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You are in: London > History > Abolition > Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace

One of the most celebrated hymns of the Christian tradition was written by a captain of a British slave ship turned evangelical preacher. Kurt Barling writes it's just one of the many hidden legacies of the African slave trade in the City of London.

William Wilberforce (Getty Images)

William Wilberforce

Last week I took a walk around the City with a modest physics master at a school in Croydon. It was unusual in as much as Sam Wilberforce is very conscious of the special place his family history plays in the history of Britain.

All across the City of London William Wilberforce MP would have rubbed shoulders with fellow abolitionists. Sam told me that often it is people of Caribbean descent who in conversation with him are most likely to point out the important achievements of his ancestor.

This song is attributed to slaves on the British plantations of the West Indies in the years following the passing of the abolition of the slave trade act in 1807. These were years of growing slave revolts and part of the popular history of Caribbean peoples.

Oh, me good friend, Mr Wilberforce, make we free!
God Almighty thank ye! God Almighty thank ye!
God Almighty, make we free!
Buckra [white man] in this country no make we free:
What negro for to do? What negro for to do?
Take by force! Take by force! 

(Quoted in Stephen Tomkins' biography of William Wilberforce)

Earliest abolitionists

London itself was not only central to the financing and organising of the slave trade but critical to the spread of ideas that led eventually to its abolition.  

Of course, London at the time was a minnow compared with the modern city; extending in the East no further than modern day Aldgate, in the West to Marble Arch, [with] the Thames marking the real southern boundary and Marylebone Lane the Northern perimeter. All the elements of the trade would have mixed cheek by jowl in the narrow streets of the City.

Mincing Lane in modern EC3, a stone's throw from the seat of power of the Mayor at Mansion House, housed not only several merchant companies and shipping agents involved in forcibly removing Africans and dispatching them to the New World, but also the insurance agents who underwrote the risk on the ventures. At one point there was even a sugar refinery on the street.  

Curiously the brother of one of the earliest abolitionists, Granville Sharpe, held free medical surgeries for the poor in the same short street.

Diversify

It was here that Dr William Sharp treated a runaway slave Jonathan Strong. Granville seeing the man's appalling injuries took up his case and fought to prevent slaves from being repatriated back to the West Indies, if they left their master's service in London.  This encounter led directly to the publishing in 1769 of the first anti-slavery tract in Britain by Granville Sharpe. It began a long career and several courtroom appearances before Lord Chief Justice Mansfield (the man who built Kenwood in Hampstead) to get a ruling in English law on the legitimacy of slavery.

One of the finest surviving examples of a Regency built Crescent lies a few hundred metres around the corner behind the present Metropolitan University building and was built by the largest slave shipping companies Camden Calvert and King. By the passing of the Act in 1807 banning the slave trade that company had already started to diversify into shipping English convicts to Australia.

St Mary Woolnoth Church on Lombard Street was from 1779 the base for the preacher John Newton.  He repented his past as a slave captain and William Wilberforce claimed he became an inspiration and instrumental in providing him with the impetus to stay in politics and fight the trade.

One might see it as ironic that John Newton penned the hymn Amazing Grace, heard first in his New Year's service in 1773. Ironic because it quickly became a virtual anthem for gospel choirs in the English speaking world and just one of the hidden legacies of slavery in the capital.

Immoral trade

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I was lost but now I'm found
Was Blind but now I see

The importance of Newton and the song, which was in its day a revelation, has not been lost on the film-makers of the feature film that is due out in March celebrating William Wilberforce's life.  Amazing Grace may not capture the gritty battles in winning the hearts and minds of Englishmen but it does show the City of London was an important battleground to push for change.

Only a few hundred yards up the road from Lombard Street on Cheapside St Mary-le-Bow Church hosted one of the most famous abolitionist speeches by the churchman Porteus Beilby. In 1783 he lambasted the Church of England for the cruel treatment meted out to slaves on its Codrington Estates in Barbados. He insisted that the Church put its house in order in the immoral trade.

Within four years Beilby had been elevated by the Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger to the House of Lords as Bishop of London. He was to prove a key ally in the fight against the slave trade for Wilberforce.  Pitt was also a great political and personal friend of Wilberforce. Another central strand in the abolitionist's life featured in the film Amazing Grace.

Historic legacy

Much debate was stimulated by the steady flow of returnees from the wars of independence in America including several thousand black soldiers who fought on the side of the British and were given their freedom as a result.

Places like George Yard no longer houses the printing shop of one of the key members of the Committee set up by Thomas Clarkson in 1787 to fight the slave trade; and when this abolitionist committee needed more space for public meetings they choose another venue in Old Jewry across the road from St Mary-le-Bow.

But these venues are part of the historic legacy of the abolitionists, which have never been given public recognition for example by a series of plaques. If you walk down Mincing Lane today there is virtually nothing to remind you of that past but some of the road names like Plantation Lane which offer clues.

Sam Wilberforce and I also got a sense of the sheer graft that was necessary to keep up the momentum of the anti-slavery movement in the twenty years between 1787 and the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 at the British Library in St Pancras. The archivists there also house a second mountain of material that resulted from the twenty six further years before slavery was abolished across the British Empire.

Support

It was the ability to keep the debate bubbling along which eventually captured the imaginations of ordinary people through boycotts of sugar and other commodities which made the slave trade profitable.  Petitions of several hundred thousand signatures, unprecedented in British politics, eventually forced parliament to concede. It shouldn't be forgotten though that the vested interests of the West Indian plantocracy preserved slavery for another thirty years or so.

Seeing the original work of his ancestor, as opposed to reading about it in books, moved Sam to observe that like his father before him (Lord Richard Wilberforce, a former law lord) he believes that slavery is not yet a thing of the past. He continues to support the work of Anti-Slavery International and in so doing keeps up a tradition started in his family over six generations ago.

Click on the link in the right had column to watch Kurt barling's report.

last updated: 09/04/2008 at 10:37
created: 16/01/2007

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