Monday, March 12, 2007

The Wilberforce Oak Tree (or Slave Tree)

The movie Amazing Grace is an excellent production and well worth an afternoon or evening at the movies. It reminded me of a chapter in my book Extraordinary Places…Close to London where I describe how William Wilberforce and William Pitt the Younger decided on a course of action to rid the world of slavery.

In 1788, an unusual and important meeting took place under an ancient oak tree in Westerham. William Pitt the Younger, Prime Minister of England, and William Wilberforce, a Member of Parliament, sat and discussed the awful practice of slave trading. Unsure of the opposition in Parliament, the two decided on a plan and Wilberforce made a pledge when he “vowed to rid the world of this hideous trade of slavery.”

A Bill was drawn up abolishing the slave trade and immediately presented to the House of Commons. The slave trade provided an abundance of wealth to many influential families and Wilberforce suspected the bill to be challenged in parliament. To his surprise, the act was passed in 1789 but the terrible slave trade continued for another 20 years with terrible atrocities at sea. Navel patrols guarded the Ivory Coast
in an attempt to control the situation and it is known that the captains of vessels tossed their human cargoes overboard in an attempt to avoid inspection and arrest.

Wilberforce gained many enemies because of his stand against slavery. He felt as though his life was in danger and reverted to having an armed guard accompany him for the rest of his days.

The fine oak tree that Wilberforce and Pitt sat beneath when they discussed the slave trade lasted for centuries but perished during WWII. However, another was planted in the hollow remains to honor the two men and their courageous stand.

A memorial bench with its inscription is located about 4 miles from north of Westerham. It is not easy to find but the monument is important.

The inscription reads:

Mr. Wilberforce’s diary, 1787
At length I remember after a conversation with Mr. Pitt in the open air at the root of an old tree at Holwood just above the steep descent into the vale of Keston we resolved to give notice on a first occasion in the House of Commons of my intention to bring forward the abolition of the slave trade. Erected by Earl Stanhope, 1862