: at one time, a desire to denigrate Wilberforce was a sign of liking slavery. Now it is the latest thing in politically-correct chic. “In Search of Wilberforce” (BBC2, 21:00 – 22:00, Friday 15th March) was actually in search of ways to belittle him. His memorial states that
… his name will ever be specially identified with those exertions which, by the blessing of God, removed from England the guilt of the African slave trade, and prepared the way for the abolition of slavery in every colony of the empire: in the prosecution of these objects he relied, not in vain, on God; but in the progress he was called to endure great obloquy and great opposition: he outlived, however, all enmity … 
but he has not, it would seem, outlived the enmity of presenter Moira Stewart and suchlike politically-correct BBCers.
The belittling was pursued by the usual PC techniques of demeaning emphases and questions (“He is called …”, “But did he actually …) and the setting up of straw men to be demolished. One of these was the fact that Wilberforce began by devoting himself to abolishing the slave trade. The presenter’s attitude to this reminded me of Kipling’s lines
Lesser men feign greater goals
Failing whereof they may sit
Scholarly to judge the souls
That go down into the pit
And despite its certain clay
Heave a new world towards the day
Lesser women too; the presenter was “much puzzled” at the distinction. The idea that you have to start somewhere seemed beyond her. The great difference in death rate and physical misery between the slave ships and the colonies was beneath her politically-correct notice. Wilberforce, like anyone who means to do real good, not just strike a pose, pursued a strategy that would work; that meant attacking the greatest evil – the trade – first.
Repeated absurdities supported this straw man:
- “In Britain most people don’t realise that Wilberforce bill only made the trade illegal. Slavery continued in Britain’s colonies.” This was repeated over and over. Most people, if you ask them sensibly, can tell you that the trade was abolished first, slavery later, and that Wilberforce campaigned against both, which does seem the main point.
- “Wilberforce believed the abolition would improve the lot of Africans in the plantations” but “it has been proved to me that it did not”. The so-called proof consisted of the presenter’s visiting the Caribbean and discovering that after the trade was prohibited slavery was still slavery, which was still bad. Wilberforce knew that; that’s why he campaigned for abolition. (See also footnote  below.)
- Wilberforce died shortly after learning that the bill abolishing slavery had passed its third reading, usually seen as a fitting moment for the close of his life, but not by the presenter, to whom it was just a demonstration of how irrelevant he had become: “Wilberforce did not have the driving role”, “he was a figurehead” was her attitude to the anti-slavery speeches of his final years. The implication seemed to be that several decades campaigning in parliament and out simply wasn’t good enough for the reputation he had; he shouldn’t have grown old and died before all was done.
A second straw man was made out of the famous Wedgewood cameo, in which a kneeling slave pleads, ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ The presenter “had great difficulties” with this image, both the original and a copy in a stained glass window; it was “a travesty of the Africans who have fought for their freedom” since it shows them “as only a supplicant.” If she had been more observant she might have noticed a kneeling white man, as well as a kneeling black man, in the stained glass window example that particularly aroused her ire. A better historical sense (or a look at other kneeling figures in churches) might have reminded her that Wilberforce must have knelt every evening and every Sunday, and that the posture was not then seen as her narrowly modern mind sees it. Finally her knowledge of slavery might have told her that slaves are people deprived of power, people who must plead for compassion; that the image (as well as being very effective propaganda for its cause) expresses a simple truth about the overwhelming majority.
Another straw man was that, “For Wilberforce, the slave trade was a sin for which Britain had to repent, but he was not alone.” The presenter complained several times that he was but one of many in the movement. Oh yes, we all imagined that Wilberforce fought slavery without the help of anyone else, just as we imagined that Churchill fought the Nazis alone while the rest of the nation just watched! Anyone who knows the history knows about Clarkson and others she mentioned. Wilberforce is simply the name you remember first and forget last.
Listing all the programme’s follies would make this already long post gargantuan. Let us turn to the question why. Why does a politically-correct BBCer want to demean a man who in his day was sneered at by slavers? Whence comes the visceral dislike that was so plain under the urbane commentary, from the very first questioning sentence to the final grudging partial admission of his deeds? I thought I saw two reasons.
The first could be seen underneath several remarks. “It’s been proved to me – they were not mere supplicants grateful for a morsel of pity.” A statue of a Jamaican slave who led a slave strike crushed in January 1831 was a “monument to people the Jamaicans regard as the true abolitionists.” The unstated implication seemed to be that Wilberforce real crime was to be white and to be British. His actions deprived the African tribes of the dignity of someday ceasing for themselves to sell the losers in their wars, and deprived the slaves of the dignity of someday freeing themselves by revolt. Put another way, his crime was to be part of the real history of the victory over slavery, not of a more emotionally-satisfying myth history.
