1500-1799 | Slavery

MPs love of the opera means slavery abolition bill fails

Sir William Young as a boy is depicted on the right of the Young family. A black servant or slave stands by the horse.
J Zoffany – Walker Art Gallery – via Wikimedia.

15 March 1796

On 15 March 1796, a slavery abolition bill narrowly failed to gain a majority in the House of Commons, falling short by just 74 to 70 votes.  There were naturally a large number of MPs, especially those with vested interests and investments in either slave trading or the plantation economies of the West Indies, who were unwaveringly hostile to the bill. According to a newspaper report of the proceedings, Sir William Young, who was also a wealthy plantation owner, ‘rose to oppose on the general principle of the bill, which appeared highly tyrannical and unjust.’1 There were also a significant number of members, led by the Yorkshire MP William Wilberforce, who were deeply committed to ending slavery. However, the outcome of the debate, though decided technically by a minority of MPs present in the chamber, was affected crucially by the indifference of a far greater number who had absented themselves so they could attend the performance of a new Italian comic opera O Dui Gobi or The Two Hunchbacks.2


  1. ‘House of Commons, Tuesday March 15,’ The Derby Mercury, 24 March 1796, p. 1.
  2. David Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History,  Pan Books,  London, 2017,  p. 222.

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