As the great anti-slavery campaigner and Christian statesman hero, William Wilberforce's reputation shines undimmed almost 180 years after his death. But new research may stain the character of the British politician and evangelical philanthropist, with claims that he was himself implicated in slave trading – after the abolition of the trade.
Colonial Office papers for Sierra Leone, the free colony established by Wilberforce and his "Clapham Sect" of social reformers as an ideal society where races mixed and slaves were free, reveal that slavery – albeit renamed "apprenticeship" – continued long after the 1807 act abolishing slave trading, with Wilberforce's knowledge. His condoning of the practice and his collusion in keeping it quiet conspired to ensure that Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, would be the last place in the British empire where Africans could still be legally bought and sold into forced labour.
The claims are made in a book by Stephen Tomkins about the south London-based Clapham Sect, due out this month. "At first, I thought I must have read it wrong, because this so cuts across what we think about Wilberforce. But, the facts are all there. There is no getting round them," said Tomkins, author of a previous biography of Wilberforce. "His hands were not as clean as we assume".
As directors of the Sierra Leone Company, Wilberforce and his coterie effectively ran the colony. After the 1807 Slave Trade Act, which abolished the slave trade but not slavery, the Royal Navy started intercepting slaving ships, arresting crews and rescuing slaves.
But, what to do with the rescued slaves? "They could have set them free. But what they did was hand them over to the authorities in Freetown," said Tomkins. Sierra Leone became a crown colony in 1808, but was still managed by Wilberforce and his friends. "So with their knowledge, and their acquiescence, the navy would hand the slaves over. Some the colony kept themselves, others they sold to landowners and they put them to slave labour."Men and children were "indentured" for $20. Women were given away. They did not call them slaves, they were "apprentices" – not purchased, but "redeemed".They received no wages, just food. And those that escaped were recaptured, in irons. The only distinction between them as "slaves" and as "apprentices", was that they must be freed after 14 years.
While Wilberforce, whose hatred of slavery cannot be doubted, may have balked at the practice – Tomkins, "giving him the benefit of the doubt", believes Wilberforce did not want to jeopardise getting the act abolishing slavery itself through a hostile House of Lords – finally accomplished in 1833.The then governor of Sierra Leone, Thomas Perronet Thompson, a 25-year-old lieutenant, was so appalled he begged Wilberforce for an explanation. "I wish I had time to go into particulars respecting the difficulties which forced us into acquiescing in the system of apprenticing," was Wilberforce's reply. Thompson maintained that Wilberforce and the Sierra Leone Company had "by means of their agents become slave traders themselves". He threatened to blow the whistle, so he was sacked, with Wilberforce himself agreeing to the dismissal.
"There is something deeply disappointing about it all," said Tomkins."If they had been able to work it out between them they could have overturned the apprenticeships system. But it actually it kept it going long after slavery had been abolished throughout the rest of the British Empire," he said."But I think Wilberforce's commitment to the abolition of the slave trade was so real he wouldn't have done this unless he thought it the lesser of two evils."There were 40,000 slaves a year being taken across the Atlantic before the abolition of the slave trade, and now you have several hundred slaves a year being enslaved in Sierra Leone. Faced with that choice, whether to let the Abolition Act fail, I think it was fair enough."
The Clapham Sect is published by Lion Hudson on 20 August.