George Hibbert 1757-1837
This site concerns itself with the life and times of George Hibbert, historically the most important of the Hibberts.
Much has been written about William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect that was partly responsible for the abolition of slavery, however the story is not that straight forward. Slavery in England ended with the Mansfield Decision of 1772. This was followed some years later by Thomas Clarkson’s prizewinning essay of 1785, ‘On The Trade in the Human Species…’, even after reading the essay it was still another four years until Wilberforce rose in Parliament in May 1789 with the first of series of speeches concerning the slave trade.
What is little known is that a week later George Hibbert rose in at a meeting of Merchants at the London Tavern and demolished Wilberforce’s three and a half hour speech with an address that lasted about 40 minutes, entitled ‘The Slave Trade Indispensable….’ This was Game–on as the 30 year old Wilberforce went Head to Head with the 32 year old Hibbert on the merits or otherwise of the abolition of the slave trade.
This was followed the following year by George Hibberts evidence to Parliament which did not concern itself with the morality or otherwise of owning a workforce but the commercial realities of not having a workforce. There was no moral question just the settled law from the time of Elizabeth I and the Common Law and Traditional Customs, Rights and Privileges of the African Chieftans.
In 1794 George Hibbert moved to Clapham Common North Side to a house on the opposite side of Clapham Common from the house Wilberforce shared with his cousin Henry Thornton. In the middle of Clapham Common is the church Holy Trinity that is immortalized as the church of the Clapham Sect. However the truth of the matter is that the Hibberts also worshiped there. The forces of slavery and anti slavery in the same church each Sunday.
Nothing much happened for the next five years until 1799 when a bill was presented to Parliament authorizing the building of the West India Docks. These Docks being the largest privately funded civil works programme ever undertaken in England. George Hibbert along with Robert Milligan being one of the driving forces of its construction. Opened, ahead of schedule, in 1802, Hibbert was appointed the first Chairman and to celebrate this a model of the Ship ‘Hibberts’ was placed over the main gate.
By 1807 George Hibbert was elected to Parliament for the Rotten Borough of Seaford and took the fight for the retention of the colonial slave based economy directly to Wilberforce. The contents of George Hibbert’s arguments can be found in ‘The Contents of three speeches…1807’
From Hibberts first speech on the matter in 1789 to 1807 nothing much had changed, the slave trade which theoretically should have ended shortly after the Mansfield decision of 1772 was alive and well and even the 1807 Wilberforce Act that proscribed the shipping of new slaves from West Africa did little to change the status quo. Even in 1807 we are still 31 years from Emancipation. So why did it take 66 years from the Mansfield decision of 1772 to emancipation in 1838? The short and simplistic answer is the payment of £20,000,000 compensation to the slave owners to end the slave trade……This is the basis of the forthcoming book ‘The Price of Sugar’
All this was greatly influenced by George Hibbert and four of his brothers that spent time in Jamaica, (out of ten Hibberts to serve there). It could be argued that if Thomas Clarkson had not been so intransigent in his objection to the payment of compensation to the slave owners, then the Colonial based slave economy could have been dismantled about 20 years earlier, after the victory of Wellington over Napoleon at Waterloo.
George Hibbert was appointed Agent General for Jamaica in 1812 at a salary of £1,500 p.a. a position he held until 1831.
George Hibbert was very much the polymath, speaking five languages fluently, (English ,French, Italian, Latin and Greek, with at least a working knowledge of German and some Dutch?) He married Elizabeth Margaret Fonnereau in 1784 by whom he had 14 children.
He was a member of many clubs, organizations and societies, including being a Mason, politically he was a Whig and religiously a Protestant.
Member of the Society for the Improvement of Naval Architecture and the Society of Marine Architects,
Founder Member for the Committee on French Privateers,
Alderman of the City of London for the Ward of Bridge Within,
Member of Parliament for Seaford,
Honorary Master of the Cloth Workers Company,
Instrumental in establishing the London Institution,
Elected Fellow of the Linnaeus Society, The Royal Society and The Antiquarian Society.
Member of The Roxburghe Club.
A Founder of what became the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
Amongst his other interests were the early history of printing, Botany, Bibliophile, Art Collector and Dealer. Hibbert the Bibliophile was immortalized as ‘Honorio’ in the Rev. Thomas Dibdin’s Bibliographical Decameron.
Hibberts botanical interests led to the genus Hibbertia being named in his honour.