All the King's Men
Flags of our Fathers
The Great Raid
Kingdom of Heaven
Master and Commander
Memoirs of a Geisha
Passion of the Christ
Pride and Prejudice
Pirates of the Caribbean 2
Walk the Line
We are Marshall
World Trade Center
Amazing Grace: How
Sweet the Story
The enslavement of African-Americans left an ugly
stain on American history. But the sin wasn't ours alone. For centuries,
plantations throughout the Caribbean and South America worked slaves
to death, and European nations got rich by supplying them with new
ones. Great Britain, in particular, made huge profits from the slave
trade. In the 18th century, the British led the world in the traffic
of African slaves.
But they also led the struggle to abolish it. The new film 'Amazing
Grace' brings to stirring life the story of William Wilberforce,
who helped wage a decades-long campaign in Parliament to end the
British slave trade. By turns poignant, funny, and inspiring, the
film takes what could have been a preachy biopic and turns it into
a song. Here's a guide to some of the history referenced in a story
that's unfamiliar to American audiences.
Q. Was Wilberforce as heroic as portrayed by the film?
A. Some historians have criticized the film for giving Wilberforce
too much of the credit for ending the slave trade. Adam Hochschild,
author of Bury the Chains, a history of British abolition, points
out that many other activists pushed the issue, helping to create
a massive popular movement against slavery in late 18th century
Britain. And slaves themselves deserve some credit. By revolting
on British plantations in Jamaica and Barbados, they forced the
British public to confront the brutality of slavery and the slave
Yet, the film does show many other activists, especially Olaudah
Equiano the former slave who wrote of his experiences in a searing
autobiography, and promoted it and the abolition cause all over
And critics to the contrary, Wilberforce was crucial to the movement,
and it makes sense that 'Amazing Grace' keeps the focus on him.
His political stature and rousing eloquence made him the public
face for abolition, and an inspiration for people around the world,
even long after his death. Ohio's Wilberforce University, the first
college owned and operated by African-Africans, was named in his
honor in the 1850s, twenty years after he died.
Q. A key plot point in the film involves Wilberforce being torn
between the ministry and politics. Is that true?
A. It is. Wilberforce had been elected to Parliament at the tender
age of twenty-one. Celebrated for his brilliance, wit, and charm,
Wilberforce seemed on the political fast track, alongside his best
friend William Pitt, who at twenty-four would become Britain's youngest
ever Prime Minister.
But then Wilberforce experienced a profound religious conversion,
turning from an apathetic Anglican into a fiery Methodist. He agonized
over whether he should quit Parliament and enter the ministry. He
sought advice, as the film shows, from John Newton, the former slave
trader turned preacher, and best known as the author of the hymn,
'Amazing Grace.' It was Newton who famously urged Wilberforce to
stay in politics and "serve God where he was."
Q. Speaking of Newton, the film shows him as a passionate abolitionist,
yet some critics say he only half-heartedly condemned slavery. Where's
A. Some historians criticize Newton because he didn't condemn the
slave trade until years after his conversion. But when he converted
in the 1750s, slavery was widely accepted by whites as part of the
natural order, and Newton, like many others of his era, only gradually
learned to see it differently. By the 1780s, Newton had expressed
his bitter regret and repentance for his role in the slave trade.
He worked with Wilberforce and other abolitionists, publishing a
tract describing the brutality practiced on slave ships, and testifying
before Parliament on the issue.
Q. The film shows Wilberforce as perpetually sick. What did
the poor guy have?
A. It was probably ulcerative colitis, which basically means inflammation
and sores in the intestines. Wilberforce suffered from it all his
adult life, and it almost killed him on a few occasions. The constant
sickness added to his marked frailty. The actual Wilberforce, unlike
the tall and dashing Ioan Gruffudd who plays him, was a wee, frail
little man, who in the throes of his illness was said to weigh less
than eighty pounds.
Q. Did he take laudanum?
A. He did, but he wasn't alone. 19th century doctors in both England
and the U.S. freely prescribed laudanum (a liquid form of opium)
to alleviate pain. Its use was so widespread that even medicine
for infants was laced with the stuff.
In the film, Wilberforce heroically quits the drug before his first
child was born. But the filmmakers fudged that point, because he
continued taking it all his life to combat the constant pain of
his illness. Unlike most people who took it regularly, though, Wilberforce
apparently resisted the temptation to keep increasing the dosage.
Q. The villain here is Lord Tarleton, the member of Parliament
who blocks Wilberforce's every political move. Was he an actual
A. He was. Banastre Tarleton was the most vocal pro-slavery man
in Parliament, arguing that without slavery the British economy
(and its empire) would collapse. The owner of a West Indies sugar
plantation, Tarleton was a British war hero, having fought against
the Americans in the Revolutionary War. "Bloody Tarleton,"
the Americans called him, and interestingly, the evil "Colonel
Tavington" in Mel Gibson's 2000 film, The Patriot is based
on Banastre Tarleton. But though "Tavington" ends up skewered
on an American flag at the close of that film, the real Tarleton
lived to bedevil William Wilberforce in Parliament for years.
Q.What's a good source for more information on Wilberforce?
A. Try Hero for Humanity by Kevin Belmonte.
Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University
of St. Francis in Illinois and writes a syndicated column on historical
Herald News, 2/25/07
Ioan Gruffudd is wonderful as Wilberforce.
John Newton (Albert Finney) and William Wilberforce
Olaudah Equiano (Youssou N'Dour)