(Door of no return, “maison des esclaves” or house of slaves. please click on the Goree Link for a UNESCO sponsored site on Goree Island which inlcudes photos/video and historical context, Goree Island, Senegal)
(statue of emancipated slave, Goree Island, Senegal)
AMAZING GRACE, WILLIAM WILBERFORCE, JOHN NEWTON…ALL PART OF SIERRA LEONE’S HISTORY
On February 27th 2007 to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, Bristol Bay productions (producers of Ray) will be releasing “Amazing Grace”http://www.amazinggracemovie.com/ a film that will tell the story of William Wilberforce and John Newton two British men who were crucial to the eventual abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain. The film will also profile the contributions of Olaudah Equino later known as Gustavus Vasa (played by international music sensation Youssou N’dour in his film debut). Many Sierra Leoneans familiar with the towns of Wilberforce & Newton know very little about the history behind the people for whom those towns are named. I remember as a child in church that my dad had told me that the man who wrote Amazing Grace the hymn had owned slaves in Sierra Leone but it had long disappeared from my memory, at least until now.
The Story of John Newton
John was born in London in 1725. His father was a seaman and his mother Elizabeth died of tuberculosis when he was a child. At the age of 18, he was pressed into naval service aboard the HMS Harwich. After trying to escape, he gets recaptured and demoted to common seaman. He makes his way to Sierra Leone (probably banana or bonthe islands) after being transferred to another ship heading for W. Africa. When he arrives in Sierra Leone he finds himself under a very horrible master. However, his fortunes would change when he is found by a friend of his father’s who takes him back to England. Between 1948-1954 Newton would himself become a slave trader/master on slave ships such as the Brownlow, Duke of Argyle & the African.
It was not until the Evangelical revival in England that he is inspired to give up his slave trade and become a lay minister. He eventually becomes a priest in the Anglican Church in 1964.
In 1967, Newton along with poet William Cowper himself an evangelical would collaborate on producing the Olney Hymns which included many hymns but most notably Amazing grace. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was blind but now I see”: Some believe that these words and the hymn in general embody Newton’s deepest regrets about his participation in slavery.
In 1785 at the age of 60, Newton would greatly influence the abolition of the slave trade by convincing William Wilberforce newly-converted evangelical and member of parliament for Hull to stay in parliament and “serve God where he was”.
After being convinced to stay in politics, William Wilberforce would become one of the most notable British abolitionists. On May 12th 1789, William WIlberforce made his first major speech on the abolition of slavery in which he argued that the trade was an issue of natural justice and morally reprehensive. In his speech, he gave a detailed description of the conditions of slaves as they traveled through the middle passage from Africa. At the age of 31, in April of 1791 he would introduce the parliamentary bill to abolish the slave trade. He took every possible opportunity through out his time in parliament to bring the slave trade before the House of Commons. Wilberforce worked closely with Whigs & abolitionists in and out of parliament including Charles Fox and Lord Grenville (not to be confused with Granville Sharpe another abolitionist who helped African American slave Thomas Peters get a land grant in Sierra Leone where he would contribute to the creation of Freetown and the colony of Sierra Leone where he dies of malaria in 1792).William Wilberforce founded the African Institution in 1807 with the purpose of improving slave life in the Caribbean. He was instrumental in developing the Sierra Leone project. Though he died a month before parliament would pass the Slavery Abolition Act in August of 1833, he lived long enough to hear that the bill for the abolition of slavery passed its third reading in the House of Commons.
The Abolition of Slavery in the British Empire is directly related to the establishment of Freetown as a settlement for slaves and the eventual creation of the colony. We were to be the ultimate solution to the question of what to do with freed slaves. If those initial black freed men and women who dreamed of returning to Africa and actually made that journey to Freetown were to return to their settlement today I wonder what they would say and feel about how we have turned out. Are we the dream that they envisioned? Do you think they would want to live in Sierra Leone?
2007 An important year for African nations
This year (2007) is full of so many anniversaries and elections : the independent nation of Ghana turns fifty in March and important general elections are due in Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Ghana. As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, our hearts and minds should turn to Iraq and more importantly to Darfur where black people are being slaughtered by the masses and we all sit around and let it happen. We may not be janjaweed but everyone of us who is aware of what is going in Darfur and remains silent is collaborating in the massacre of our people. While US media is focused on Britney Spears’ antics and Jennifer Hudson’s golden globe win, women and girls in Darfur are bring raped, mutilated and murdered by arab militia men supported by the racist sudanese government in Khartoum. As I heard yesterday at a benefit concert at Carnegie hall (www.requiemfordarfur.org) “its been a 1000 days and 1000 nights that the people of Darfur have been living in fear for their lives and those of their loved ones.” We need peace in Darfur. www.darfurdarfur.org