William Wilberforce – The Life of the
Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner by
William Hague, HarperPress, £25. ISBN
As every schoolboy once knew, William
Wilberforce was instrumental in achieving
the passing of legislation at Westminster
abolishing the slave trade between Africa
and the Americas and West Indies. The
passing of the Slave Trade Abolition Act
in 1807 was the culmination of a bitter
29 year campaign.
For many of his powerful opponents
there was so much more than humanitarian
considerations at stake. Their wealth
depended either on the profits of this human
trade or on the economic benefits that
resulted. It was therefore no surprise that
Wilberforce and, let it not be forgotten, his
brave supporters, attracted the most virulent
personal and collective attacks.
The bicentenary of the Act has been
somewhat hijacked by those who prefer to
dwell not on the fact that it was the British
Parliament that triggered the closing of this
chapter in man’s inhumanity to man, but
on the British involvement in the trade.
By fuelling debates as to the need for
apology and even compensation, critics
obscure the fact that it was a Briton, nay a
Yorkshireman, who was instrumental in this
momentous achievement. They also
conveniently ignore the fact that, without
the connivance of the Africans and Arabs
themselves, there would have been no
Atlantic slave trade.
William Hague has all the right
credentials to be Wilberforce’s biographer
and redress this imbalance. His research and
literary skills were confirmed by his
acclaimed work William Pitt the Younger.
Hague is, like the other William, an orator
and Parliamentarian of rare ability; he is
not easily deterred by setbacks; he has
weathered personal vituperation and has
a steel that can only come from moral
strength. Certainly he enjoys a rare
empathy with his subject.
This fine study will long be the definitive
biography of a remarkable man whose
sense of moral outrage changed not just the
lives of millions but the course of history.
Not many men can lay claim to such an
achievement. This is an important book
on an important subject.
The Force of Destiny – A history of Italy
Since 1796 by Christopher Duggan,
Allen Lane, £30. ISBN 9780713997095.
Of all the stories in modern European
history, the unification of Italy has been
among the most written about, most
memorably by Denis Mack Smith. This is
hardly surprising, as it was a truly remarkable
event with characters as diverse as Giuseppe
Garibaldi, leader of an irregular band of
freedom fighters, to King Victor Emmanuel,
King of Piedmont and his wily Prime
Quite how the great forces of Austria
and France, who ruled many of the states
within Italy, were disposed is fascinatingly
recounted by Christopher Duggan, who
takes us from the time when Italy was
merely a ‘geographical expression’ right
up to the modern politics of Berlusconi.
It is easy to find oneself somewhat
discouraged by the sheer size of this book
– a full 650 pages of it. However, it is
testament to Duggan’s ability as a historian
that he succeeds in making the story such a
A central theme of the book is the
question of whether ‘Italy’ is merely a
peninsula made up of many regions, or
whether there is a greater collective unity
and allegiance to the state. On the whole,
the localities seem to venerate far greater
strength of feeling than the country.
Arguably, it is this insecurity that has lead
to such yearning for martial victory. Ever
since the Risorgimento, Italians have had a
desperate desire to prove their strength, only
to be humiliated on the battlefields of Adua
(1896) by the Abyssinians and later to suffer
even greater losses on the battlefields of the
First World War. Bismarck’s insult that Italy
‘has a large appetite but poor teeth’ has all
too often proved apt as Italy lurched from
one humiliation to another.
This is not, however, the narrative of a
doomed nation and Duggan describes the
heroism and glories as well as the tragedies in
equal measure. Some of the most interesting
parts of this book are his portraits of the great
characters of modern Italian history, which
combined with the subtleties of changing
political winds, make for fascinating reading.
Thames: Sacred River by Peter Akroyd,
Chatto and Windus, £25.
Peter Ackroyd is no stranger to many
readers. His ground-breaking book London:
the biography made a huge impact selling
nearly 400,000 books and winning many
plaudits for its innovative and idiosyncratic
style. The sequel Thames: Sacred River
explores the river from source to sea,
from prehistoric times to the present.
The first question is how this highway
can form the basis for such a substantial
book. However, it soon becomes clear that
the Thames is more than just a waterway –
it has been a frontier and an attack route, a
playground and a sewer, a source of water
and a source of power.
The Thames, Ackroyd asserts, is the
lifeblood of the city, ‘the epitome, the
liquid essence, the spirit, of London’. The
author tells the story of the river and the
people who have lived on and by it over
We discover the barges and bridges, the
industries, lawmakers and lawbreakers who
form the life of the river. In his exhaustible,
but compelling style, Ackroyd investigates
the flora and fauna of the river, its geology,
smells and colours as well as its magic and
myths, hauntings and suicides.
In AD 54, the river was 14 feet shallower
than it is now, thus helping Caesar and his
legions to cross the Thames and defeat the
British tribes. 1700 years later, malaria in the
marshes of the estuary was so prevalent that
mortality rates rose to unprecedented levels
in the city.
The Thames, asserts Akroyd, is now
less polluted than at any time in history and
is now the ‘cleanest metropolitan river in
the world’. There is no stopping his magpie
inclusiveness. His genius is that he
successfully digs out these surprising
anecdotes and facts in such entertaining
and lucid prose.
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