Classic DACB Collection

All articles created or submitted in the first twenty years of the project, from 1995 to 2015.

Buxton, Thomas Fowell (B)

Non Africans

Thomas Buxton

Perhaps the most striking of all the monuments and memorials that adorn St. George’s Cathedral in Freetown, Sierra Leone, is a bust commemorating a person who never set foot there. It was set up by Africans in memory of Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, described in the language of the times as “the Friend of the Negro.”

Thomas Fowell Buxton [1]–he ordinarily used his second name–was born in 1786, the eldest son of a country gentleman. For a long while he combined a business career with managing his estate. He was brought up under both Anglican and Quaker influences and experienced evangelical conversion through the influence of Josiah Pratt, secretary of the Church Missionary Society. He married into a great Quaker family, the Gurneys (Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer, was a sister-in-law). In 1818 he became Member of Parliament for Weymouth, which he represented until defeated in the election of 1837. Serious illness, increasing in later years, punctuated his public activity; he died in 1844, aged 57.

An Evangelical in Politics

Buxton was a public man by duty more than liking. An effective, but not a brilliant, speaker, he never enjoyed the rough-and-tumble of politics and believed that “good woodcock shooting is a preferable thing to glory.”[2] He never held an appointive government office and was not regarded as a reliable party man either in religion or in politics.

Three concerns dominated Buxton’s public life. The first involved reform of the penal code (in particular reducing the number of offenses which carried the death penalty) and conditions in prisons. This early career built up a lifelong habit of thorough research and mastery of detail.

His second concern was the treatment of non-Western peoples under British rule. Beginning with the issue of sati (widow-burning) in India, he was soon absorbed by British dealings with the indigenous peoples of South Africa. Then came wider questions of the effects of Western colonization on the land-rights and way of life of the indigenous residents.

The third concern was slavery. In 1821 the aging Wilberforce asked Buxton to assume the parliamentary leadership of the antislavery cause. Buxton inherited a major project: to gain emancipation for all the slaves within the British dominions. He achieved this long-sought goal only to find it imposed new tasks: insuring that the act was implemented and getting rid of the apprenticeship system, which was the price exacted for emancipation in the West Indies. It led Buxton to his great dream for Africa, his famous book, and the disaster that brought him horror, heartbreak, and premature death.

These matters kept Buxton in public life when he longed for his estate and the woodcock. His selection of issues sprang directly from his evangelical vision. “Whatever I have done in my life for Africa,” he wrote to Josiah Pratt, his old minister, “the seeds of it were sown in my heart, in Wheeler Street chapel.”[3]

Evangelicalism was about “real,” as distinct from “formal,” or “nominal” Christianity. This is instanced in the title of Wilberforce’s celebrated book, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this country, contrasted with Real Christianity. “Real Christianity,” following on the knowledge of sin and the consciousness of forgiveness in Christ, involved a life of ongoing devotion and practical duty. It had an inescapable social aspect, for the whole of society was assumedly, if far from really, Christian. The path of duty thus involved showing society the true implications of the profession it made. Buxton consistently grounded his arguments in the professedly Christian nature of British society.

Buxton was prepared to demonstrate statistically the sheer wastefulness and commercial inefficiency of the slave trade. Self-interest, however, was never a sufficient reason to evade a moral imperative:

When I come to humanity, justice; and the duties of Christian men, I stand upon a rock…. Without doubt it is the duty of Great Britain to employ the influence and strength which God has given her, in raising Africa from the dust, and enabling her, out of her own resources, to beat down Slavery and the Slave Trade.[4]

In all of this, Buxton stands in the British evangelical mainstream. From its beginnings the Protestant missionary movement was linked with opposition to slavery. West African and West Indian experience demonstrated the hostility to missions of traders and planters alike. But Wilberforce and his Clapham Sect associates did not conduct the abolition campaign on the basis of moral and religious proclamation alone. The slave trade was an economic institution, upheld by political sanction; to win reversal of that sanction entailed winning the economic argument.[5] In such matters Buxton is very much Wilberforce’s “heir at law”; his campaigns use the methods of Clapham.

