John Newton helped turn British people into the enemies of slavery. Born in 1725, he had a wild and troubled youth. Drafted as a boy into the Royal Navy, he tried to desert, was publicly flogged and transferred to work on a slave ship bound for Africa. There, he lived among bad and dangerous men. He was rescued, returned to England and, in time, rose to be captain of a slave ship. He was not a bad man, but he saw and did terrible things. He carefully recorded the nightmare in a diary, which he later drew on to write about the slave trade. He also wrote one of the most famous hymns in the English language – "Amazing Grace," a hymn about repentance.

It was a young Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce, who persuaded Newton to write about his past. For 50 years, Wilberforce was the driving force behind the fight to end slavery in the British Empire. Gradually, public opinion turned against slavery. More people became abolitionists. Year after year, they organized, protested and held meetings, wrote letters and collected signatures for petitions. As for Wilberforce, he took the fight to Parliament. In 1807, the abolitionists won a partial victory. Though slavery was still legal, the buying, selling and transporting of slaves was not. Another 25 years passed before the law-makers finally outlawed slavery in all British territories, including Canada.


Janet Uren (WordImage Inc.)
Maggie Fawcett, Claire Brodie, Parks Canada Agency, Multiculturalism Program / Department of Canadian Heritage

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