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Wilberforce, William (1759 – 1833)

Wilberforce petitions for the transportation of ex-slaves: ‘You understand they are all free people’

An extraordinary and significant signed letter by William Wilberforce, ‘W. Wilberforce’, four pages on two adjoining sheets, 7.75″ x 10″, December 3rd 1791. The letter is addressed from Yoxall Lodge, and reads in full:

‘Conceiving you would feel interested about the settlement now forming on the Coast Africa, I lately desired a copy of the Report of the Directors of the Sierra Leone Company to the Court of Proprietors might be transmitted to you from London: this will best explain to you the nature & objects of the Institution, & I hardly need add anything to what it contains except that since its publication has been resolved to raise the Capital of £150,000 — and that the accounts we have received from our agent both of the number & qualities of the Nova Scotia Negroes are extremely pleasing. You must not misconceive me to be canvassing for subscribers; we are likely to have as many as we want; but thinking you & any friends you should recommend to me would be proper Members of our Body, I should feel myself wanting in friendly regard to you if I were not to give you the opportunity of engaging, in what I must think a truly splendid project: if you desire to subscribe or any of your family or friends (let me desire you by a proper explanation to guard against the misconception I have suggested) I shall be glad to have letters properly subscribed sent to me at this place as to be here if possible by Saturday or Sunday next, that I may forward them as to be in London by the day, too early an one, appointed for receiving proposals a further day will be afterwards allowed. I am not sorry to have this opportunity of asking after you & yours, and shall be sincerely glad to have a good amount of you, you brown household & your whole circle.”

A lengthy postscript reads: ‘My eyes are but indifferent, though I am pretty well in other respects, & therefore write to you by another hand. When I dictated the sentence respecting the Nova Scotia negroes, I thought an account of them had been given in the Report: but as, in since glancing my eye over the pages I see no mention of it, it may be proper to be a little more particular. The Negroes here referred to formerly inhabited the southern provinces of the United States, & having sided with us during the war, & being consequently obnoxious to the Americans, they were, as a reward to their Loyalty, transported to the genial climate of Nova Scotia, where they have been ever since in a most deplorable way: besides the rigours of a Climate so ill adapted to their constitutions, they were very ill treated in other respects, the land promised them was not given, &c &c. Sir H. Clinton spoke to me himself concerning them, and bore testimony to their claim on the protection & good offices of this country. These poor people hearing a confused report of an intended settlement on the coast of Africa, sent one of their number about a year ago to London to inquire into the truth of it, and to request, if it should seem expedient to him, that government would transport them thither. We took up the cause, & administration sent out orders accordingly. We expect about 700 men, women, & children will come over to Sierra Leone, with our agent this or the next month; and there is every reason to hope they will form a most valuable acquisition: you understand they are all free people.’ In fine condition.

A fascinating and significant letter from Wilberforce rallying an ally for funds and support regarding the safe transport and resettlement of the “Nova Scotia Negroes” to the capital of Sierra Leone, Freetown. Also known as ‘Black Loyalists,’ these people were former American slaves who left their rebel masters and joined forces with the British in exchange for freedom during the American Revolutionary War.

Although the British lost the American War of Independence, it kept its promise to the thousands of former slaves that escaped. Some freedmen were evacuated to the Caribbean and London, while roughly 3,000 former slaves were evacuated to Nova Scotia, a region, Wilberforce explains, they were entirely unsuited. Fifteen ships, the first fleet to bring Free blacks to Africa, left Halifax Harbour on January 15, 1792, and arrived in Sierra Leone between February 28 and March 9, 1792.

Also of historical importance is the year that Wilberforce sent this letter; in April 1791, with a closely reasoned four-hour speech, Wilberforce introduced the first parliamentary bill to abolish the slave trade, which, after two evenings of debate, was easily defeated by 163 votes to 88. It wasn’t until several years later, in 1807, that the buying and selling of slaves were made illegal across the British Empire, with slave ownership becoming outlawed completely in 1833.