24 February 2007

Not So Amazing Grace

There's a new movie out called Amazing Grace, about the William Wilberforce and the UK abolitionist movement. I won't sell Wilberforce short; he pulled off a gargantuan task. But the movie is historical revisionism of the Christian apologetic stripe, and in today's paper, Rich "Right Wing Ho Boy" Lowry joins the revision.

Lowry and the movie want to give all the credit for abolition to Christian ethics. This pantsload breaks on two rocks. First, Christianity had few qualms about slavery until the Enlightenment came as a backlash to all things clerical and superstitious and crammed the novel idea universal rights down Christianity's gullet. Second, the real reason the slave trade was abolished was something else neoconjobbers like Lowry should appreciate: war time expediency.

In 1807 the UK was fighting for survival against Napoleon. With a string of victories such as Jena and Austerlitz, Napoleon had knocked Britain's allies out of the war and taken control of the continent. The British war effort was reduced to Wellington's irregular war on the Iberian Peninsula and the Royal Navy's increasingly strained efforts to rule the waves. The Navy's chief and most successful task was trade interdiction, through blockades and high seas seizures. One of the things the Navy was trying to choke off was France's access to slave labor. While the British colonies used slaves, the French, Spanish, and Dutch colonies were wholly dependent on the slave trade. Stopping the trade would cripple those colonies.

The problem was there was no way to stop just part of the trade. Seized slave ships always claimed to be heading to Jamaica or some other British port but if released always seemed to find their way to French/Spanish/Dutch colonies or to US ports (which was an open market for French slavers). The only answer was to shut the whole thing down, so the UK did.

Of course the legislation banning the trade was accompanied by all sorts of high-sounding rhetoric about human rights and Christian charity, and some of it was undoubtedly sincere, but the reason Wilberforce finally got the legislation passed after so many fruitless years was that at that moment abolition coincided with the expediencies of national security.


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