Transcript 2007 Wilberforce Lecture Dr John Tucker Mugabi Sentamu - Archbishop of York

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I have just returned from the West Indies. In Jamaica, I went to the Spanish Town and stood on the steps where the Governor, on the first of August 1838, read the Emancipation Declaration setting all slaves free. The chains that shackled the slaves were released and buried in a nearby Baptist Church. Like us, people there were commemorating the abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in Africans. Note that I said ‘commemorating’, not celebrating.

As Bishop Reid of Jamaica said “we cannot celebrate things which should not have started in the first place”. His great-great-great grandfather, James Knight, a slave on the Lyndhurst estate in Manchester, Jamaica, had come to learn that the Lord Jesus loved him and had set him free, not from his state of bodily enslavement to earthly masters, but from his enslavement to sin. He started preaching to his fellow-slaves, a practice forbidden even to Ministers of the Gospel. A house slave and therefore educated, he read the Bible to other slaves late at night teaching them especially the Lord’s Prayer and its focus on the coming Rule of God. James was persecuted as a ringleader. He fled and continued to preach. He was hounded from place to place. Yet this missionary was not deterred from preaching the freedom offered in the Gospel of Christ and the coming of God’s kingdom of justice. He was eventually captured in Black River and killed. His head was cut off – leaving his body in Black River. The killers marched from the place of execution with James’ head on a pole as a lesson to other slaves. Finally leaving it hanging at Skull Point, formerly called “Manhead” by the slaves. James Knight’s skull was never buried, but was eventually kicked to pieces in contempt and dishonour. His memorial remains emblazoned in two words “SKULL POINT” down the centre of the present Way Post outside the Cottage Police Station in Mile Gully, Manchester. I salute and honour the memory of one of Africa’s forebears sold into slavery, JAMES KNIGHT: Slave, Runaway Slave, Missionary, Christian Martyr whose last words were, “Onnu see dah same gospel weh onnu a kill mi fa, it gwine run inna dis country like wata.”

Do you know that some plantation owners refused to let slaves have their children Baptised, for fear that it would confer upon them an equal status? It suited them to regard slaves as sub-human – objects to be bought and sold.

Some slaves rebelled. For example, in Montego Bay, in the Parish of St James, trials took place in the Court House in 1832 of slaves who took part in the Rebellions of 1831 – 1832. The slaves who were found guilty, including Sam Sharpe, were hanged in the square and at the Albert Market. Sam Sharpe was tried at the Court House on the 19th of April and hanged in the square on the 23rd of May 1832.

On the 29th of July 1833 the British Parliament passed the Emancipation Act that became law on the 1st of August 1834. Slavery was abolished and all children under six were free, but all other slaves had to serve six years of apprenticeship. On the 1st of August 1838 all were emancipated. It was from the balcony of the Court House that the Act was officially read in St James’s Parish, Montego Bay. Very near to the place where the Mayor of Montego Bay handed me the Key of the City – a free man and Citizen of the City – on 11 October 2007.

The Wilberforce House Museum here in Hull tells the slaves’ story: their working conditions, what they had left behind in West Africa and how they sustained their faith in the face of grotesque inhumanity. The slave owners tried to enslave their body, spirit and mind. They did not succeed in enslaving their spirit. They knew God and trusted Him implicitly. Their bodies and minds, however, were enslaved. Two hundred years ago their bodies were set free but as Marcus Garvey said, popularised in song by Bob Marley, the task still remains to “emancipate the mind from mental slavery”.

Today, in Jamaica, the ex-slaves are the people whose lives are being commemorated. Not Wilberforce. Though gracious towards British Christians and appreciative of the good things of their Anglican inheritance, the real heroes of the anti-slavery movement for West Indian Christians are their own forebears. Names of Sam Sharpe, James Knight, Scott, Nichols, Roach, Roberts, Walcott, Seymour, Marson, Campbell, Bennett, Olauda Equiano come to mind. They are trying to forgive the slave owners and slave traders who dehumanised their ancestors: Africans and Europeans alike.

Together with them we are relieved, humbled and grateful, that the evil of legalised Transatlantic Slave Trade in Africans has been identified, exposed and ended – at least in Britain and its former colonies. We must remember that history does not flow in straight lines – it is curved with twists and turns, ironies and surprises. It records that the campaign to end the Transatlantic Slave Trade in Africans and slavery itself began among the very people who started the trade and had the most to lose from its abolition. It records as well that yesterday’s criminals, slaves who were hanged for making the system not work, are today’s heroes. We do well to hear the voices of the children of the traders – Wedgwood, Wilberforce, Clarkson with the voices of the children of the traded – Equiano, Scott, Sharpe as well as the cries of nameless others on both sides of the Atlantic.

The abolitionists, both black and white, believed freedom was coming and they turned that hope into reality. Very much like Black South Africans who during the dark days of Apartheid sang “Oh! Freedom is coming. Oh! Freedom is coming. Oh! Jesus is coming. Oh! Jesus is coming. Oh! Yes I know”.

It happened because some people were gripped by God – and their moral blindness cured. They were equipped with a determination to achieve the seemingly impossible. It was against the odds. It was against the tide of public opinion.

The distinguished historian Simon Schama looks back at the British parliament’s eventual change of heart and calls it “a spectacular act of irrationality”. This is because slavery was one of the biggest contributors to the British economy and vested interests wanted it, just as people wanted sugar in their tea and cheap metal bracelets, ‘manillas’, were but luxury goods exchanged for slaves in West Africa.

