By Adam Hochschild
Last updated 2011-02-17
James Stephen surely had the most unusual childhood of any of the major abolitionists, spending part of it in a debtors' prison. His father was a ne'er-do-well businessman, and at that time debtors sent to jail were allowed to take their families with them. Stephen later worked as a newspaper reporter and studied law.
As a young London dandy he found himself simultaneously engaged to two women (one of whom was pregnant), while having an affair with a third. Like many a young Briton faced with scandal, Stephen fled to the West Indies to make his fortune. A few days after getting off his ship at Barbados in 1783, he attended a trial where several enslaved people - widely thought to be innocent - were found guilty of murder and sentenced to be burned alive. The horror Stephen felt changed his life.
He vowed never to own slaves and began sending information back to abolitionists in Britain. When he returned there a decade later, he threw himself into the cause. It was his brilliant strategising that led to parliament's 1806 ban on British ships carrying slaves to French colonies, which opened the way to the banning of the entire trade the following year.
Stephen later entered parliament, remained an ardent abolitionist all his life and wrote the definitive scholarly book of his time about British West Indian slavery. Two of his sons were active abolitionists as well, and long after his death was born the great-granddaughter who would become the most famous member of his family - Virginia Woolf.
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