by Rachel Lang
“My dear young friend,” wrote William Wilberforce to Abel Smith in January 1822, “For, friend I must term you or do myself great Injustice …” He was writing “for the purpose of asking a favour of you … [T]hat you would kindly undertake the Office of one of the Executors + Trustees under my last Will”. Two reasons are given: due to the age difference, Smith is likely “long to survive me”, and of course because of “the Estimation in which I hold you …”[i]
Smith was a banker and a fellow MP, 30 years Wilberforce’s junior. The Smith and Wilberforce families had been intertwined through multiple marriages for over one hundred years.[ii] “I cannot resist the opportunity that is afforded me,” Wilberforce continues, “of assuring you of my affectionate regard for you, + of the warm interest I take in your Wellbeing.” The affection reaches its peak in the letter’s conclusion: “So I will only add the af[f]irmances of my best wishes for yr Health + Happiness, + above all my dear Abel for yr augmenting usefulness + Comfort, in its best sense, as intimate the light + life of yr Blessed Spirit of peace + love + Joy – I am ever, my dear Abel, Sin[cerel]y + aff[ectionatel]y yours WWilberforce.”
There is a plaintive note as well: “I often regret that from various Circumstances, We have seen so little of each other … It will always give me pleasure to welcome you under our roof …” Wilberforce complains about problems caused by his eyesight, then adds a postscript: “Excuse the Mark I write fast that I may write more in less time – I now can’t read over what I have scrib[b]led – If there are any mistakes forgive them.”[iii]
This is the first of four letters from Wilberforce to Smith held at Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies Library. The second letter, written nearly two years later, begins, “My dear Abel, For let me use the freedom of friendship, when I can truly declare it is warranted by the reality of it …” Wilberforce’s purpose this time is to request the curacy of Stapleford for his son Samuel. Again the postscript shows vulnerability: “I say noth[in]g ab[ou]t yr coming to us … but I hope we shall sometime welcome you under our roof .”[iv]
The third letter, written in January 1829, is shorter and relates to a loan of £6,000 granted to Wilberforce by Abel Smith’s father. The tone is less effusive, beginning “Mr dear Mr Abel …” The relationship is not as close as Wilberforce would wish but is still personal: “I am sorry we never meet. But when Spring returns, if it please God to preserve me so long, I hope Mrs A. Smith + you will pay us yr long owe’d Visit.”[v] In the fourth letter, (“My dear Mr A –”), he is very agitated about a dispute with the Vicar of Hendon and worried and saddened by the business failures of his son William junior. He is still in debt to the Smiths: “It is the only comfort almost I now have in the affair that you (mean yr House under yr father + yr kind offices) are acting so friendly a part in relation to it.”[vi]
The name William Wilberforce has such resonance today. It was a strange experience to see the well-known signature on a page for the first time and to reconcile this with the somewhat needy voice that comes across in all four of his letters to Smith, written in old age and ill-health, with repeated requests to meet and, in the last two letters, the “sad turmoil” involved in his need for financial assistance.
Also surprising was that Abel Smith’s role in the slave economy posed no bar to Wilberforce’s affection. Abel Smith was a partner in the London bank Smith Payne & Smith, heavily involved in the credit arrangements of West India planters in part through their ties with the West India merchant firm Manning & Anderdon.[vii] Smith, Payne & Smith had taken possession of Farm estate in Jamaica in the 1790s and were mortgagees of enslaved people on Holland, Fish River and Petersville plantations in Jamaica in the 1820s.[viii] Smith was awarded compensation for the ownership of 222 enslaved people on Raymond’s estate in Jamaica as trustee of the marriage settlement of Harriet Smith, daughter of Wilberforce’s first cousin Robert Smith, 1st Baron Carrington.
