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There are already more than 3,500 signatures on that petition, and I hope that many more people will sign it during the year. It is important that we mark this important anniversary.

I am proud that we are doing so much in Hull. Bristol and Liverpool are hosting events to mark the abolition of the slave trade, but Hull has a particular role to play as the place from which William Wilberforce came. Despite everything, it has remained true to the principle of an international perspective—a belief that we are all brothers and sisters in the world together.

6.50 pm

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): May I begin by saying that it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson), who spoke with great pride and passion about her constituency? I am particularly pleased that she spoke in great detail about William Wilberforce, because that gives me an excuse to wax lyrical about one of the famous sons of my own constituency. May I congratulate the Government on finding time for this important debate? I congratulate
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the Deputy Prime Minister on his role in it and on making sure that the celebrations this year are as good and wide-ranging as possible.

The debate has been marked by a number of excellent speeches, including the historical tour de force by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). He has an advantage over most of us, because he has written a book on William Wilberforce and thus researched the subject. My hon. Friends were a little unkind in asking him penetrating, detailed questions that they would not put to a professor of history, but it is a mark of his great talent that he could deal with them brilliantly. I was taken, too, with the forthright, informative and thought-provoking contributions from the hon. Members for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and for Brent, South (Ms Butler).

It is right that we should hold this debate to celebrate—that is the key word—the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act 1807, but what, in fact, are we celebrating? First, and obviously, we are celebrating those men and women who made individual contributions to the great cause of the 18th and 19th centuries—people such as William Wilberforce, Granville Sharp, James Ramsay and Thomas Clarkson, as well as thousands of ordinary people, many slaves and freed slaves who supported the campaign against the slave trade. They had the moral passion, the sheer tenacity, dedication, fortitude, vision and single-mindedness to overcome tremendous odds and setbacks too numerous to mention to achieve their goals. When they started their campaign, nothing was inevitable or predetermined. They campaigned to abolish the slave trade—that took them 20 years to accomplish—then they went on to abolish slavery throughout the British colonies, which took them a further 26 years. Secondly, we are celebrating places with connections to those great social pioneers—the towns and villages the length and breadth of the country that take immense pride in their famous sons and daughters. The obvious example is William Wilberforce, with his roots in, and political representation of, the great city of Kingston upon Hull, but there are many others—notably Thomas Clarkson, who was born and raised in Wisbech in the Isle of Ely in my constituency of North-East Cambridgeshire.

As well as spatial connections, there are connections primarily among Christian groups and denominations, which came together in common cause and buried sectarian differences to provide a united and coherent front. Chief among those denominations, as we have heard many times in the debate, were the Quakers, whose selfless and self-effacing devotion to the campaign cannot be overstated. They were closely followed by evangelists and Anglicans such as Thomas Clarkson. Indeed, the first meaningful and formal anti-slavery group—the committee for effecting the abolition of the slave trade—was established in 1787 and was composed of nine Quakers and four Anglicans. In an intervention, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) told the House that all Anglican bishops were against abolition, but my research did not show that that was the case. The bishops may have opposed abolition, but many ordinary Anglican communicants, including Thomas Clarkson, were very much involved in the movement.

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The formal birth of the campaign in 1787 was probably one of the first examples of political campaigning and lobbying as we know them today. At the time, however, there were no easy and fast means of communication, let alone decent overland transport: no telephone, no photography, no television, no telegraphy or e-mail; no trains or automobiles—just a slow and rudimentary postal service, horse-drawn coaches and one’s trusty nag. We should certainly celebrate the incredible fortitude of all those involved who overcame those massive challenges to persuade others and change public perceptions. We should celebrate, too, the role of our fledgling parliamentary democracy in that process. Although the campaign was unacceptably protracted in today’s terms, it was nevertheless one of the earliest examples of public opinion overcoming powerful vested economic interests through the use of petitions and lobbying—a point well made by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington. Finally, we should celebrate the forerunner of human rights pressure groups and mark the establishment in 1823 of the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery, which later became the Anti-Slavery Society.

