You are here: Reports » Phase 1: media » Reviews » In our time...

In our time, exploring the legacy of Wilberforce (BBC Radio 4)

Presenter: Melvin Bragg
Producer: Tom Alban
Date: Thursday 22 February 2007
Time: 9.00am

This special edition of In Our Time presented by Melvin Bragg takes the program out of the studio to the places associated with the life of William Wilberforce. His family home in Hull, the Palace of Westminster and his memorial in Westminster Abbey are visited to assess the work of Wilberforce towards the Abolition Act of 1807 and his impact upon contemporary Britain.

The sycophantic tone of the program is set at the outset when Bragg describes Wilberforce's statue in Westminster Abbey, a 'modest statue' of, 'a man I would contend had more influence than any other individual in this abbey.' The usual format of the program as a round-table discussion between academics and experts is postponed for this assessment of Wilberforce. Bragg contends that this is a necessary step to focus on an individual who is considered to possess such moral quality and, 'has inspired others including Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.' The opportunity of a balanced debate within the program is ended within the first five minutes as Bragg lays accolade after accolade upon this 'Saint' of the abolition movement. This is not an informed discussion, rather a homily upon the greatness and significance of the life and work of Wilberforce. Bragg states that rather than discuss the suffering of many the program will consider the vision of one; this is a decision which is seemingly taken without any consideration that this is acceptable or even constructive. Wilberforce is thereby wrenched out of context of both the abolition movement and the Atlantic slave trade.

The rather outdated and highly unhelpful mode of historiography presented in the program succeeds in mystifying Wilberforce rather than explaining his work. William Hague M.P. introduced as an 'acknowledged expert' on late eighteenth century history immediately casts doubt on this status when he contends that, 'social forces can't work by themselves, they need individuals.' This 'great man' perspective is spoken of by Bragg to be absolutely necessary in the case of Wilberforce. The evident self-fulfilling nature of this process is apparently lost in the enthusiasm in which Bragg venerates the memory of the abolitionist. The way in which Wilberforce was encouraged to take up the cause of slavery by Pitt and others rather than coming to the cause himself is only alluded to. As a son of Hull, an Englishman and a Christian, Wilberforce as a local icon, as a national icon and as a worldwide humanitarian icon is repeated throughout the program. The character of Wilberforce is presented as flawless as his status as an opponent to the rights of the working classes and extension of the franchise is forgotten. The apparent disinterest he felt for the individual enslaved African is discussed and dismissed with the reassuring comment that the evidence is 'missing' rather than non-existent, and that he was 'good friends' with the King of Haiti, which in itself is not a suitable rebuttal. A debate which examined the political and social status of Wilberforce might have located some of the reasons for this disinterest.

Criticisms of this 'great man' version of history and of Wilberforce personally are not allowed to sully the programme. Eric Williams's stunning indictment of Wilberforce as a glib opportunist is calmly explained away as the 'writings of a young man.' Bragg is reassured that most within the historical establishment no longer feel any antipathy towards the way in which Wilberforce represents both enslavement and abolition in Britain. This reassurance is given by a Caribbean academic presumably to ensure credibility in this position. The audience is presented with such biased evidence that anyone who would consider criticising Wilberforce is presented as jealous and motivated by self-interest. It is this figure of Wilberforce as one of the greats, on par with Mandela and King, as an Englishman and as a Christian which Bragg chooses to end the programme with. The mythology of Wilberforce is reasserted: '…the greatness of what he did, he was truly a great man in his time, and in all time.'

Reviews | back to the top