sources as evidence to try to work out what happened in the past. Historians use sources as evidence to create interpretations of the past. Sources are difficult to use and interpret and there is constant and ongoing debate about historical interpretations that are produced. Historians love debate! In school history today, you learn about things that happened in the past, but also about the skills of a historian. Historians are always suspicious of simple narratives, or stories about big change with one reason for that change. Life is just not that simple! When your grandmother was at school, school history did not try to teach people how to think historically. It was more concerned with stories from the past. The main role of school history was to teach pupils about stories from British history and to give them a sense of Britain’s place as a major power in the world. Pupils would know more things, but often very simply and would not be encouraged to challenge and debate what they were told using evidence in the way that you are today.

The study of history since about 1960

The study of history has changed a lot since the 1960s. Before then, most historians in British universities concerned themselves with stories about great (usually white) men and politics. In the 1960s there was a democratisation of history. That means that many other people’s histories began to be studied; for example, the history of women, of black people and of the colonies that belonged to empires. There was a huge increase in interest in local history, in family history and in the history of ‘ordinary’ people. Historians began to take an interest in how other, newer academic subjects could inform the study of history; for example, sociology and statistics. All of this led to new ideas about how change happens and also to new research being published, for example about why the slave trade and slavery were abolished. Old ideas were challenged with newly researched evidence.

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