New evidence shows William Wilberforce implicated in slavery

By staff writers
July 21, 2010

New evidence has come to light which suggests that the evangelical campaigner William Wilberforce was involved in slavery, despite his successful campaign to abolish the transatlantic trade.

The claim that Wilberforce was actually implicated in slave trading and used slave labour himself following abolition, is made in a new book about the Clapham Sect - a small but influential group of south London social reformers and evangelical Christians - which included Wilberforce. Prominent in pre-Victorian Britain, they campaigned for the abolition of slavery and promoted missionary work at home and abroad.

The group centred on the church of John Venn, rector of Clapham. As well as Wilberforce, its members included Henry Thornton, Zachary Macaulay, Hannah More and James Stephen.

The author, Stephen Tomkins, depicts the story of the group as one of a web of family relations. Woven into the account of the characters is their famous campaign against the slave trade, and how they founded the British colony in Sierra Leone and the British and Foreign Bible Societies.

They also founded and funded many schools and privately gave away vast sums of money to people in need. They campaigned against vice and attempted to regulate prostitution and reform prisons.

Tomkins has however, also uncovered new evidence that Wilberforce was implicated in slave trading and used slave labour himself after the abolition of the trade. He was even doing so in the abolitionist colony of Sierra Leone, which he (and the Clapham Sect) had helped establish.

The facts are contained within Colonial Office papers for Sierra Leone.

In 2007, the Church of England formally apologised for its own role in the slave trade.

This included the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in Foreign Parts which owned the Codrington plantation in Barbados where slaves had the word "society" branded on their chests.

The Clapham Sect: How Wilberforce’s Circle Transformed Britain is to be published by Lion Hudson.


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