Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The debate on Wilberforce (update)

I'm afraid we're going to get a lot more of articles like this in today's Guardian.

Yes, of course due recognition should be given to the many other abolitionists whose names are now far less well known than Wilberforce's. If Wilberforce had been able to read the article he would have completely agreed with this argument and only asked why his brother-in-law, James Stephen (great-grandfather of Virginia Woolf incidentally) should have been excluded. It was Stephen who devised the winning strategy that got the abolition bill through parliament.

As for Wilberforce being a member of the 'Tory Anglican establishment'. Well, he never claimed any party label and it is only retrospectively that he can be described as 'Tory'. He was of course an Anglican, as were all members of Parliament in this period. The slave trade could only be abolished by act of Parliament and therefore the bill could only be put forward by an Anglican. In the same way, women could only be given voting rights from a male Parliament!

Yes, Sir Samuel Romilly introduced the bill, but that was a diversionary strategy so that the bill wouldn't be too much associated with Wilberforce. In his speech Romilly paid a glowing tribute to Wilberforce as the man who had done more than any other to bring about abolition. This of course is not to belittle the heroic work of Wilberforce's friends, colleagues and allies.

But there are some letters in today's Guardian (including one from Melvyn) putting a more measured view.