In 1786 Jonas Hanway established the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor. This was an attempt to help black people living in London who had been victims of the slave trade. Simon Schama has argued in Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and Empire (2005) that the harsh winter of 1785-86 was one of the factors that encouraged Hanway to do something for the significant number of Africans living in poverty: "In the East End and Rotherhithe: tattered bundles of human misery, huddled in doorways, shoeless, sometimes shirtless even in the bitter cold or else covered with filthy rags."
Granville Sharp came up with the idea that this black community should be allowed to to start a colony of free slaves in Sierra Leone. This became known as the Province of Freedom. The country was chosen largely on the strength of evidence from the explorer, Mungo Park and a encouraging report from the botanist, Henry Smeathman, who had recently spent three years in the area. The British government supported Sharp's plan and agreed to give £12 per African towards the cost of transport. Sharp contributed more than £1,700 to the venture. Several supporters of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade invested money into what became known as the Province of Freedom. This included William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, Samuel Whitbread, William Smith and Henry Thornton.
Richard S. Reddie, the author of Abolition! The Struggle to Abolish Slavery in the British Colonies (2007) has argued: "Some detractors have since denounced the Sierra Leone project as repatriation by another name. It has been seen as a high-minded yet hypocritical way of ridding the country of its rising black population... Some in Britain wanted Africans to leave because they feared they were corrupting the virtues of the country's white women, while others were tired of seeing them reduced to begging on London streets."
Granville Sharp was able to persuade a small group of London's poor to travel to Sierra Leone. As Hugh Thomas, the author of The Slave Trade (1997), has pointed out: "A ship was charted, the sloop-of-war Nautilus was commissioned as a convoy, and on 8th April the first 290 free black men and 41 black women, with 70 white women, including 60 prostitutes from London, left for Sierra Leone under the command of Captain Thomas Boulden Thompson of the Royal Navy". When they arrived they purchased a stretch of land between the rivers Sherbo and Sierra Leone.
The settlers sheltered under old sails, donated by the navy. They named the collection of tents Granville Town after the man who had made it all possible. Granville Sharp wrote to his brother that "they have purchased twenty miles square of the finest and most beautiful country... that was ever seen... fine streams of fresh water run down the hill on each side of the new township; and in the front is a noble bay."
The reality was very different. Adam Hochschild, the author of Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (2005) has argued: "The expedition's delayed departure from England meant that it had arrived on the African coast in the midst of the malarial rainy season.... The ground was another major problem: steep, forested slopes with thin topsoil... When they managed to coax a few English vegetables out of the ground, ants promptly devoured the leaves."
Soon after arriving the colony suffered from an outbreak of malaria. In the first four months alone, 122 died. One of the white settlers wrote to Sharp: "I am very sorry indeed, to inform you, dear Sir, that... I do not think there will be one of us left at the end of a twelfth month... There is not a thing, which is put into the ground, will grow more than a foot out of it... What is more surprising, the natives die very fast; it is quite a plague seems to reign here among us."
Adam Hochschild has pointed out: "As supplies at Granville Town dwindled and crops failed, the increasingly frustrated settlers turned to the long-time mainstay of the local economy, the slave trade.... Three white doctors from Granville Town ended up at the thriving slave depot... at Bance Island." Granville Sharp was furious when he discovered what was happening and wrote to the settlers: "I could not have conceived that men who were well aware of the wickedness of slave dealing, and had themselves been suffers (or at least many of them) under the galling yoke of bondage to slave-holders... should become so basely depraved as to yield themselves instruments to promote, and extend, the same detestable oppression over their brethren."
Sharp refused to accept the negative reports coming from Sierra Leone. He wrote that he had chosen "the most eligible spot for... settlement on the whole coast of Africa". With the financial support of William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and Samuel Whitbread, Sharp dispatched another shipload of black and white settlers and supplies. It was not long before Sharp began receiving reports that many of the new settlers were "wicked enough to go into the service of the slave trade".
In 1789, a Royal Navy warship making its down the coast fired a shot that set a Sierra Leone village on fire. The local chief took revenge by giving the settlers three days to depart, and then burning Granville Town to the ground. The remaining settlers were rescued by the slave traders on Bance Island. Sharp was devastated when he discovered that the last of the men he had sent to Africa were now also involved in the slave trade.
