Honor Isn’t Profitable, But it IS Good

In my opinion, Whig politician William Wyndham Grenville, 1st Baron Grenville, is an incredibly underrated Prime Minister of Great Britain.

NPG 318; William Wyndham Grenville, 1st Baron Grenville

He was in power only a year (11 February 1806 – 31 March 1807) but he used that brief time to drag the UK kicking and screaming onto the moral high ground by leading the fight to abolish the slave trade. It cost him his position, because the right thing to do often cuts into the profits of uber-rich and they are the ones who usually pull the strings of government.

Grenville’s government, known as the Ministry of All the Talents was extremely progressive and thus extremely fragile. They wanted all kinds of liberal tomfoolery, including making peace with France, giving Catholics the same legal rights as Protestants, and abolishing the Atlantic slave trade. Equality, human rights, and peace? Where’s the money in that? So the conservative faction in Parliament, which included most Tories and some Whigs from slave trading strongholds like Liverpool, fought Grenville and his coalition tooth and nail. The only change that Grenville was successfully able to effect was the abolition of the slave trade, but it was a humdinger of a good one.

The Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed in 1787 by a group of Evangelical English Protestants allied with Quakers, to unite in their shared opposition to slavery and the slave trade … By 1807 the abolitionist groups had a very sizable faction of like-minded members in the British Parliament … the alliance was led by the best known of the anti-slave trade campaigners, William Wilberforce, who had taken on the cause of abolition in 1787 after having read the evidence that Thomas Clarkson had amassed against the trade. These dedicated Parliamentarians had access to the legal draughtsmanship of James Stephen, Wilberforce’s brother-in-law.


In January of 1807  bill entitled “An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade” was brought before Parliament. The act, “The act abolished the slave trade in the British Empire … and also encouraged British action to press other European states to abolish their slave trades, but it did not abolish slavery itself.” It’s proponents rightly assumed cutting off the slave trade would lead to the end of slavery in the UK and its colonies, but they probably didn’t think it would take more than 26 years to do it. However, it did lead directly to the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act,
more than 30 years before slavery would end in the USA.

Getting the bill to pass was not easy:

Grenville himself led the fight to pass the Bill in the House of Lords, while in the Commons the Bill was led by the Foreign Secretary, Charles James Fox, who died before it finally received Royal Assent. Other events also played a part; the Act of Union brought 100 Irish MPs into Parliament, most of whom supported abolition. The Bill was first introduced to Parliament in January 1807. It went to the House of Commons on 10 February 1807. On 23 February 1807 … [after a debate lasting 10 hours] the motion to abolish the Atlantic slave trade was carried in the House of Commons … by an overwhelming 283 votes for to 16 against … The The Bill received Royal Assent on 25 March 1807.

Getting the royal assent came at the price of the collapse of Grenville’s government, and conservative Whig William Henry Cavendish Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland, became prime minister, supported by fellow conservatives in the Whigs and most of the Tories. Grenville would go on to serve as Chancellor of the University of Oxford from 1810 until he died passed away on 12 January 1834.

Baron Grenville as Chancellor of Oxford

Thanks to Grenville’s efforts and the determination of his fellow abolitionists, the slave trade was decimated. The Royal Navy, which dominated the seven seas in the 19th century, established the West Africa Squadron to patrol the coast of Africa and free captives bound for slavery in other counties, “and between 1808 and 1860 they seized approximately 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans who were aboard … Action was also taken against African leaders who refused to agree to British treaties to outlaw the trade …. Anti-slavery treaties were signed with over 50 African rulers … the Arab slave trade in Africa [later reinvigorated] the flagging abolitionist movement. The Royal Navy throughout the 1870s attempted to suppress “this abominable Eastern trade”, at Zanzibar in particular. In 1890 Britain handed control of the strategically important island of Heligoland in the North Sea to Germany in return for control of Zanzibar, in part to help enforce the ban on slave trading.”

Grenville should be remembered as a hero for his role in setting up this course of events.


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