Wilberforce House

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Wilberforce House on High Street is part of the ‘Museum Quarter’ in the Old Town. It was the birthplace of slavery abolitionist William Wilberforce. According to the website, it explores the history of slavery, abolition and the legacy of slavery today.

It must be twenty years since we last visited. The museum has been refurbished and had a make over. I was very disappointed as I felt this now gives a modernised PC view of slavery. There were a lot of information panels but few visuals. Some issues seem to have been glossed over. The room covering the history of Willberforce didn’t seem to explain why he became so involved in the anti-slavery movement, unless I missed something. In some rooms it wasn’t always obvious which order the boards should be read and I found the display on public reaction to slavery and the politics abolishment very confusing and rather gave up. Overall, I felt it lacked impact and I was disappointed. It didn’t live up to the old memories. The house though is very interesting…

Wilberforce House is a lovely brick building dating from around 1600 and is one of the oldest houses in Hull. It belonged to the wealthy merchant family of the Listers and was extended in 1730 and 1760 by the Wilberforce family. It is described as ‘Artisan Mannerism style’ as it combines classical influences with local design. There is some information about the house in the old kitchen at the front of the building. This still has the huge brick fireplace with roasting spit. the walls like many of the other rooms in the house are covered with oak panelling. There is a splendid entrance hall with a wood staircase and rococo plaster ceilings.

William Wilberforce was borne here in 1759. He was the first son and to celebrate his birth, the family decorated the main stairway with the family crest.

There is a small display on the life of William Wilberforce who was educated at Hull Grammar School before going to St John’s College Cambridge. He entered parliament in 1780. In 1785 he became an evangelical Christian and felt that he should use his Christianity to create a better and fairer society. He was a devoted family man and had six children. His household supported many servants either too sick or old to work. He supported bills to stamp out drunkenness and helped set up the British and Foreign Bible Society. He headed the parliamentary campaign against the British Slave Trade, leading to the Slave Trade Act of 1807. No longer an MP, he died just after the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 and is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Beyond is the main exhibit on slavery which also has display cases and information on African culture as well information about the slave trade.

From the 1440s, Portugal and then other European countries grew rich on the profits of kidnapping Africans and shipping them across the Atlantic. Some were capture by raids by the save ships, but many came from trade with the Africans themselves. This brought wealth and great power to the West African Societies involved, like Benin and Asante who were involved in capture of enemies or even their own people to sell to the slave traders.

As the slave trade grew, there were systematic raids on inland villages. The victims were chained and marched to the coast and held in temporary prisons, barracoons, before being sold to visiting ships. There is an example of an iron neck collar used to restrict movement and prevent slaves from escaping into the bush. Slaves were also branded.

The voyage across the Atlantic could take three months depending on the weather. Slave ships were specially adapted to accommodate large numbers and could carry up to 600 slaves. There is a diagram of a ship showing how the bodies were crammed in. (I had a feeling 20 years ago there was a reconstruction showing conditions inside a slave ship. It is no longer there. Perhaps it was too frightful for the modern audience?) Disease was rife and killed as many as 15% during the voyage.

One in ten ships probably experienced a rebellion. Slave ships carried twice the usual crew number to deal with attempts at rebellion and the guns could also be turned on the slaves. Rebellion was usually instigated by the women as they were allowed free movement around the ship and had to cook for the crew and slaves. They were able to report on crew movements and smuggle weapons. They were also at the mercy of the crew and rape was frequent and ignored by the captain. In good weather, the men were brought on deck for exercise to keep them healthy and were punished if they refused.

The Dolben Act of 1788 was passed to relieve overcrowding on the slave ships and improve survival chances. Ships could only carry 295 slave and this was further reduced before the 1807 act was passed. It is estimated that 12 million Africans were probably transported.

When the slave trade was made illegal in the 19thC, it still continued using smaller and faster boats which could escape the navy vessels patrolling the African Coast.

When the ships docked, a gun was fired announce the arrival of the slaves. There are examples of posters advertising sales of slaves. The slaves were inspected for infectious disease and any infected were kept in quarantine. They were divided into groups based on health and strength and sold to the highest bidder. Plantation owners could inspect slaves before buying. Older slaves often had their heads shaved or hair dyed to make them look younger. They might be covered in oil to make them look healthier. The season often dictated the price with higher prices when the sugar cane crop was ready for harvest.

There is a certain amount of information about life on the plantations upstairs. Life on the colonies was harsh. Plantation owners were often absentee landlords and employed overseers to run the plantations. There was always tension and the Europeans were in constant fear of uprisings.

Slaves underwent a period of ‘seasoning’ or breaking in. They were inspected and divided into field or domestic workers. Everyone was registered and then branded making it easier to identify runaway slaves. They had to learn English quickly as they were punished if they didn’t understand instructions.

The slaves lived in overcrowded wooden huts and disease was rife. Discipline was harsh and beatings, branding, mutilation, tarring and burning were common. The women were subjected to sexual abuse and a plantation owner needing money often hired out women to visiting ‘gentlemen’ for payment.

The owners did offer incentives of promotion or the award of free time to encourage work. However these could cause friction between the slaves. During the sugar harvest, slaves worked for 12 hours in the fields during the day. The strongest harvested the cane. Weaker cleared the fields or worked in the factories extracting the sugar.

Information about the antislavery campaigns and boycotts of products of slavery by the population is spread across two rooms and is mainly information boards. Boards weren’t numbered and there didn’t seem to be any logical sequence to them, making an already confused story even more confused. I must confess I rather went into overload and gave up on this.

The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 ended slavery in the British Empire on August 1, 1834, Emancipation Day. All children under six were freed but others had to serve a period of ‘apprenticeship’ intended to prepare them for for freedom. For field workers, this was six years, for domestic slaves, four years. They were required to work 40 hours a week for their masters. Overtime wages could be used to buy freedom earlier.

Across the entrance hall is a display on modern day slavery which I skimmed through with its very PC messages.

The museum is free and there is disabled access to all parts of the museum

It is an important period in our history which we do need to be aware of. The museum goes some way to explaining this. There is a lot of written information with little in the way of artefacts. I didn’t find the section on slavery and the condition of the slaves as hard hitting as I expected, maybe because it was nearly all written information. I also came away not much wiser about the exact role Wilberforce played in the campaigns. I left feeling a little cheated.

For information about the museum click here.

For information about the collections click here.

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