Separate correspondence concerning the short-lived engagement of Wilberforce’s only daughter Elizabeth to Charles Pinney in 1827 reveals some of the logic behind Wilberforce’s attitude.[ix] Pinney was descended from Nevis slave-owners on both sides of his family and became a slave-owner himself.[x] He appears in the LBS database as the awardee or co-awardee for the ownership of 1,328 enslaved people, primarily as mortgagee.[xi] Wilberforce wrote to Pinney explaining his sympathy for Pinney’s approaches to Elizabeth: “Tho’ a suitor being a West Indian merchant was an objection, it was not an insuperable one … always taking for granted that the gentleman should possess, secure from mercantile or West Indian risk, so much property, as when combined with the Ladies Fortune, might suffice for their comfortable maintainance.”[xii]
Wilberforce soon changed his mind about the suitability of Charles Pinney for his daughter, and may not have considered the match at all if it had been proposed before the 1820s, when ill-health led to his retirement from active politics and the financial troubles of his son William had impacted him greatly. His wife Barbara explained the change of heart to her close friend and Pinney’s sister Mary Ames: “… having expressed, as I felt, my satisfaction that Mr Pinney was not a proprietor possessed of Lands & Negroes but only a West India Merchant, I ought to say that I was then ignorant of what we are now led to consider is the peculiar Situation of a West India Merchant … Mortgages uphold the System of Slavery & in many Respects, all the worst part of the system, even more than any other possessions in the West Indies.” Barbara suggested to Mary that, “however humane and good”, West India merchants may themselves be trapped by the workings of the system despite representing the worst of it: “I am sure your Brother would be amongst the first to rejoice if no such system existed.”[xiii]
Wilberforce’s friendship with Joseph Foster Barham (1759-1832) follows a similar vein. Barham was an MP and owner of four estates in Jamaica, with over six hundred enslaved people, and stressed the responsibility of slave-owners to care for their human property: “To improve the condition of the Slaves, in every safe and practicable way, I have ever deemed the first duty of the master …”[xiv] Barham regretted his role as slave-owner while at the same time profiting from it and deluding himself about the real conditions his enslaved people lived in. Wilberforce described Barham as “a generous fellow, and he seems to be actuated by a warm spirit of patriotism and philanthropy.” Friendships took place across the political divide and the small world of affluent London society meant that slave-owners and abolitionists did not always operate in separate spaces.
[i] William Wilberforce to Abel Smith, 22 Jan 1822, Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies Library (HALS), DE/AS/4414-7.
[iii] William Wilberforce to Abel Smith, 22 Jan 1822, HALS DE/AS/4414-7.
[iv] Wilberforce to Smith, 5 Dec 1827, HALS, DE/AS/4414-7. Samuel Wilberforce later became Bishop of Oxford, see Arthur Burns, ‘Samuel Wilberforce (1805-1873), bishop of Oxford and of Winchester’, ODNB, online edition https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.1093/ref:odnb/29385.
[v] Wilberforce to Smith, Jan 1829, HALS, DE/AS/4414-7. Wilberforce was borrowing money to support his son William junior’s business enterprises which failed the following year, causing Wilberforce “disastrous financial losses” and enforcing a “severe financial retrenchment” – see John Wolffe, ‘William Wilberforce (1759-1833), politician, philanthropist, and slavery abolitionist’, ODNB, online edition https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.1093/ref:odnb/29386.
[vi] Wilberforce to Smith, 1 Mar 1827, HALS, DE/AS/4414-7. It appears the relationship had become less close and Smith was not named as an executor in Wilberforce’s final will.
[ix] See Anne Stott, Wilberforce: Family and Friends (2012) chapter 14 for an account of the engagement.
[xii] Pinney Papers, S/4/21, William Wilberforce to Charles Pinney, 26 Apr 1827 quoted in Madge Dresser, Slavery Obscured: the Social History of the Slave Trade in an English Provincial Port (2001) p. 203.
[xiii] Pinney Papers, S/4/21, Barbara Wilberforce to Mary Ames, 18 Apr 1827 quoted in Stott, Wilberforce: Family and Friends p. 237.
[xiv] Joseph Foster Barham, ‘Considerations on the abolition of Negro slavery, and the means of practically effecting it’ (1823) p. vi.