Thomas Clarkson suggested to Granville Sharp that Alexander Falconbridge should be sent to Sierra Leone. Falcolnbridge was appointed as a commercial agent with a £300 salary. He took a large number of gifts paid for by the company. Soon after arriving he used these gifts to persuade the local chiefs to let the settlers reoccupy their overgrown land. Falconbridge's wife, Anna Maria, was concerned about the job facing her husband. "It was surely a premature, hair-brained, and ill digested scheme, to think of sending such a number of people all at once, to a rude, barbarous and unhealthy country, before they were certain of possessing an acre of land."
In 1791 the Sierra Leone Company took over from Granville Sharp's failed Province of Freedom. Henry Thornton became the chairman and one of his first actions was to sack Alexander Falconbridge, who had been a disaster as the company's commercial agent. John Clarkson was now sent to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where there was a community of former American slaves who had fought for the British in the War of Independence, to recruit settlers for the abolitionist colony. With the support of Thomas Peters, the black loyalist leader, he led a fleet of fifteen vessels, carrying 1196 settlers, to Sierra Leone, which they reached on 6th March, 1792. Although sixty-five of the Nova Scotians died during the voyage, they continued to support Clarkson who they called "their Moses".
John Clarkson became governor of the colony that was appropriately named as Freetown. However, as Hugh Brogan has argued: "It was the understanding between Clarkson and the Nova Scotians that got the colony through its very difficult first year. Clarkson's services were at first generally recognized. But great strains arose between him and the company directors, partly religious (he was not sympathetic to the insistent evangelicalism of Henry Thornton, the company chairman), partly because of the usual tension between head office and the man on the spot, and above all because Clarkson insisted on putting the views and interests of the Nova Scotians first, whereas the directors wanted the enterprise to show an early profit, so that they could compete successfully with the slave traders and bring to Africa Christianity." Clarkson was dismissed as governor on 23rd April 1793.
Henry Thornton, a highly successful banker, used his business skills to run the Sierra Leone Company. His biographer, Christopher Tolley, has pointed out: "The company aimed to confer on Africa the blessings of European religion and civilization through a trading operation that would be both profitable and free from the taint of slavery. Thornton was the company's most influential director and remained chairman throughout its life, writing virtually all its published reports and administering Sierra Leone from offices alongside his bank in Birchin Lane."
In March 1794 Zachary Macaulay became governor of the colony. The historian, John Oldfield has argued: "A tireless and painstaking administrator, Macaulay steered the colony through a difficult period in its short history. Undeterred by a hostile environment and disputes among the settlers, he opened trade negotiations with the Fula kingdom and in September 1794 successfully resisted an invasion by French revolutionary forces. When he handed over the governorship in 1799 the capital, Freetown, was a bustling settlement of some 1200 inhabitants and the centre of a considerable trade with the interior." After Macaulay left in 1799 the thriving community declined.
In 1808 it was decided to transfer the Sierra Leone Company to the crown, the British government accepted Wilberforce's suggestion that Thomas Perronet Thompson would be a suitable governor. He introduced an extensive range of reforms and made serious allegations against the colony's former administrators. Stephen Tomkins, the author of William Wilberforce (2007) has argued: "He (Perronet Thompson) single-handedly abolished apprenticeship and freed the slaves. He filed scandalised reports to the colonial office. Wilberforce told him he was being rash and hasty, and he and his colleagues voted unanimously for his dismissal. Wilberforce advised him to go quietly for the sake of his career."
It began as a rescue operation for the Province of Freedom which Granville Sharp had nurtured almost single-handedly for the last four years. In April 1790 the little settlement was destroyed in a dispute between an African chief and local slave traders. At the time Sharp was engaged in organising a British agency to trade with the settlers in African produce. It was called the St George's Bay Company after the great natural harbour at Sierra Leone. Unable to get government help to relieve the scattered settlers, the Company sent some relief supplies. More would not be done by the "mercantile Gentlemen" now involved until they were legally incorporated. This work was stimulated by the arrival in London of Thomas Peters as the delegate of black Loyalists now living in Nova Scotia who wanted to join the Province of Freedom. With 99 subscribers and a capital of £100,000 the Sierra Leone Company (as it was now called) received its charter from Parliament. Most of the Abolition Committee members took out shares as did benevolent merchants and bankers. Wilberforce and Clarkson each had 10 shares at £50 each and both were elected as directors.