Yes, manufactured goods, including cheap metal bracelets, ‘manillas’, which became the currency of the slave trade, were shipped from British ports to West Africa where they were traded for slaves and shipped on ‘the middle passage’, 5-or-600 at a time, to British colonies in North America and the Caribbean where those who survived were auctioned for luxury goods such as rum and sugar for the British market.

A deadly ‘triangle of trade’ in which it is estimated that 3.4 million Africans died or were sold into slavery.

Why the ‘U turn’? Politicians are not renowned for admitting mistakes or pursuing minority causes, especially where people’s pockets and appetites are affected.

And so you may ask, “What has all this to do with Hull today?”

Hull was a prosperous port, but it wasn’t at the centre of the slave trade. William Wilberforce was one of its wealthy sons. He became its MP at the age of 21. Later he was to represent Yorkshire. He was leading a pretty wild life, a habit learned at Cambridge University. Didn’t happen to me when I was there!

Wilberforce was an elf-like, sociable, quick-witted and instinctively conservative figure. A ladies’ man and a gambler. Somebody described him as a mere shrimp – but a shrimp who was to become a whale.

That’s because God changed him. This dissolute little man, not short of charm or eloquence, was suddenly converted. William Wilberforce turned his life over to Jesus Christ. His newly found faith demanded political action as well as piety. So it should. “It is hoped and believed that the Lord has raised you up for the good of his Church and the good of the nation”, wrote John Newton to Wilberforce. Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace” was himself a convert to active Christianity, having at one time been involved in the slave trade himself.

Now let’s move to Clapham Common in London, not far from where I served as a Vicar for 13 years. There’s a church on the edge of Clapham Common – Holy Trinity Church. Wilberforce joined an influential group of men there, who came to be known as the Clapham Sect. Thank God for them. They were ridiculed for their practical Christianity and their determination to clean up this country. Their faith translated into social reform. They started missionary societies, schools, a child literacy movement, and the RSPCA.

Members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) had led the way in opposing the slave trade. The famous Methodist preacher John Wesley was a supporter too. Let’s give credit to them all.

And especially Thomas Clarkson. The youngest contemporary student to William Wilberforce. He was a tall studious man with liberal political views. He was the person whose Cambridge Latin essay prize of 1785, “Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?”, really ignited the cause. He was one of the tireless workers and it was he who influenced Wilberforce to make this a personal campaign. Clarkson rode round the country gathering evidence of the slave trade, notably in Bristol and Liverpool. He provided the facts for Wilberforce’s speeches. He wrote pamphlets and books, campaigned to encourage people to give up sugar and tried to persuade the French to abandon the slave trade. He burned himself out and spent most of his money.

His powerful gifts as an organiser helped to galvanise the abolitionist movement and to bring the cause into the main stream of political thinking and moral action. But he believed freedom was coming and he dedicated himself to turning that hope into a reality.

Wilberforce was the person whose dogged determination in Parliament, encouraged by William Pitt and John Newton, eventually succeeded in the passing of The Abolition of Slave Trade Act. Wilberforce’s evangelical faith inspired his continued pressure on the House of Commons from his first speech in 1789 until the passing of the Act eighteen years later.

Wilberforce was one of a team – he was an outstanding speaker, so he used his gift for the cause. That’s important. Each person did what they could; it was teamwork with each contributing their particular strength and they encouraged one another with their persistence.

It took Wilberforce and colleagues 18 years of continuous parliamentary activity before they saw results. There were many setbacks. Public opinion was fickle. Erstwhile supporters changed sides. Slave traders prompted delaying tactics and bribed witnesses. But in the end, truth and justice prevailed. That was 200 years ago and that’s why we are commemorating Wilberforce today.

Even then slave trading continued illegally for a while and the ownership of slaves continued legally until 1833 when the Abolition of Slavery Act was passed – the year of Wilberforce’s death. Clarkson and Wilberforce’s hopes had not been fully realised by the Act of 1807. But they continued campaigning to the end.

As you can imagine, the Act of 1807 did not immediately achieve all that had been hoped for. A fine of £100 for each slave found on a British ship often resulted in slaves being thrown overboard when a Naval vessel appeared on the horizon – though the passing of another Act in 1827 eventually dealt with that.

Today we commemorate the vision of Wilberforce and his companions, their persistence, their courage and their teamwork. Their example should inspire and prompt us to expose and denounce all forms of oppression today. For slavery still persists.

It is reckoned that there may be 27,000,000 people enslaved today. For them freedom is barely a hope and certainly not a reality.

In some countries today people have sold themselves and their children in payment for debt. In Haiti it is reckoned that 200,000 children are domestic slaves in Port au Prince. The number of bonded labourers in Pakistan may be as high as 1m. In Niger, slavery was only criminalised in 2003.

Oh! Freedom is coming. We all must turn that hope into reality.

A joint research team, from the University of Hull and Anti-Slavery International, explored the contours of modern slavery in the U.K. in a Report entitled, Contemporary Slavery in UK: Overview and Key Issues.

The report attempted to answer the question: What is slavery? Because of the considerable confusion about the nature and boundaries of slavery. Very much like the nature and boundaries of racism and institutional racism which we tackled in the Stephen Lawrence Murder Inquiry. The Report defined slavery by saying that there are three essential elements of the exploitative relationship which constitute slavery: