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The great English abolitionist and statesman William Wilberforce once asked,

And, sir, when we think of eternity, and of the future consequences of all human conduct, what is there in this life that should make any man contradict the dictates of his conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion, and of God?

The answer, is turns out, is “a perceived greater good.” According to a story in the The Guardian , Wilberforce appears to be complicit in the practice of slavery in Africa :

Colonial Office papers for Sierra Leone, the free colony established by Wilberforce and his “Clapham Sect” of social reformers as an ideal society where races mixed and slaves were free, reveal that slavery – albeit renamed “apprenticeship” – continued long after the 1807 act abolishing slave trading, with Wilberforce’s knowledge.

His condoning of the practice and his collusion in keeping it quiet conspired to ensure that Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, would be the last place in the British empire where Africans could still be legally bought and sold into forced labour.

The claims are made in a book by Stephen Tomkins about the south London-based Clapham Sect, due out this month.

“At first, I thought I must have read it wrong, because this so cuts across what we think about Wilberforce. But, the facts are all there. There is no getting round them,” said Tomkins, author of a previous biography of Wilberforce. “His hands were not as clean as we assume”.

The details of Wilberforce’s involvement, some of which are outlined in the article, are disheartening. Ironically, it appears that it was the depth of his commitment to ending slavery that caused him to be implicated in the despicable institution. In attempting to support a greater good, he compromised on a perceived lesser evil.

The revelation no doubt mars Wilberforce’s hitherto almost unblemished reputation. But it provides a valuable lesson for us, especially anyone involved in the political process. Infrequently, though still far too often, we face similar dilemmas as Wilberforce: Do we do nothing and allow evil to flourish or take action and become complicit in evil?

I’m not sure I know the answer. But if a man as upright and righteous as Wilberforce can contradict the dictates of his conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion, and of God, by taking part in a practice he despised, then I might want to be cautious before judging the way other people respond to such dilemmas.

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