The Campaign against Slavery

When Buxton assumed the leadership of the anti-slavery movement in 1821, the British slave trade had been illegal for fourteen years, and Britain was officially committed to inhibiting slave trading by other nations. But slavery itself was intact in most of the British Caribbean. The island of Mauritius also had it in a particularly brutal form; its legality protected all sorts of indignities and cruelties in South Africa and elsewhere. Few now defended slavery as beneficent; it was commoner to regard it as an unfortunate necessity. But there were strong vested interests, and even more complacency. Many held that things could not be as bad as the campaigners for emancipation declared. Successive governments had their own agendas, and Buxton’s priorities, even when applauded in principle, did not rank high there.

Part of Buxton’s task was thus the assiduous collection and systematic presentation of facts. His workload was prodigious: the Mauritius case brought on a heart attack. He had to employ parliamentary procedures skillfully; would the appointment of a committee be a useful way of examining evidence, or simply a means of delaying action? He had to maintain pressure to the annoyance of government and party managers, to put his friendships under strain. And he had to build up a body of informed opinion outside the House, and especially among committed Christians. Missionaries played a key part in his campaigns and supplied much of his evidence. The evident hostility of the planters toward them and the sufferings of West Indian believers demonstrated the true nature of the case:

The religious public has, at last, taken the field. The [planters] have done us good service. They have of late flogged slaves in Jamaica for praying, and imprisoned the missionaries, and they have given the nation to understand that preaching and praying are offences not to be tolerated in a slave colony. That is right–it exhibits slavery in its true colours.[6]

After twelve years of motions, divisions, and commissions, the House of Commons in 1833 approved the emancipation of all slaves within the British dominions, Buxton presenting a national petition bearing so many pages of signatures that it needed four people to carry it. But the price of government sponsorship of the legislation was a clause binding slaves in the West Indies to a transitional period of apprenticeship to their former masters. The clause split the abolition movement. Buxton, fearing to lose the whole measure, conceded apprenticeship in return for a government guarantee of complete emancipation at the end of the transition. (He afterwards concluded that this was a misjudgment.) After the passing of the emancipation act he constantly called for the review or reduction of apprenticeship. He demonstrated–again with missionary evidence–that the emancipated people had behaved with dignity and responsibility, their former owners with spite and tyranny. When apprenticeship was formally ended in 1838, Buxton was no longer in Parliament. He attended the debate as a visitor and was ejected for cheering.[7]

“Aborigines’ Rights”

Buxton’s campaign against slavery ran alongside a series of interventions on other colonial issues, until “aborigines’ rights” became his main political concern. Once more, a missionary was at the center of the matter. John Philip, superintendent of the London Missionary Society at the Cape of Good Hope, championed the indigenous Khoi (“Hottentots” in the contemporary phrase) against abuses by whites.[8] By raising the Khoi question in Parliament in 1828, Buxton helped to secure the decision that Khoi in the Cape were on the same legal footing as whites–a decision with long-term consequences. But larger questions were arising in South Africa, as whites seized land or cattle beyond the colony’s frontiers. Buxton secured a parliamentary motion recognizing the principle of African peoples’ right to their own land; its pious language may have blinded some members to the implications of the statement they were approving. Briefed by Philip, Buxton raised the conduct of the frontier war of 1835 against the Xhosa. To his delight, the government handed back “the territory we lately stole.” Buxton wrote:

The hand of the proud oppressor in Africa has been, under Providence, arrested… Only think how delighted must our savage friends be, and with what feelings must they have viewed our retreating army… This is, indeed, a noble victory of right over might.[9]

The Cape question led Buxton to demand a parliamentary committee to investigate the treatment of indigenous peoples in British overseas settlements. Buxton was the committee chairman and the principal drafter of its report. Philip gave evidence, bringing also a Xhosa chief and a Khoi spokesman to do so as well. The secretaries of the three main missionary societies testified to the trail of violence, land robbery, rape, disease, and alcoholism left by the white settlement. The committee, calling for watchfulness against white exploitation of indigenous peoples everywhere, declared:

Europeans have entered their borders uninvited, and, when there, have not only acted as if they were undoubted lords of the soil, but have punished the natives if they have evinced a desire to live in their own country.[10]

The tone of the 1837 report of the Select Committee on Aborigines contrasts with modern generalizations about nineteenth-century opinion, and indeed with developments later in the century. Yet it represents the overseas policy desired by the evangelical, humanitarian, and missionary interests that Buxton embodied.

Buxton desired to see “aboriginal peoples” in secure possession of their lands, able to deal with Westerners on equal terms. He believed their happiness, however, would best be furthered by the spread of Christianity and “civilization.” The condemnation of the British presence overseas was that it inhibited, rather than furthered, the spread of Christianity and civilization.

