(First published in Christchurch Press)
2007 is the 200th anniversary of what has been described as one of the few 'perfectly virtuous acts in the history of nations' – the abolition of the British slave trade.
There were virtuous people involved, among them the Quakers, who started the movement; Thomas Clarkson, written out of history by Wilberforce's sons and Granville Sharp, who defended runaways.
But the reason abolitionism became so powerful in England was a coalescence of social and political movements, shifts in political consciousness and changes in production methods.
This social revolution made it politically, economically and militarily expedient for Britain to end slavery. It also changed the way Britain dealt with its colonies, especially New Zealand.
On a prosaic level, our consumption of sugar, potatoes, tobacco and coffee derives from the triangular trade in which ships took goods to Africa, bartered them for slaves, transported the slaves to the colonies, and returned with the products of slave labour. Our use of the word 'manchester' to describe cotton and linen goods reflects that city's key role in the triangular trade.
The English dominated the trade from the late 16th century. Estimates of the number taken, mainly young and able-bodied, vary between 8 and 14 million, and up to 40 million more died in wars and raids.
From Elizabethan times slaves were taken to England where their legal status remained unclear. They often absconded and when recaptured would be sold to West Indian plantations. Granville Sharp and others fought for years defending runaways and pressing for a legal ruling on slavery in England.
The 1772 Mansfield judgement in the Somerset case said no-one could compel a slave to leave England, but it did not formally end slavery. Most English slaves effectively freed themselves by the 1790s and, with the freed slaves who had fought for the English in the American Revolutionary War, formed part of the abolition movement.
From the 1770s, Quaker pamphlets and posters exposed the way slaves were treated in the colonies. Mortality rates were very high; beatings, rapes, torture and murder were commonplace. In 1781, in an insurance scam, 135 sick slaves were thrown overboard from the slaver Zong. The case was dealt with in the English courts, not as one of mass murder, but as a property dispute.
Conditions on board slavers were little better for sailors; one in five died on the voyage. Many people saw a correlation between slavery and the injustice of press ganging and forced labour in the Royal Navy.
The Acts of Enclosure, the colonisation of Ireland and the Highland Clearances forced people off the land and enabled the creation of vast estates by rich men, many of whom made their fortunes in the triangular trade.
Feudal production methods and ties were being broken; dispossessed rural folk and unemployed artisans formed a new urban poor for whom life was both harsh and precarious. A new middle class emerged; people with the time and means to act upon their consciences and to question the vagaries and corruption of the parliamentary process.
At this time, only 5% of men could vote, but there was a strong culture of intuitive democracy. It was legal to own and operate printing presses; there were many libraries and debating societies and an efficient road and postal system allowed a high level of uncensored communication. All these factors were successfully exploited by the Abolitionists.
Slavery created the capital that fuelled the industrial revolution that created a working class - and it was the first issue to galvanise nation-wide working class action. After Wilberforce's first abolition bill was defeated in 1788, anti-slavery petitions flooded into parliament from working class organisations. At the forefront of the demand for emancipation were women's associations which organised a boycott of sugar that was supported by 300,000 people.
The link between abolition and the radicalism of levelling and the rights of man horrified Wilberforce who believed the trade should be stopped, but that the property rights of slave owners had to be protected. He also believed that working people should be treated well but kept firmly in their place, hence his support of the 1795 Combinations Acts and the outlawing of radical and trade union activities.
The 1807 Act formally halted the slave trade but it wasn't until 1833 that slaves were freed throughout the empire. Whilst hefty compensation was paid to slave owners, slaves were forced to work for a further four years without pay. Freedom when it finally came was notional; ex-slaves had no political voice and were shackled by debt. Slavery had been replaced by another system just as brutal and exploitative.
One year after emancipation, the Reform Bill introduced one of the most detested institutions in British social history – the workhouse.