Saturday, February 24, 2007

abolition of the slave trade

One of my favorite posts on this site is about Thomas Coulican Phoenix, a young boy freed from captivity and raised by Sophia Carteret, Lady Shelburne, whose diary I've reproduced in part. It came to mind watching a movie late in the afternoon yesterday: Amazing Grace, story of William Wilberforce's struggle for abolition of the slave trade. Ioan Gruffudd (Pronounced YO-an GRIFF-ith) is well-cast as the man himself. His Hornblower was a fine characterization and this is even better. Like Hornblower, Wilberforce is idealistic, honorable, bound to duty, steadfast: all adjectives for Labrador Retriever heros, very difficult to bring to life persuasively. With the help of top-quality script, cast, and cinematic production, he carries it off brilliantly: a man who struggles to harness his gifts and make them serve his ideals, one who is frequently ill, who has self-doubts, whose confidence would fail him but for the support of wife and friends. Not at all a one-dimensional Prince Charming.

Nor a one-dimensional movie. It shows Parliament at the end of the reign of George III, with its complex interplay of political factions, its corruption, and its "interests:" commercial and imperial. It shows the social dimension of public policy in men's clubs, caucus rooms, and parlors. It shows family connection, a bit of the emergence of extra-Parliamentary pressure groups, and some elements in the evolution of public opinion as political force. And, mainly, it shows the convergence of ideals and friendship through Wilberforce's intimate association with William Pitt the Younger; the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson; former slave trader John Newton; and love of his life Barbara Spooner.

The history is good despite some useful story-telling fictionalization, and the timing is apt since this year marks the 200th anniversary of the outlawing of the trade throughout the British Empire. [Update: Among the many blog posts on the anniversary is one on History Librarian which quotes from Wilberforce's speech on the day Parliament passed his bill and gives some useful links.]

I particularly liked the film's development of Wilberforce's friendship with Pitt, from the first, when they were young, full of banter and playful competition, and enduring to Pitt's death at 46, after achieving what no English politician had done before. Ambitious in the extreme but committed to public service, Pitt maneuvered Wilberforce into a political career when a religious one appeared to be his destiny and stuck by him though the long period during which his single-issue politics were extremely out of favor.

In describing a European tour Pitt and Wilberforce took together following their graduation from Cambridge, the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, who knew him personally, called Wilberforce "a young man ... who had already distinguished himself in Parliament by an engaging and natural eloquence, set off by the sweetest and most exquisitely modulated of human voices, and whose affectionate heart, caressing manners, and brilliant wit made him the most delightful of companions." -- The Works of Lord Macaulay, Complete, Vol VII, p. 110.

Though this quote explains some of his appeal as an orator, you get a better idea of his fervor and eloquence from a speech in Parliament he made in 1789 in which he details the horrors of the capture, trans-oceanic shipping, and final destruction of surviving slaves in the sugar plantations, describes the terrible impact of the slave trade on African society, and tells how the traffic and its profits degrade the Englishmen who engage in it. He says "all the customs of Africa are rendered savage and unjust through the influence of this trade ... setting millions of our fellow creatures a-hunting each other for slaves, creating fairs and markets for human flesh through one whole continent of the world, and, under the name of policy, concealing from ourselves all the baseness and iniquity of such a traffic." He calls the transit of slaves to the West Indies "more misery than the human imagination can concieve" and gives statistics and vivid description to prove it. And he tells how many die: "a mortality of about fifty per cent, and this among negroes who are not bought unless quite healthy at first, and unless (as the phrase is with cattle) they are sound in wind and limb." He concludes, "Let us put an end at once to this inhuman traffic — let us stop this effusion of human blood. ... When we think of eternity, and of the future consequences of all human conduct, what is there in this life that should make any man contradict the dictates of his conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion, and of God? Sir, the nature and all the circumstances of this trade are now laid open to us; we can no longer plead ignorance, we can not evade it; it is now an object placed before us, we can not pass it; we may spurn it, we may kick it out of our way, but we can not turn aside so as to avoid seeing it; for it is brought now so directly before our eyes that this House must decide, and must justify to all the world, and to their own consciences, the rectitude of the grounds and principles of their decision." -- On the Horrors of the Slave Trade.

The movie's website is good. The image gallery is fine, though all close-ups; it doesn't give any of the long establishing shots from the many English locations used in filming.

This publicity still is a partial exception:

William Wilberforce

Ioan Gruffudd seen with Benedict Cumberbatch, as Pitt, and Youssou N'Dour, as Oloudaqh Equiano {source}

Here's the trailer:

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