Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Truth in Chains

Lola Young has a good article in the Guardian on the bicentennial of the passage of the Slave Trade Act (HT: Cliopatria). I've already given my two cents on this topic, which I'll repost here:

Since this is in some ways the Year of William Wilberforce, I thought that it might be worthwhile to make clear exactly what we are celebrating the 200th anniversary of. In great measure through Wilberforce's perseverance over several decades, the Slave Trade Act finally passed its second reading and became law in February and March of 1807. This outlawed the slave trade in British dominions. It is important to note that the abolition of the slave trade is not the same as the abolition of slavery. Over the next decade or so Wilberforce and others worked to extend this abolition of the slave trade worldwide -- largely through treaties. One of the means of enforcing the ban on slave trading which Wilberforce worked for was the creation of a Slave Registry, which would make a clear distinction between slaves bred and slaves bought, and allow the government the means to guarantee there were none of the latter. In the course of fighting for this it became clear to Wilberforce that the abolition of the slave trade was simply not enough to handle the sorts of abuses he was trying to stop. It was only in 1818, if we go by the judgment of his two sons in their Life of William Wilberforce, that he began actively working not merely for what he called Abolition -- the elimination of slavery as a trade -- but what was called Emancipation -- the elimination of slavery as a status. This is not actually surprising. We tend to lump these things all together, but Abolition alone was a massive task that had taken quite literally decades of continual pressing and organizing even to accomplish; and when it was done, there was still required similar ceaseless work over many years to consolidate and extend this victory. The elimination of slavery was not a matter of a flick of a pen; the whole nature of society had to be reconsidered and transformed, against considerable resistance. Despite the pressing importance of the matter -- and we only have to read the writings Wilberforce has left to see how clearly he recognized its urgent necessity -- everything had to be done in slow, ponderous steps. What is remarkable is not that Wilberforce advocated the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Many people did that. What is remarkable about Wilberforce is that he never stopped advocating it, despite defeat after defeat; when he had finally done it, he did not rest on his laurels but continued the long, hard work of consolidating it; and when consolidation was proceeding apace he took the next step to start what was a completely new stage of the fight. And all this while doing many other things relevant to his parliamentary work and social action with a more than common diligence. Not bad for a man whose diaries show him regularly reprimanding himself for wasting time, failing to do as much as he thought he should do, and failing to be as Christian in his actions and words as he should. The work of progress is never easy work; if you find it easy to progress you should immediately become suspicious, and investigate whether you are really progressing at all. For the genuine work of progress is the work of reordering civilization itself; and this is never easy.

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