There is therefore much to celebrate in this bicentenary year, but paramount is the contribution of the key players. Abolition was without doubt a people process, and although much of the praise has rightly gone to William Wilberforce, I trust that the House will forgive my indulgence if I share with it the massive contribution of Thomas Clarkson, who was born in 1760 in Wisbech in my constituency, the son of John Clarkson, headmaster of Wisbech free grammar school. Thomas Clarkson is, without doubt, that Georgian gem of a town’s most famous son, and Wisbech town centre is dominated by a 70 ft-high monument to him, which was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott and erected in 1881 following public subscription.

Thomas Clarkson showed immense intellectual promise as a young man at St. John’s College, Cambridge university, which is my alma mater. By strange coincidence, as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North said, it is the college that William Wilberforce attended. I do not know whether Wilberforce and Clarkson knew each other at college, but it is remarkable that the two central figures in the campaign went to the same Cambridge college. Clarkson entered a Latin essay competition in 1785. The essay question was, “Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?” The research that he did for the essay changed Clarkson’s life, as it challenged him to consider the question of the slave trade. After winning the prize, he decided to go to London to have the essay translated and printed in English. When he stopped at the village of Wadesmill, which is now on the A10 somewhere in Hertfordshire, he experienced what he called a spiritual revelation from God. He wrote:

It was that experience that “ordered” him to devote his life to abolishing the trade.

Clarkson’s work on the issue in the early years brought him into contact with influential men such as
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James Ramsay and Granville Sharp. In May 1787, Clarkson was one of the three pioneering Anglicans, along with Granville Sharp and William Wilberforce, who formed the committee for effecting the abolition of the slave trade— a small non-denominational group that lobbied for greater public and parliamentary support. Clarkson agreed to play a leading part in the affairs of the committee, and he took responsibility for collecting information and researching the issues to support the committee’s case. He faced much opposition from supporters of the trade in the many of the cities that he visited, as the slave traders were an influential group and the trade itself was seen at that time as legitimate, lucrative and responsible for the prosperity of ports such as Liverpool and Bristol. Indeed, on an early visit to Liverpool in 1787 he was attacked and nearly killed by a gang of sailors who had been paid to assassinate him. He only just escaped with his life. In the same year, 1787, Clarkson published his pamphlet, “A Summary View of the Slave Trade and of the Probable Consequences of its Abolition.”

Clarkson was very effective at giving the committee a high public profile, spending the next seven years riding around England promoting the cause and gathering evidence. The sheer magnitude of this endeavour takes one’s breath away. He covered some 35,000 miles, mainly on horseback. History does not tell us whether it was the same horse, but I doubt it, poor thing—I am sure he changed horses frequently. In the course of his journeys he interviewed almost 20,000 sailors and people involved in the trade. He obtained equipment used on the slave ships, such as iron handcuffs, leg shackles, thumb screws, instruments for forcing open slaves’ jaws, and branding irons, which he showed in his publications and at the many public meetings at which he spoke.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): My hon. Friend is giving a superb account of the work of Clarkson. Will he, as suggested by my constituent, Mrs. Joan Woollard, encourage Wisbech and neighbouring fenland constituencies, such as mine, to make something more of Clarkson during this bicentenary year?

Mr. Moss: Mrs. Woollard has also contacted me and I have replied to her. We cannot claim to be doing as much as Hull, but perhaps the resources of Fenland district council and Wisbech town council are not of comparable magnitude. However, there is a programme ably run, mainly by the Wisbech Society. There are church services, including one a week on Sunday, and there will be other events throughout the year.

I thank the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) for his congratulations to the Wisbech and Fenland museum on the loan of Clarkson’s chest, which he used to transport his artefacts and visual aids around the country. Perhaps he had another horse to carry that—it must be huge. That chest will form the centrepiece of the exhibition in Westminster Hall, which opens on 23 May. It might also interest the House and my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) to know that the renowned brewery in Wisbech, Elgoods brewery, which brews an extremely palatable real ale, will brew a special ale to be known as the Brookes ale, named after
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Clarkson’s ship which he drew and took round to show people how the slaves were packed into such vessels. The ale will be launched at the same exhibition opening on 23 May and will be available to all quaffers of such ale in the bars of the Palace of Westminster from 23 May till the end of our summer term. I am afraid we have not got as far as brewing something for the lady Members who do not drink beer. I will mention that to Elgoods— [Interruption.]

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I think they do.

