October is Black History Month in the UK and the museum is looking at the life of the abolitionist, William Wilberforce, who has connections to East Surrey.
The first notable references to Britain’s involvement in the slave trade date to the 16th Century, with Englishman John Hawkins transporting captured Africans from Sierra Leone to Hispaniola in exchange for commodities. By the mid-18th Century, transportation ships carried around forty thousand enslaved people across the Atlantic. Whilst an estimated 11 million Africans were transported into slavery, about 1.4 million died en route.
From the 1760s, larger scale slave rebellions in Jamaica lit the fuse for change, with the first British legal challenge to slavery coming in 1765.
William Wilberforce (1759 – 1833), a politician, philanthropist and abolition leader, was initially a background figure in the cause. But when Rev. James Ramsey, a ship’s surgeon and medical supervisor on St Christopher (later, St Kitt’s) and Leeward Islands plantations conveyed the brutal reality of life for enslaved peoples, Wilberforce took note. Reversing the status of the economic contribution of slavery to Britain’s economy (some 80 percent of foreign income) was, however, a gargantuan task. Parliament threw out Wilberforce’s first Abolition Bill in 1790. To abolish slavery, Parliament itself needed reform, as the supporters of slavery exerted political influence through unrepresentative constituencies. These were so-called Rotten or Pocket Boroughs with few eligible voters, that returned one or more MPs – Bletchingley was one, returning two MPs from under 70 eligible voters.
In 1832 the Reform Act was passed under Prime Minister Charles Grey, and new constituencies were created for the growing industrial towns. These brought more abolitionists into Parliament, and in 1833 the Abolition of Slavery Act finally passed, at some cost to Wilberforce’s health and only with considerable – now controversial – financial reparation. Some 800,000 slaves were eventually freed, but £20m was paid by the British government as compensation to slave owners, worth some £17bn today.
From 1821-23, Wilberforce lived at the 17th Century Marden Park, Woldingham. Here, he entertained his friends and fellow abolitionists, including Zacharay Macaulay (former governor of Sierra Leone, a colony for emancipated slaves), and Zacharay’s brother Colin – a general in the British Army, who accompanied the Duke of Wellington in 1822 to the Congress of Verona to lobby the French to support the abolition of the slave trade.
The museum has an original pen and ink drawing of Marden Park in 1814 (pictured), a view that Wilberforce would certainly recognise. But it is very different to the house today, which was rebuilt in the Victorian style after a disastrous fire destroyed the original building in 1879. The house was occupied by Canadian troops in WWII, and then purchased by the Convent of the Sacred Heart as a Roman Catholic school for girls, becoming today’s Woldingham School.