William Wilberforce and Graphic Imagery

Wilberforce image of dead slave

Images like this educated the public on the evils of slavery. Additionally, they created the kind of tension/conflict that (a) forced the public to think about slavery and (b) created a public forum that forced slave traders to defend the indefensible.

You’ve heard the joke:

Inquisitive son:  “Daddy, what’s the difference between ignorance and apathy?”

Preoccupied father:  “Son, I don’t know and I don’t care!”

To end the slave trade, William Wilberforce had to overcome ignorance and apathy in England.  People didn’t know much about the slave trade and simply didn’t care.  It’s the same problem we have with abortion.

CBR uses graphic abortion images to (1) educate the public about the true nature of abortion, and (2) create the kind of non-violent tension that focuses public attention.  We do this because reformers have always done it.

Reformers like William Wilberforce, Lewis Hine, Martin Luther King, and others never defeated injustice by covering it up.  No, they always exposed injustice using graphic images and, in so doing, created non-violent conflict that (a) focused public attention and (b) created a public forum in which evildoers were forced to defend the indefensible.

Gregg Cunningham, director of CBR’s Research Department and our resident expert on the history of social reform, wrote this essay.

William Wilberforce and Graphic Imagery

Dr. Marjorie Bloy notes in “The Anti-Slavery Campaign in Britain” (HistoryHome.co.uk) that one of reformer William Wilberforce’s greatest challenges in abolishing the slave trade and then slavery itself, was the fact that “… many people were unaware of the horrors of slavery ….”

In his book Bury The Chains (Mariner Books, 2005), Adam Hochschild points out that “… in England itself, there were no caravans of chained captives, no whip-wielding overseers on horseback stalking the rows of [Caribbean] sugar cane.  The abolitionists first job was to make Britons understand what lay behind the sugar they ate, the tobacco they smoked, the coffee they drank.”

Eric Metaxas, in his Wilberforce biography Amazing Grace (Harper San Francisco, 2007), echoes Hochschild in explaining why it was vital for abolitionists to make the privations of slavery real to British voters:

Of the many social problems Wilberforce might have thought needed his attention, slavery would have been the least visible of all, and by a wide margin.  In fact, the answer to how Britain could have allowed something as brutal as West Indian slavery to exist, and for so long, has much to do with its invisibility.  Few British people ever saw the slightest hint of it, for only a tiny handful of the three million Africans who had been pressed into British slavery over the years ever set foot on British shores.  They were kidnapped [in Africa] and shipped straight to the West Indian sugar plantations thousands of miles away.  The sugar and molasses from these plantations came to England but who could have known of the nightmarish institution of human bondage that attended their making?  Who could have known that much of the wealth in their nations booming economy was created on the other side of the world by the most brutal mistreatment of other human beings, many of them women and children.  Most British citizens had never seen anyone branded or whipped or subjected to thumbscrews.  They had no idea that conditions on West Indian sugar plantations were so brutal that most of the slaves were literally worked to death in just a few years and that most of the female slaves were too ill to bear children.  Black faces were very rare in Britain in the late eighteenth century, especially before the 1770s, and any blacks one might have seen would probably have seemed to be treated rather well.

The Telegraph.co.uk, explains the importance of expressing the inexpressible savagery of slavery in a feature article headlined “Am I Not A Man And A Brother?” (11 March 2007).  It reported that “Slavery was undermined by the very thing that kept it going – a brutality unendurable by the slaves or by the awakening sensibility of the British public.”  It was awful pictures which “undermined” it, shifting public opinion in support of abolition when nothing else had worked.

Wilberforce slavery image - whipped into submission

No reformer ever defeated injustice by covering it up. William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson knew that in order to end the slave trade, they had to expose its horror.

Artists’ depictions of slavery were just as provocative to Eighteenth Century English sensibilities as abortion photos are in 21st Century America.  But abolitionists used them anyway, because slavery was shocking and voters needed to be shocked.  At BBC.co.uk, in the section titled “Religions, William Wilberforce” (last updated 7 May 2011), we read that “… [T]he abolitionists were brilliant at public relations and devised radical new ways of bringing their cause to public attention.”  The writer says “They had pamphlets full of eye-witness testimony.  They had extraordinary graphics such as the famous image of the slave ship, Brookes, which showed captive Africans packed like sardines in a can.  The potter Josiah Wedgewood struck a brooch that depicted an enslaved man on bended knee.  At the bottom of the brooch was the inscription: ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’”  (Source link)

Metaxas says that this disturbing picture of a tortured slave “… was reproduced on snuffboxes and made into cameos that women wore pinned to their dresses and in their hair.  It was also made into made into a letter sealing fob … so even the wax seals on letters would draw attention to the cause.”

For his confrontational tactics, Wilberforce was denounced as an extremist.  In the book William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner, by William Hague (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008) quotes Wilberforce declaring, “If to be feelingly alive to the sufferings of my fellow-creatures is to be a fanatic, I am one of the most incurable fanatics ever permitted to be at large.”  At BBC.co.uk, in the section titled “Religions, William Wilberforce” (last updated 7 May 2011), we read that:  “For Wilberforce personally it meant enduring vitriolic attacks in the newspapers; he was physically assaulted, he faced death threats and he had to travel with an armed bodyguard.”  (Source link)

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One Response to “William Wilberforce and Graphic Imagery”

  1. October 17th, 2013 at 10:06 am

    Conflict: both indicator and facilitator of changing minds says:

    […] status quo.  People who exploit others are enraged when their cruel tyranny is threatened.  When William Wilberforce used pictures to win the debate over slavery, he was attacked in the newspapers, physically assaulted, and even […]

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