“The African Slave Trade and its Remedy”

These ideas lie behind Buxton’s last great adventure, the project that consumed and eventually broke him.

As emancipation became realizable, it became evident that the slave trade itself, far from being abolished, was not even reduced. The sufferings of the victims were worse than ever. Diplomacy and naval patrols were manifestly incapable of stopping it on their own. There was still a transatlantic demand for slaves and a demand in Africa for manufactured goods that was supplied primarily by the slave trade.

Buxton determined to confront slavery at the economic level: to cut off its source of supply by providing a more profitable alternative. “The real remedy, the true ransom for Africa, will be found in her fertile soil.” The redemption of Africa could be effected by calling out her own resources.[11]

After he lost his parliamentary seat in 1837 Buxton incorporated his researches in a book which eventually appeared as The African Slave Trade and its Remedy.[12] It examines the current statistics and context of the slave trade by means of standard sources and especially official papers. It concludes that in 1837 and 1838, more slaves were crossing the Atlantic than when Wilberforce began his campaign fifty years earlier. The related raiding, marketing, passage, and landing murdered seven out of every ten slaves taken. The depopulation of Africa was proceeding at the rate of half a million people per year. The slave trade deprived Africa of all possible benefits of civilization and inhibited Christian preaching.

Were this obstacle removed, Africa would present the finest field for the labours of Christian missionaries which the world has yet seen… [T]here is in the negro race a capacity for receiving the Gospel beyond most other heathen nations….[13]

The West owed restitution to Africa for the desolation it had inflicted upon it. Africa had a right to Britain’s best blessings, the Christian faith and that corpus of intellectual and technical achievement comprised in “civilization” but it could receive them only with the destruction of the slave trade.

Buxton proposed to strangle the slave trade by the development of African agriculture. The West could stimulate that development by maintaining regular trade, buying African agricultural products, and selling the consumer goods so obviously welcome in Africa. The paths of Christianity, commerce, and civilization thus crossed. Only Christianity could cure Africa’s ills or foster civilization there; but commerce–in which Africans, holding the rich resources of their land, would be equal partners–could open the way.

Let missionaries and schoolmasters, the plough and the spade, go together, and agriculture will flourish; the avenues to legitimate commerce will be opened; confidence between man and man will be inspired; whilst civilization will advance as the natural effect, and Christianity operate as the proximate cause of this happy change.[14]

Buxton saw Africans as the evangelists and civilizers of Africa, with Sierra Leone and the West Indies providing an independent, educated mission force. In human as in economic terms, his vision was the liberation of Africa, under the leading of Providence, out of her own resources.

In 1840 European knowledge of inland Africa was very sketchy. Buxton saw the great rivers of Africa as highways. He proposed that the British government should commission an expedition to the Niger, concluding treaties with African rulers promising regular steamer trade in return for an embargo on slave selling, and investigating the possibilities for agricultural, commercial, and technological development.

The Niger Expedition

The political climate was unusually favorable. The government accepted the proposal. Buxton received the honor of a baronetcy. The expedition was prepared with elaborate care: specially designed ships, high quality commanders, hand-picked crews, a team of agricultural and scientific experts. The Church Missionary Society was invited to send observers. The Prince Consort inspected the vessels and presided at a vast public meeting. In Sierra Leone a company of interpreters and auxiliaries joined the vessels, people who had once been taken as slaves from the areas the expedition was to visit.

In mid-August 1841 the expedition entered one of the mouths of the Niger. Early in October the last of its ships was limping back, its commander prostrated by fever, the cabins crammed with sick and dying, the geologist working the engines with the aid of a textbook. Those seven weeks cost forty-one European lives.[15]

It was the end of publicly sponsored schemes for the redemption of Africa. Satirists had a field day.[16] Buxton, discredited and heartbroken, died little more than two years after the disaster.

Buxton and the Christian Significance of Africa

In assessing the legacy of Buxton it is well to begin with this, his greatest failure.

