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Last Updated: Friday, 23 March 2007, 14:35 GMT
Abolition's 'unexpected hero'
By Trevor Timpson
BBC News

Bust of Lord Grenville, courtesy of Lady Arran
Many people thought Grenville was aloof and cold
The man who pushed through the law abolishing the slave trade has almost been forgotten, and the house he loved has come close to destruction.

But, just as abolition is again remembered, the house is also being rebuilt.

William Wyndham Grenville, the first and last Baron Grenville, was talented, deeply learned, a useful party man, but aloof, respected rather than liked.

His nickname was Bogy, perhaps meaning scary or bogeyman.

William Wilberforce praised him fulsomely but said of him: "His natural temper is not that of warmth." For cartoonists, his most interesting characteristic was his big bottom.

Grenville would be almost forgotten today, except for two things: that in 1807 he piloted the law to abolish the slave trade, and that he loved and fostered his woods and gardens and house at Dropmore, Buckinghamshire.

Surely there can be no doubt that this detestable trade ought at once to be abolished
Lord Grenville, 1807

Grenville's opposition to the slave trade was long-standing. In the 1780s, on a diplomatic mission to France he argued for a joint move by the British and French to curb the trade. He was an admirer of Adam Smith who said slavery made no economic sense. But above all, Grenville said the trade was unjust.

He condemned it for "tearing the unhappy Africans by thousands and tens of thousands from their families, their friends, their connections, and their social ties, and dooming them to a life of slavery and misery".

Ties of friendship

Himself the son of a prime minister, Grenville rose to prominence as a fixer - a reliable man to call on to solve a political problem - first for his family's political faction, and then for his cousin, William Pitt the Younger, under whom he became one of the most experienced Cabinet ministers in the country.

After he and Pitt resigned in 1801 the two drifted apart and Grenville gradually - unexpectedly - formed ties of friendship and respect with Charles James Fox, the nearest thing to a left-wing leader in Parliament.

In January 1806 Pitt died. Grenville received the news with "an agony of tears" and retreated to Dropmore "to restore my mind".

Fox was the strongest leader in Parliament, but George III would not have him as prime minister.

Grenville, once again, was the man to call on, and took on the role.

His government - drawn from the outgoing ministry and the opposition - is known as "the ministry of all the talents" - but made little headway in trying to secure a just peace with Napoleon or paying for the war.

Trelliswork and aviary at Dropmore

But on one issue - the slave trade - Grenville was successful. He began at once to move towards abolition and after a general election victory in November 1806, the stage was set.

The Commons was overwhelmingly in favour and Wilberforce's prestige was high; the Lords was Grenville's task, and here the abolition bill had its first reading in January 1807.

Grenville's speech moving the second reading of the bill on 5 February was a triumph, according to his biographer Peter Jupp.

Denouncing the practical objections raised by supporters of the trade, he insisted that the West Indies planters already produced more than they could sell.

If, he said, "after incurring all this guilt, the continuance of the criminal traffic must end in the ruin of the planters in your islands, who vainly expect profit from it, surely there can be no doubt that this detestable trade ought at once to be abolished".

He said that if Britain ceased the trade, others could not carry on - and in any case he denied that Britain "should persist in guilt, in criminality, because if we did not, other powers would".

Lord Grenville as pictured by the cartoonist Gillray
Born 1759, Wotton, Bucks
Became MP 1782
Speaker of the Commons 1788
Home secretary 1789-1791
Made a peer 1790
Foreign secretary 1791-1801
Prime minister 1806-1807
Chancellor Oxford Univ 1809
Died 1834, Dropmore

"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 labouring for their own advantage, and to compel them to labour for our profit?" he demanded.

"Can there be a question that the character of the country ought to be cleared from the stain impressed by the guilt of such a traffic, by the effect of which we keep Africa in a state of barbarity and desolation?"

He warned: "Twice has this measure failed in this House, and if this iniquitous traffic is not now abolished, the guilt will rest with your lordships." This time, it did not fail.

"The movement had grown, in Parliament and in the country, because of the many years of discussion and a long record of campaigning on the matter," says historian Michael J Turner, author of a recent biography of Pitt.

"Pitt and Wilberforce both played an important role as well, in preparing the way for abolition, but that's not to take anything away from Grenville."

But Grenville's ministry was already collapsing as some of his ministers refused to support him over the granting of commissions in the forces to Roman Catholics.

On 30 March, the day abolition of the slave trade received Royal Assent, he resigned.

He wrote to a political ally: "I could not bring myself to struggle much to get my chains on again."

He took refuge in his books and gardens at Dropmore, but remained active in politics until he was incapacitated by a stroke 16 years later.

Grenville is "definitely someone worth writing about - an unacknowledged and rather unexpected hero of the final phase of the abolition effort", says Adam Hochschild, author of the history of slavery and abolition, Bury the Chains.

He was a career politician in the right place at the right time - but when he told the Lords in February 1807 "Nothing but a total abolition will now satisfy justice", he meant it.

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