We were privileged last year to attend a screening of Amazing Grace, celebrating the life of William Wilberforce (1784 - 1833) and the 200th anniversary of the British ban on the slave trade.
The movie was a great motion picture: fast moving, gripping, crisp plot, exceptional acting, and engaging dialogue.
Yet, we also realized that the movie was not destined to be a great financial success. (The dvd was quietly released recently with little publicity).
First it was a historical set piece, the ending of which is well known.
Second, the cast is all-British, incredibly solid, but still British. Albert Finney plays a great John Newton, Ioan Gruffudd is Wilberforce, and Michael Gambron a wily Lord Fox.
Second, it lacked violence (on the screen that is, for movie has only a few vignettes of the sordidness and squalor of the slave trade)
Third, it lacked sex.
Fourth, it was 17-18th Century British history.
Fifth, it was a look at inside politics of Parliament 200 years ago. The witty repartees in Parliament are illustrative of the debates today.
Sixth, it was about a now obscure British politician William Wilberforce, who served in Parliament from 1784 unti 1826, when he resigned because of poor health. He suffered from colitis most of his adult life.
Amazing Grace could more easily have been about the epic life of John Newton (1725-1807), who penned that great, inspirational hymn, Amazing Grace. A slaver, a reformed slaver, wrote one of the greatest, most powerful hymns of all time. Newton was a slaver, empty of religious beliefs, when on May 10, 1748, his ship encountered a violent storm. Newton found himself praying to God for salvation. His road to Damascus was not instantaneously, but he began the route on the voyage back.
He slowly gave up slavery, and later became a minister. We meet Newton clad as a monk swabbing the floor of his church, while wallowing in self-recrimination.
One of his protégés was William Wilberforce, who had also experienced a conversion, albeit on land in 1785. Wilberforce almost gave up politics, but was talked into staying in it. Newton and Wilberforce were early day evangelical Christians.
Bill Moyers, himself an ordained minister, produced a 80 minute PBS special on John Newton and Amazing Grace in 1990.
Wilberforce was not the first abolitionist in England, but he became the political face of the movement. He essentially led the movement for decades in England. Through force of will he moved Parliament to ban the trade. One person can make a difference.
He spoke out in 1789 against the slave trade. The first vote to ban the slave trade in 1791 was 88 yea, and 163 nay. The final vote in 1807 was 283 yea, and 16 nay. The United States followed in 1808 in banning the slave trade. The struggle to end the slave trade took two decades in England to resolve because of the ongoing American and French Revolutions and then the rise of Napoleon
The opposition was led by Lord Tarleton, best known in America for his ruthlessness and brutality in fighting the Americans during the Revolutionary War.
Wilberforce was honored in the United States when a new black college was established in Ohio in 1856. It remains Wilberforce University to this day.
The slave trade, part of the historic triangle trade, was a major commercial success for England. Banning it entailed a major loss to many, especially in the great port of Liverpool. Yet England incurred the economic loss for moral reasons.
The triangle trade consisted in British goods being traded for slaves in Africa. The slaves were transported, often in “coffin ships,” to the Americas for slave grown products, such as sugar, cotton, tobacco, and coffee, and then back to England.
The coffin ships were a human tragedy. Many of them were also tragically used decades later to transport the “potato” Irish to America.
Many an American fortune was also built on the slave trade, including that of the Brown family, for whom Brown University is named.
The Anti-Slave Trade Act of 1807 not only banned the trade in slaves, but enforced it through the Royal Navy. The ban was preceded a year earlier by a ban on British citizens trading slaves through French vessels or to the French colonies. This stratagem, which effectively ended much of the slave trade, was dreamed up by a lawyer.
Parliament followed up in 1833 by essentially banning slavery throughout the British Empire. It appropriated £20 milion to compensate slave owners for the loss of their slaves. Wilberforce died three days later and is buried in Westminster Abbey next to his classmate and close friend, William Pitt the Younger, a strong ally throughout the struggles.
Our resolution of the slavery issue was incredibly bloody with all the wounds still not fully healed.
We know not of Wilberforce today because he was a man of peace, not of violence. We all know of his contemporary, Napoleon, who ultimately was a colossal failure. We know more of Nelson and Wellington, and perhaps even Horatio Hornblower (ironically played by Gruffudd on the A&E series), than Wilberforce.
His though was a greater contribution to civilization and humanity