The second arises from the ugly necessities of modern politically-correct ‘multiculturalism’, committed in theory to the equality of cultures but in practice to despising the culture to which Wilberforce belonged. This prompted some minor distortions of details . But more fundamentally, with this mindset the real achievement of the anti-slavery movement, which went far beyond ending specific cruelties of British traders and British colonists, simply cannot be faced. “During three to four hundred years the entire world saw the slave trade as legal.” No, during 6000 years of recorded history, every culture, every race, every continent, saw slavery, and the trade in slaves, as legal. Some tried to mitigate it: the Old Testament proclaims laws that try to restrain the worst horrors; so did the Indian king Asoka. Some personified callousness: “Sell old and sick slaves”, wrote Cato. Always, slavery was legal. “The strong do what they can; the weak endure what they must”, said the Athenian general to the Melosians before enslaving them. Over two thousand years later, the African chief Comoro said much the same to explorer Samuel Baker: “The good people are all weak: they are good because they are not strong enough to be bad.”  Sometimes slaves rebelled or escaped. Rarely, they were successful: the Messenian helots eventually drove out the Spartans; the slaves in Haiti triumphed; some in Surinam escaped. More often they failed, sometimes after victories like Spartacus, but usually by being swiftly crushed. Either way, the idea of slavery went on.
The anti-slavery movement, born of a society that had eliminated first slavery and then its lesser cousin serfdom centuries earlier in its homeland, taught that slavery was wrong, not just for citizens or for people like them but for absolutely everyone. They made this conviction a practical reality, backed by preaching, by the force of law and above all by their power, especially their navy. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”, said Lincoln. It is an obvious thought to us; who would deny it? Answer: most of the past. Wilberforce and the movement he led stand at the fulcrum of that change. Our minds inherit their achievement. “I cannot understand why for so many centuries mankind allowed such a trade”, said the presenter (“for so many millennia”, she should have said). We share her feelings, if not her limited timespan, easily, without needing a trace of Wilberforce’ moral grandeur because she and we live after Wilberforce, not before. But to the politically-correct mind, that origin of this knowledge is unwelcome; better to sneer at him.
 The ‘great obloquy’ included threats and even physical attacks so that at one time Wilberforce had to travel with a bodyguard.
 For what it is worth, the claim that abolishing the trade offered no benefits to existing slaves in the Americas can easily be seen to be false, even in its own irrelevant terms, by comparing survival of the main groups.
- More than twice as many African slaves travelled the short, ocean-current-assisted route to Brazil and South America than went the long passage to North America. The route was easier and in use longer, only finally being shut down when the Royal Navy raided into Brazilian harbours in the 1850s. Yet while there is a population of mixed race there, the purely African descendants of these slaves are rare. Their treatment seems not to have been good enough to favour forming families and raising children. Cultural differences may have played a role but the fact that it was so much cheaper to buy a new slave off the dock is surely relevant.
- More African slaves were sent to the Arab world than went to the whole western hemisphere. The trade (often straightforward capture by Arab slavers, not ‘trade’ in any sense) began even earlier and lasted even longer. Only in the second half of the 19th century did the Royal Navy mount effective blockade of the key Zanzibar depot and stifle the sea-borne trade; intercepting small Arab dhows in the shorter passages of Africa’s east coast was a harder task than interdicting the west coast trade. Effective action against the land route to the near east had to await imperial annexations (archeology can still trace the routes by the clusters of skeletons around water holes, perhaps representing a last desperate effort by the captives to reach water). Yet the near east today has almost no descendants of these slaves. Their treatment – obviously so for the thousands who were made harem guards but apparently also for the rest – seems not to have been of a kind to favour it. The much greater ease of obtaining fresh slaves, relative to any part of the western hemisphere, seems highly pertinent to this.
- (The majority of African slaves never left the continent of their birth. There is no immediate way of assessing the survival of those who lived and died in Africa. Treatment appears to have been harsh in the plantations in the eastern part of the central axis, and of course those chosen by the king of Dahomey for his annual execution spectacles did not survive. Estimates of overall numbers enslaved and numbers shipped to other continents can be found in e.g. ‘Conquests and Cultures’ by Thomas Sowell. Alternatively, the reader can verify that the above ratios are generally correct simply by checking the durations of the various slave-taking activities, looking at the relative distances on a map, and reflecting on the difficulties of transport in a pre-industrial society.)
Thus Wilberforce’ opinion that ending the supply of new slaves might also be of some benefit to those already enslaved was obvious common sense with support from the evidence. However his main motivation for campaigning against the trade was disgust at its cruelty and injustice. He then campaigned for abolition, clearly not thinking the possible collateral benefit to slaves of ending the trade was remotely sufficient in itself.
 Examples include the following tendentious descriptions:
- “Merchants came here to buy or capture people”, she stated as though ‘buy’ were not the overwhelmingly standard mode of operation. I know of no historical instance in which a British slave trader obtained slaves from Africa by capture. Capture by Portuguese traders was extremely rare but in their longer – four centuries – history in the trade one or two instances are known.
- “This African complicity is hard to accept” said the presenter about the selling of slaves, which doubtless helped her accept the claim that the tribal wars in which winners sold losers were fermented by the British; as though such events were not endemic before and after the period.
 Alan Moorehead, “The White Nile”.
Quotations from the programme are from notes made while watching it.