News‎ > ‎Making Freedom‎ > ‎

Slavery abolished! 175th anniversary

For some, looking back is pointless, irrelevant and boring, but in truth our history is full of meaning, has vital lessons for today, and is deeply personal - that's why an important moment was marked at Holy Trinity, Clapham on Saturday 3rd August.

James Somersett was a black man purchased in the slave market there by Charles Stewart of Boston (Massachusetts). Stewart brought his slave to England in 1769 but Somerset escaped. When recaptured, James Somersett was put on a ship bound for Jamaica to be sold. A campaigner (and in 1787 co-founder of the Province of Freedom now known as Freetown, Sierra Leone), Granville Sharp, applied to the High Court for a writ of Habeas Corpus ("You have the body" - a legal way of getting people who are detained against their will to be surrendered to the Court so that their case can be considered - it still exists today).

In  a famous 1772 judgment, responding to the writ of Habeas Corpus,  Lord Chief Justice Mansfield held that slavery was unsupported by existing law in England and Wales. He said that:

"The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England."

James Somersett became a free man. It is a sad reflection of the times that we know nothing of Somersett's life either before or after these events. Another slave purchased at about the same time in Boston was Phillis Wheatley, who was freed by her owner's will, became a poet, married a grocer, but died in poverty in 1784.

"We have no slaves at home – Then why abroad? Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs receive our air, that moment they are free. They touch our country, and their shackles fall. That's noble, and bespeaks a nation proud. And jealous of the blessing. Spread it then, And let it circulate through every vein. "  William Cowper 1785.

With admirable clarity, Elizabeth Heyrick, a Quaker, in her pamphlet Immediate Not Gradual Abolition (1824) argued that "the perpetuation of slavery in our West India colonies is not an abstract question, to be settled between the government and the planters; it is one in which we are all implicated, we are all guilty of supporting and perpetuating slavery. The West Indian planter and the people of this country stand in the same moral relation to each other as the thief and receiver of stolen goods". 

These ideas found their full expression in 1838 - 175 years ago. Following the lead given by the Quakers in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Clapham Sect, Anglicans who included William Wilberforce, Zachary Macaulay, Henry Thornton, Henry Venn, John Venn and Katherine Hankey - have a look at the street names around Clapham - were a vital and essential part of the campaign to abolish first the slave trade, and then slavery itself outside England. Many of this influential evangelical group worshipped at Holy Trinity Church, Clapham.

In a typically pragmatic  piece of English legislation, slavery was officially abolished in most of the British Empire on 1 August 1834. In practical terms, only slaves below the age of six were freed in the colonies. Former slaves over the age of six were redesignated as "apprentices", and their servitude was abolished in two stages; the first set of apprenticeships came to an end on 1 August 1838, while the final apprenticeships were scheduled to cease on 1 August 1840. The Act provided for compensation for slave-owners who would be losing their property.

The amount of money to be spent on the compensation claims was set at "the Sum of Twenty Millions Pounds Sterling". The British government raised this sum - it represented 40% of the government's total annual expenditure - to pay out in compensation for the loss of the slaves as business assets to the registered owners of the freed slaves. The names listed in the returns for slave compensation show that ownership was spread over many hundreds of British families, many of them of high social standing. For example, Henry Phillpotts (then the Bishop of Exeter), in a partnership with three business colleagues, received £12,700 for 665 slaves in the West Indies. In all, the government paid out over 5,000 separate awards.

But the main point is that large numbers of men and women who were slaves, mostly in the West Indies in British colonies, were released from servitude on 1st August 1838.  That's emancipation, not yet freedom - that can come only with self-determination and the rights and obligations of a person in a free society under the law.

This is what the service at Holy Trinity Church, commemorated and asks us to remember anew, because slavery stills exists and the campaign waged by the men and women who became known as the Clapham Sect is a model of how Christians can and should seek to involve themselves in changing the world around us for the better.