Mr. Moss: That is all right, then. We are indeed promoting Wisbech and Thomas Clarkson and doing our bit for the Westminster Hall exhibition.

Clarkson copied out the muster rolls at the Merchants hall. He got together a support group to initiate a huge signature gathering operation for petitions to Parliament, and he met local newspaper editors to persuade them to print articles against the trade. All the time he continued to write against the slave trade, filling his works with descriptions that he had heard first hand from sailors, surgeons and others who had been involved in the traffic, such as the account of a sailor who had served aboard a slave ship, which was published in 1789 as “An Essay on the Slave Trade”.

In the previous year Clarkson had published his “Essay on the Impolicy of the African Slave Trade”, which was printed in large numbers. These works provided a firm basis for the first and ground-breaking abolitionist speech that William Wilberforce made in the House of Commons on 12 May 1789, which was mentioned by the Deputy Prime Minister and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks. It was Clarkson’s research that formed the basis of the 12 propositions in Wilberforce’s speech.

As the House heard earlier in the debate, Wilberforce introduced the first Bill to abolish the slave trade in 1791, but that was easily defeated by 163 votes to 88. As he continued to bring the issue of the slave trade before Parliament, Clarkson continued to travel and write anti-slavery material, and played a huge role in generating favourable public opinion towards the Bill.

This was the beginning of a protracted parliamentary campaign during which Wilberforce introduced a motion in favour of abolition almost every year. Between them, Clarkson, Wilberforce and the other members of the committee and their supporters were responsible for generating and sustaining a national movement which mobilised public opinion as never before. Parliament, however, refused continually to pass the Bill, and the outbreak of war with France effectively prevented further debate for many years.

By 1794, Clarkson’s health was failing and he was suffering from exhaustion. He retired from the campaign and spent some time in the lake district, where he bought an estate at Ullswater and became a friend of the poet William Wordsworth, by an incredible coincidence another old Johnian. In 1804, when the war with France appeared to be almost over, the slave trade campaign revived again. After 10 years, Clarkson’s temporary retirement was also over, and he once again got on his horse to travel all over Great Britain to canvass support for the measure. He seems to
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have returned with all his old enthusiasm and vigour, and was especially active in persuading MPs to back the parliamentary campaign.

After the passage of the Slave Trade Act in 1807 Clarkson’s efforts were directed mainly towards ensuring the enforcement of the Act and seeking to further the campaign in the rest of Europe. He travelled to Paris in 1814 and Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818, with the aim of arriving at an internationally agreed timetable for abolition. After 1823, when the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery, later the Anti-Slavery Society, was formed, Clarkson once again travelled the length of the country, covering some 10,000 miles, activating the vast network of sympathetic anti-slavery societies that had been formed. This resulted in 777 petitions being delivered to Parliament demanding the total emancipation of slaves. When the society finally adopted a policy of immediate emancipation, he and Wilberforce appeared together for the last time to lend their support.

In 1833 the Slavery Abolition Act was finally passed. Wilberforce died just three days afterwards, knowing that his life’s work had come to fruition. Clarkson lived on for a further 13 years. Although his eyesight was failing, he continued to campaign for the abolition of slavery, focusing on abolition in the United States. At the grand old age of 80, he was the principal speaker at the opening of the anti-slavery convention in Freemasons hall, London in 1840, attended by 5,000 people, where he was accorded a silent standing tribute. With typical modesty he told the audience:

Possibly because of a public spat with Wilberforce’s sons after Wilberforce’s death, and perhaps because one of his later books rather over-egged his own contribution to the abolition movement, Clarkson’s place in history seemed to be completely eclipsed by that of Wilberforce. However, in 1996, 150 years after his death, a fitting monument to him was unveiled in Westminster abbey—most appropriately, next door to that of his lifelong friend and colleague, William Wilberforce.

As many Members have said, slavery is still with us today in forms such as human trafficking, the sex trade—for which we learned that Britain seems to be the No. 1 destination—bonded labourers, and more. We need more Thomas Clarksons in this legislature and many others throughout the world to step forward to complete his work.

