20 April 2014

Pitt's speech on the Abolition of the Slave Trade - 1792

Fig. 1: Pitt's Motion for the Abolition of the Slave Trade

In an undated letter to her husband George Pretyman-Tomline, Elizabeth Pretyman writes:

"...Four o'Clock. Mr. [Edward] Eliot is come - very well. He [Eliot] speaks in raptures of Mr. Pitt's speech on the Slave trade. Mr. Martin got up in a transport to compliment him [Pitt] upon it - and a Black [man] who was [sitting] in the Gallery [of the House of Commons] waited for him when the house was over, and went up to him [Pitt] and made a very very low bow so grateful and so reverential! that it quite affected all who saw him. What must be the feelings of your friend [Mr. Pitt] at that moment!" [1]

Although the letter is undated, the speech Mrs. Pretyman is most likely referring to is the famous speech Pitt gave after a long night of debating in the House of Commons as the sun rose on April 2-3, 1792. 

History records some of the names of the men who tirelessly campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade. Many will instantly the recall the names of a few men closely associated with this cause - William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson are two that spring to mind. The man not instantly connected with abolitionism is, ironically, the man who on May 9, 1788 first gave notice of a motion in the House of Commons for the Abolition of the Slave Trade: William Pitt. He was doing so in support of his friend William Wilberforce, who was seriously ill at the time. [2] It was a cause beset by fierce opposition, and it suffered numerous unfortunate setbacks. Huge efforts were made, and hundreds of petitions were signed by people all over Britain. When Pitt rose to give his speech on the abolition of the slave trade in the early morning hours of April 3, 1792, it was arguably one of the most eloquent speeches of his parliamentary career. Even his political opponents were impressed. Wilberforce wrote that "Windham, who has no love for Pitt, tells me that [Charles James] Fox and Grey, with whom he walked home after the debate, agreed with him in thinking Pitt's speech one of the most extraordinary displays of eloquence they had ever heard." [3]

How unintentionally prophetic were Pitt's words at the close of that speech, when he said:

"If we listen to the voice of reason and duty, and pursue this night the line of conduct which they prescribe, some of us may live to see a reverse of that picture, from which we now turn our eyes with shame and regret. We may live to behold the natives of Africa engaged in the calm occupations of industry, in the pursuits of a just and legitimate commerce. We may behold the beams of science and philosophy breaking in upon their land, which, at some happy period in still later times, may blaze with full lustre." [4]

Sadly, Pitt did not live to see the slave trade abolished by the British Parliament. He died in January 1806, and the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was passed by parliament on March 25, 1807. If some doubted Pitt's sincerity to the cause in later years when the pressures of an unrelenting war with France, and Pitt's increasingly failing health intervened, they certainly did not question him on that night.


1. Mrs. Eliza Pretyman to her husband George Pretyman-Tomline. (undated) Ipswich RO, Pretyman MSS: HA 119: 562/699.

2. Hague, W. (2005) William Pitt the Younger. London: Harper Press, p. 296.

3. Wilberforce, R.I. and Wilberforce, S.W. The Life of William Wilberforce, Volume 1., pp. 345-346.

4. The Speech of the Right Honourable William Pitt, on a Motion for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, in the House of Commons, on Monday the Second of April, 1792. London: James Phillips. 

Image Credit:

Figure 1: William Pitt's printed speech on his 'Motion for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in the House of Commons on Monday the Second of April 1792,' London: Printed by James Phillips, George Yard, Lombard Street. (my photo) Image reproduced by the kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Pembroke College, Cambridge.

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