Wilberforce & Slavery: Biblical & Caribbean

Last week, we looked at the life of William Wilberforce, the inveterate British evangelical anti-slavery campaigner. He faced many opposing arguments in Parliament, such as: blacks’ racial inferiority rendering them better suited to hard work, savagery of life back in Africa, the essential economic contribution the trade and institution made to the country, the poor planters and shipping companies who had invested their capital in good faith, etc. These are all nonsense, of course, and all but the blindest of eighteenth-century politicians knew this full well. Yet some of the most difficult of objections which Wilberforce and his associates faced were those who quoted the Bible, the book by which the evangelicals lived. Scripture allows slavery and even regulates it; it condones- while limiting- the use of corporal punishment of bonded persons. The likes of Barnastre Tarleton, the somewhat obnoxious MP for Liverpool who took it upon himself to be slavery’s chief advocate, would have enjoyed quoting the scriptures in these debates.

I’d make some observations here. Hebrew slavery was somewhat more benign that its transatlantic step-child. The former was small scale, often in response to individual debt or poverty rather than mass kidnappings. Indeed, he that kidnaps is prescribed the death penalty in Exodus 21. After 6 years, the slave was released and his debt paid, though the voluntary possibility of remaining a slave was anticipated, suggesting the conditions were not so bad. American and West Indian slavery, in contrast, was harsh, brutal, and existed on an industrial scale. Plantation owners reckoned to obtain only 6 years’ work form their slaves, not for plans to release them but because the terrible work and conditions killed them off. 

Secondly, the transatlantic trade was based on the appalling prejudice of racial inferiority, that black Africans were inherently stupid or better suited to terrible workloads. Although the Biblical writers distinguished between Hebrew and non-Hebrew slaves, there was no intrinsic racism built into it. As soon as one disregards a human’s dignity by denying his being made in God’s image, all sorts of cruelties and vices will be unleashed.

Thirdly, it was the biblical texts which encouraged our ending of this vile trade and economic system. Love of all people and desiring their coming to a knowledge of Christ has no place for manacles and shackles. Those who work deserve a fair wage. Although it was quite possibly economic arguments and offers of compensation which eventually ended slavery in the empire, the book which the pro-slavery party so often quoted became their undoing.

My brief notes can be found here: http://www.martintop.org.uk/content/william-wilberforce

Pictures: Leg shackles and hand manacles, American, mid-nineteenth century, bought at auction.