Shares were eagerly sought and Clarkson worried that some would fall into the hands of West India merchants. Tipped off that an attempt would be made at one subscribers' meeting to seat a
West India director Clarkson hastily rounded up proxies from country shareholders and offended Wilberforce's good friend the Reverend Thomas Gisborne in the process. He asked Gisborne for his proxy without troubling to say why....
The nature of the colony was radically altered as evangelical businessmen replaced Sharp. To attract investors the government was taken out of the settlers' hands and placed in the Company's in London. Sharp had to accept a number of "humiliating changes" or leave his infant colony destitute.
William Wilberforce, the most celebrated campaigner against the slave trade, was also implicated in slavery and the trade, according to a forthcoming book about him and the Clapham sect, written, it so happens, by me. Having given 20 years of his life to the struggle, after the Abolition Act was passed in 1807, he allowed the abolitionist colony of Sierra Leone, which the Clapham sect managed, to use slave labour and buy and sell slaves.
This is not a claim I make with the relish of trying to bring down an over-venerated icon a peg or two. I'm a critical fan of Wilberforce for his central role in the astounding achievement in abolition, which without his stamina would certainly have failed.
Neither is it a case of reading too much between the lines of meagre evidence. The facts are indisputably clear from colonial office manuscripts in the Public Record Office, whatever interpretation one might put on them. It's just a matter of information that biographers of Wilberforce have not picked up on – a point I make without any great arrogance, having been one of them myself.
The story starts 15 years before the abolition of the slave trade, when Wilberforce and the Clapham sect founded the colony of Sierra Leone as a new front in the abolition campaign – to resettle former slaves and establish legitimate commerce with Africa. They continued to effectively manage it when it became a crown colony on the abolition of the slave trade in 1807.
After abolition, the British navy patrolled the Atlantic seizing slave ships. The crew were arrested, but what to do with the African captives? With the knowledge and consent of Wilberforce and friends, they were taken to Sierra Leone and put to slave labour in Freetown.
They were called "apprentices", but they were slaves. The governor of Sierra Leone paid the navy a bounty per head, put some of the men to work for the government, and sold the rest to landowners. They did forced labour, under threat of punishment, without pay, and those who escaped to neighbouring African villages to work for wages were arrested and brought back. Women were "given away".
The one difference by which apprenticeship was distinguished from slavery was that it had a maximum term of 14 years – and in fact apprentices were generally freed a lot sooner. But this only makes it temporary rather than permanent slavery.
The first crown governor of Sierra Leone, Lt Thomas Perronet Thompson, turned up when this was already underway. He was an abolitionist protege of Wilberforce, chosen by him for the job, and he was appalled at what was happening. "These apprenticeships", he complained, "have after 16 years successful struggle at last introduced actual slavery into the colony".
He single-handedly abolished apprenticeship and freed the slaves. He filed scandalised reports to the colonial office. Wilberforce told him he was being rash and hasty, and he and his colleagues voted unanimously for his dismissal. Wilberforce advised him to go quietly for the sake of his career, which he did and indeed eventually became a general and MP.
What are we to make of it all? No interpretation that involves Wilberforce being corrupt, or insincere in his abolitionism, can possibly hold water. Vast amounts of his private letters and even privater journals are publicly available, and they reveal a man of extraordinary integrity and an implacable and lifelong (if slightly sentimental) hatred of slavery.
The key I think is that the apprenticeship system was explicitly authorised in the 1807 Abolition Act. Wilberforce told Thompson, "I wish I had time to go into particulars respecting the difficulties which forced us into acquiescing in the system of apprenticing". Which is tantalising, but also suggests that Wilberforce had made a political decision to support it as a government policy.
My theory is that Wilberforce and the Clapham sect believed that the Abolition Act would not get through the House of Lords without the apprenticeship clause, and once it was passed felt duty bound to support the system against Thompson's maverick actions.
But if so, and if Wilberforce was right that without apprenticeship the abolition bill would not have been passed, then it follows that he made the right choice to support it. Before abolition, 40,000 African people each year were being made slaves by the British. After abolition, several hundred of them a year were still ending up as slaves in Freetown.
It is a bitter irony, and a disappointment, but it does seem that Wilberforce was faced with a choice between two evils, and chose the less.