There are those who say that we should apologise for our pivotal role in the slave trade, but I say that we should not. It took place at a time in history when the majority of people worldwide were ignorant of its true nature or saw no moral wrong in it. Its economic success—I say that because it provided a lucrative trade and business for many people over about a century—was based on co-operation with Arab traders and some local African tribes; we now learn of the role that the Ashanti tribe played in this grotesque trade in modern
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Ghana. Are they all going to apologise as well? I think not. However, it is right to express our sincere regret and to acknowledge that we have learned important lessons about attitudes to racism and racial stereotyping.

We should be thankful for, and celebrate wholeheartedly, the fact that it was our country that produced the moral giants of their time—our countrymen and women who, against all the odds and with incredible dedication, changed society fundamentally and irreversibly for the better. We owe them a deep debt of gratitude. Their moral fortitude is something that we modern politicians should return to before too long.

7.12 pm

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): I should like to share with the House two perspectives on slavery that relate to my own spheres of activity as a Member of Parliament. I start by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. I am absolutely delighted that he has encouraged the House to spend time discussing this important matter and supported it in doing so.

Sitting for a Merseyside constituency, I feel that it is important not to let this occasion pass without the House stopping to consider the city of Liverpool’s connections with the European slave trade. Indeed, many of my right hon. and hon. Friends and other Members have already mentioned it. No city can claim to have been more inextricably linked with that abhorrent practice. At its height, Liverpool controlled 80 per cent. of the British slave trade and 40 per cent. of the European slave trade. Considering those figures, it is no exaggeration to say that Liverpool was one of the forces that drove the entire transatlantic slave trade. London, Bristol and Hull played an important role, but Liverpool was in a league of its own. That trade penetrated every aspect of city life and every level of society—16 of Liverpool’s mayors were slave traders.

Liverpool built, owned, manned, insured and repaired the ships that took African people from their homes and families, transported them across the seas and sold them into a life of servitude. Liverpudlians and their countrymen enjoyed the tobacco, sugar, cotton and coffee that those ships brought with them on their return voyages. The merchants and business men grew wealthy through that shameful trade, fuelling the growth of the city and the region. Several Liverpudlians, including John Newton, went on to play a prominent role in the abolition of slavery, but it is important to remember that Liverpool continued to profit from the slave trade long after 1807. Once established, many of the trading posts in west Africa went on to serve Liverpool as she became the second city of the British empire. During the American civil war, cotton from the southern plantations was so important to Britain that ships were built in Liverpool for the Confederate navy so that they could run the Union blockade of the south.

The slave trade is not merely a matter for Liverpool’s history; it has left its mark on the present city in so many ways. We cannot—and indeed should not—forget it, because there are so many visible reminders everywhere. Liverpool Lime Street railway station was
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built on the profits of slavery to facilitate the transport of cotton from the docks to the mills of Manchester. The design of the town hall incorporates a frieze with depictions of Liverpool’s trading connections, including motifs depicting African people—not shown as ambassadors of their respective states, but as commodities available for sale in our city. Earle street, New Bird street, Dorans lane and numerous other streets are named after slave traders. Even Penny lane, made famous throughout the world by the Beatles, is said to be named after James Penny, who owned slave ships and vocally opposed abolition.

What of the legacy? This year, Liverpool celebrates its 800th anniversary and prepares to became European capital of culture next year. We have many wonderful things about the city to celebrate: the iconic waterfront, the magnificent twin cathedrals, a proud shipping heritage, successful football teams, the Beatles, and the musicians and poets of the 1960s. However, we are what we are because of the slave trade. We have become a world-class city on the back of the strength and intellectual acumen of people from another continent, and we owe a great debt to the people of Africa.

How does a nation repay that debt? Liverpool has come some way towards acknowledging the part that it played in the slave trade. In 1999, the city council passed a motion formally apologising for it. A museum and study centre dedicated to the subject will open in the city later this year. All our children need to know where they came from and must be encouraged to reach out and share what we have with those from whom we have taken so much.

That brings me on to my second area of interest as chair of the all-party group on the west African Mano river region, which is principally concerned with the development and welfare of the five countries along the banks of the Mano river in west Africa: Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Senegal and Liberia. It was from that part of Africa that the slave traders took so many individuals from their families and communities, and it was that part of Africa to which freed slaves were later returned. However, just as Liverpool continued to profit from the slave trade long after it was abolished, so west Africa continued to remain impoverished and exploited.

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