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Baron Grenville: (1759-1834): The Baron & Statesman

William Wyndham Grenville

William Wyndham Grenville, 1st Baron Grenville, was Prime Minister at the time the 1807 Act to Abolish the Slave Trade was passed. His father had also been Prime Minister and Grenville was educated at Eton and Christchurch, Oxford.  He was respected and reliable but aloof and cold. However, he sincerely believed the Slave Trade to be "detestable".

He championed the law abolishing the trade, in a hostile House of Lords, in 1807. He had long argued for abolition. In the 1780's, he had pushed for a joint move by the British and French to limit the trade. He followed the lead of Adam Smith, who argued it made no economic sense. However, Grenville's opposition went deeper than this. He felt very strongly that the trade was unjust, dooming many thousands of Africans to a life of misery, torn away from "their families, their friends, their connections, and their social ties".

He served in the Government of William Pitt (a cousin) becoming paymaster general in 1783. In 1786 he was made vice-president for trade, then home secretary from 1789-91 and foreign Secretary from 1791-1801. He became a peer in 1790 and Prime Minister in 1806 after Pitt died. He had been a respected minister but his coalition government, known as "the ministry of all the talents", was not successful under his leadership. The one exception to this was the abolition of the Slave Trade.

By 1806, Wilberforce had convinced most MP's of the case for abolition in the House of Commons. The bill had its first reading in the Lords in January, 1807. Grenville made a powerful speech, moving for the second reading of the bill on February 5th. He denounced economic objections by declaring that the West Indies planters already produced more than they could sell and continuation would result in their ruin. He saw no reason why Britain should continue in a criminal trade just because other powers would. He asked:

"What right do we derive from any human institution, or any divine ordinance, to tear the natives of Africa, to deprive them by force of the means of laboring for their own advantage, and to compel them to labour for our profit?...Can there be a question that the character of the country ought to be cleared from the stain impressed by the guilt of such traffic, by the effect of which we keep Africa in a state of barbarity and desolation?....Twice has this measure failed in this House, and if this iniquitous traffic is not now abolished, the guilt will rest with your lordships."

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The bill was passed. On the day that the abolition of the Slave Trade received Royal Assent on 30th March, 1807, with his government collapsing, he resigned from office.


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