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Wilberforce's opposition to the slave trade was founded on the same basis as his hatred of trade unions, free speech, habeas corpus and universal suffrage: the interests of capitalism...

William Wilberforce: enemy of the working class

WORKERS, JULY 2007 ISSUE

Far too much credit for the abolition of slavery is given to William Wilberforce, one of history's biggest hypocrites and reactionaries. It was only by their own action that the slaves were freed.

During the 18th century, Britain became the slave carrier for the sugar planters of France and Spain, her rivals. The sugar colonies were far more important to France than to Britain. St Domingue (present-day Haiti), controlled by the French, was more fertile than the British West Indies (which included Jamaica), where the soil was becoming exhausted. The sugar from St. Domingue cost a fifth less and its exports and profit rates were twice that of Jamaica. By 1789, its sugar production was a third more than that of all Britain's West Indies colonies.

Prime Minister William Pitt raged that the slave trade, "instead of being very advantageous to Great Britain, is the most destructive that can well be imagined to her interests." To ruin St Domingue, he urged his friend William Wilberforce to campaign against the slave trade: the abolitionist movement was created to serve British state interests.

The British ruling class's frenzied reaction to the French revolution of 1789 intensified the antagonism with France, as she became not just a rival but also a political alternative. In 1791, St Domingue's slave-owners offered to leave French rule and put themselves under British rule, to keep their slaves. In 1793, Pitt accepted their offer and agreed, blocking abolition for the next 14 years.

When St Domingue's slaves rebelled against Pitt's betrayal, he sent hundreds of thousands of troops to try to crush them, in a disastrous and futile war. 50,000 British soldiers died, 50,000 were permanently invalided. When St Domingue's revolutionary government ended slavery and declared independence from France in 1804, the British ruling class did not need the slave trade any more and so could abolish it in 1807.

Tolpuddle Rally
Toldpuddle: time for a rally against Wilberforce? He piloted through Parliament the anti-union Combination Acts, which made all unions illegal.
Reactionary in Britain
In Britain, Wilberforce was the foremost apologist and champion of every act of tyranny, from the employment of Oliver the Spy and the illegal detention of poor prisoners in Coldbaths Fields jail to the Peterloo massacre. Wilberforce supported the 1794 Habeas Corpus Suspension Act, which let the government imprison people against whom it had no evidence at all. Habeas Corpus was suspended until 1802. Across Britain, trade union members, journalists and publishers were arrested and detained.

Wilberforce backed a series of Acts between 1795 and 1799 to suppress sedition, used to curb freedom of speech, assembly and organisation. Consequently, the state prevented meetings of the Literary Society of Manchester, the Academical Society of Oxford, and even of a mineralogical society, on the grounds that the study of mineralogy could lead to atheism. He backed the Tory government's Six Acts of 1819, including the Blasphemous and Seditious Libel Act, known as the Gagging Act.

In 1794 he backed the prosecution of twelve members of the London Corresponding Society for high treason. Their crime was to advocate universal suffrage. When a jury acquitted the defendants, he backed the government's decision to arrest 65 leading members of the society and imprison them without trial for two years. No wonder that it was said of Wilberforce, "he never favoured the liberty of any white man in all his life."

Wilberforce wrote that Christianity "renders the inequalities of the social scale less galling to the lower orders, whom also she instructs in their turn to be diligent, humble, patient: reminding them that their more lowly path has been allotted to them by the hand of God; that it is their part faithfully to discharge its duties, and contentedly to bear its inconveniences." William Cobbett called him the prince of hypocrites, who praised the benefits of poverty from a comfortable distance.

The bishops and baronets of the Proclamation Society (as Wilberforce's Society for the Suppression of Vice was earlier called) prosecuted the impoverished publisher of Tom Paine's The Age of Reason. In 1801 and 1802, it launched 623 successful prosecutions for breaking the Sabbath laws. Pitt's government declared The Rights of Man seditious and prosecuted those who published and sold copies of Paine's book.

Censorship
The government, with Wilberforce's support, imposed censorship, launching 42 prosecutions of publishers, editors and writers between 1809 and 1812. It became a criminal offence to write that the Prince of Wales was fat (he was), or to report that Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh had ordered the flogging of Irish peasants (he had).

Wilberforce also backed persecution of the whole working class. He proposed a general Combination Act, calling combinations – trade unions – "a general disease in our society". The Pitt government's acts of 1799 and 1800 were the severest of their kind ever enacted in Britain. They made all unions illegal as such, whether conspiracy, restraint of trade or the like could be proved against them or not.

In theory, the acts applied to employers as well as to workers, but workers were prosecuted by the thousand, never a single employer. In 1834, a year after the emancipation of the slaves, the penalty for trade union activity was still transportation for life.

In sum, as his biographer the last Lord Birkenhead wrote approvingly, Wilberforce "was a Tory through and through; he never shed the political ideas he had inherited from Pitt and his religion intensified his conservatism."

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