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What it does not make clear is that the bill did not abolish slavery itself, which would persist in Jamaica and other British colonies for another 30 years. When younger and more militant abolitionists pressed Wilberforce to enter legislation to that effect, he replied that because of the effect “which long continuance of abject slavery produces on the human mind…I look to the improvement of their minds, and to the diffusion among them of those domestic charities which will render them more fit, than I fear they now are, to bear emancipation.” In other words, the slaves were not ready for their freedom. In the 1960s, the call was for “Freedom Now”, something the Kennedy brothers shrank from just as did William Wilberforce.

Amazing Grace Film Review

By Louis Proyect (February 18, 2007)

In 1823, 16 years after the slave trade was abolished, Wilberforce felt compelled to address the persistence of the institution in his “Appeal in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies”. Always the religious moralist (he was an evangelical), Wilberforce looked at the slaves in a most paternalistic fashion as if they were sinners while at the same time showing ample generosity toward the planters who whipped and exploited them (”we should treat with candour and tenderness the characters of the West India proprietors.“)

Scheduled for nation-wide release this week, “Amazing Grace” is a hagiographic treatment of the life and career of William Wilberforce, the parliamentary opponent of the slave trade in Great Britain. (The film’s title is derived from the hymn written by John Newton, a retired sea-captain and reformed slave-trader who became a minister and who is played by Albert Finney.) In the press notes, director Michael Apted states:

This is a great moment in British history, and I wanted to portray it as a generational battle–the young men taking on the older generation–like Kennedys and their Camelot court were to America in the early sixties.

Ironically, this was exactly the political role of William Wilberforce. Using the language and gestures of reform, his gradualism helped to maintain a cruel racist system that forces to his left were far more interested in abolishing.

In an article on JFK that I wrote for Revolution Magazine in New Zealand a couple of years ago, I took note of the following:

Not only were the Kennedys hostile to the Civil Rights Commission; they appointed 5 segregationist judges to the federal bench, including Harold Cox, who had referred to blacks as “niggers” and “chimpanzees.” Robert F. Kennedy preferred Cox to Thurgood Marshall whom he described as “basically second-rate.” Kennedy frequently turned to Mississippi Senator James Eastland for advice on appointments. According to long-time activist Virginia Durr, Eastland would “invite people over for the weekend and tell them to ‘pick out a nigger girl and a horse!’ That was his way of showing hospitality.”

The film was meant to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the passing of the bill that banned the slave trade in the British Empire, an event that constitutes the climactic scene.

What it does not make clear is that the bill did not abolish slavery itself, which would persist in Jamaica and other British colonies for another 30 years. When younger and more militant abolitionists pressed Wilberforce to enter legislation to that effect, he replied that because of the effect “which long continuance of abject slavery produces on the human mind…I look to the improvement of their minds, and to the diffusion among them of those domestic charities which will render them more fit, than I fear they now are, to bear emancipation.” In other words, the slaves were not ready for their freedom. In the 1960s, the call was for “Freedom Now”, something the Kennedy brothers shrank from just as did William Wilberforce.

The above quote and those that follow demonstrate William Wilberforce’s true attitudes toward slaves, something entirely missing from Apted’s sanitized biopic. They originate in Jack Gratus’s 1973 Monthly Review book “The Great White Lie: Slavery, Emancipation and Changing Racial Attitudes,” a necessary corrective to the one-sided portrait drawn by Apted.

In 1823, 16 years after the slave trade was abolished, Wilberforce felt compelled to address the persistence of the institution in his “Appeal in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies”. Always the religious moralist (he was an evangelical), Wilberforce looked at the slaves in a most paternalistic fashion as if they were sinners while at the same time showing ample generosity toward the planters who whipped and exploited them (”we should treat with candour and tenderness the characters of the West India proprietors.“)

While slavery was certainly evil, this was not in his eyes the worst aspect of the system. Instead, it was “the almost universal destitution of religious and moral instruction among the slaves” that constituted “the most serious of all the vices in the West Indian system.” He realized that it was hard for the Europeans to feel anything but contempt, “even disgust and aversion” for the personal peculiarities of the Africans, “but raise these poor creatures from their depressed condition, and if they are not yet fit for the enjoyment of British freedom, elevate them at least from the level of the brute creation into that of rational nature…Taught by Christianity they will sustain with patience the sufferings of their actual lot, while the same instructors will rapidly prepare them for a better; and instead of being objects of contempt, and another of terror…they will be soon regarded as a grateful peasantry.”

In Apted’s film, Wilberforce is played by Ioan Gruffudd as a kind of ascetic wraith. Suffering from colitis that he treats with laudanum, he is always rising from his sick-bed to dash off to parliament to make some stirring speech. Every other abolitionist figure is subordinate to him, which is of course detrimental to the film since they are far more interesting than this bible-thumping prig.

First among them is Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell), a member of the anti-slavery group that Wilberforce had joined and on whose behalf he spoke for in parliament. From the press notes, we learn that Clarkson was a “fiery radical and a magnificent organizer” who took testimonies from sailors and captains involved in the slave trade. William Wordsworth, an abolitionist himself, wrote a sonnet to Clarkson on the occasion of the 1807 bill abolishing the slave-trade:

Clarkson! it was an obstinate Hill to climb;
How toilsome, nay how dire it was, by Thee
Is known,–by none, perhaps, so feelingly;
But Thou, who, starting in thy fervent prime,
Didst first lead forth this pilgrimage sublime,
Hast heard the constant Voice its charge repeat,
Which, out of thy young heart’s oracular seat,
First roused thee.–O true yoke-fellow of Time
With unabating effort, see, the palm
Is won, and by all Nations shall be worn!
The bloody Writing is for ever torn,
And Thou henceforth shalt have a good Man’s calm,
A great Man’s happiness; thy zeal shall find
Repose at length, firm Friend of human kind!

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