Buxton himself did not believe that the disaster invalidated the argument of The African Slave Trade and its Remedy: “We know how the evil is to be cured; that it is to be done by native agency; by coloured ministers of the Gospel. Africa is to be delivered by her own sons!”[17]

The Niger Expedition helped to concentrate minds on what missions had long agreed in principle: the key to the evangelization of Africa was the preparation of an African mission force. Not a single African member of the expedition had even been seriously ill. Sierra Leone’s Christian community, which had come from all over West Africa after being uprooted by the slave trade was the nucleus of a missionary force, already equipped with the necessary languages. One of the expedition’s missionary observers was the Yoruba ex-captive and future Christian bishop, Samuel Adjai Crowther; his outstanding qualities showed the potential available in Sierra Leone.

The few years following the Niger Expedition saw unprecedented expansion in African missions. Missions were established further inland than before; there was more investment in African education, more trust in Africans as missionaries. The Church Missionary Society opened its Yoruba mission with Crowther as an ordained member of a mission party containing other Sierra Leoneans. His later ministry was spent with a Sierra Leonean staff, evangelizing the area through which the Niger Expedition sailed, or had meant to sail. Against all the early evidence, Africa became the most productive field of mission endeavor. Buxton had grasped the Christian significance of Africa ahead of most of his contemporaries.

As for the West Indies, his book was read there, and Caribbean Christians were so stirred by it that they moved for a mission to Africa. The Calabar Mission, later a proud boast of Scottish churchmen, began rather against the advice of prudent Edinburgh. Its original membership, white and black, ordained and lay, came from Jamaica, on the initiative of a Jamaican presbytery. It was one of a series of Caribbean initiatives, now largely forgotten, but traceable to the legacy of Buxton.[18]

Mid-century missions worked on Buxtonian principles. The Yoruba Mission party took Sierra Leonean builders and carpenters (who were also catechists and teachers) and introduced machinery and printing and newspapers as well as churches and schools. They inhibited the growth of a slaving economy by showing that cotton growing was a viable substitute.[19]

Two of the best-known names in mid-century missions are true heirs of Buxton. Henry Venn became a secretary of the Church Missionary Society (of which Buxton was a vice president) during the Niger Expedition period. In his practical, evangelical vision, missionaries were asked to report on seeds and soils; mission supporters might be asked for machinery, or specialist advice, or the services of their firm to import Yoruba cotton. Buxton had foreseen the African evangelization of Africa; Venn spelled out the formula of a self-governing, self-supporting, self-propagating church with both godly African bishops and skilled African mechanics. A self-governing church needed leaders on a par with missionaries; a self-supporting church needed a viable economic base.[20]

The whole life of David Livingstone (who as a missionary candidate was at the Niger Expedition sendoff) embodies Buxton principles. He shared Buxton’s belief in the efficacy of legitimate commerce to displace the slave trade, and even his mistaken predilection for rivers as the key to Africa. He knew at first hand the colonial abuses that roused Buxton. He shared Buxton’s active hatred of slavery and his belief in African dignity. His famous words at Cambridge in 1857, “I go back to Africa to try to make an open path for commerce and Christianity,” can only be understood with Buxton’s work in mind.[21]

The Inheritance

In less than fifty years from Buxton’s death virtually the whole of Africa was divided between the Western powers, and monopoly companies took their pleasure with great tracts of the Continent. Neither in concept nor in deed was this the legacy of Buxton. Buxton loathed what was done in most existing colonies, and sought no empire, political or commercial. He looked for a free partnership in which Africa and the West would share economic benefits, technological resources, a common discourse of ideas, and deep-rooted Christian faith:

I firmly believe that, if commercial countries consulted only their true interests… they would make the most resolute and persevering attempts to raise up Africa–not to divide her broad territory amongst them, nor to enslave her people, but in order to elevate her into something like an equality with themselves, for their reciprocal benefit.[22]

Buxton gave shape and direction to ideas accepted in the Christian constituency of his time. He was certainly not an original theologian; he used the standard evangelical expressions of his day. That faith involved the application of the Gospel to all of life and all the world. He would have been puzzled by a phrase like “holistic mission” and bewildered by some modern debates about it. But whenever someone today raises in Christ’s name a voice on behalf of the voiceless; or seeks in that name to bless a people with better crops, or renew land ravaged by warfare; to build free and open relationships with people despised or exploited, or to demonstrate to their own nation its responsibility for another’s sufferings–Fowell Buxton was there first.

Andrew F. Walls


  1. Buxton’s descendents reflect another form of his legacy. Several were distinguished figures in anti-slavery and social reform. Others (including his grandson Barclay Fowell Buxton in Japan and his great grandson Alfred Barclay Buxton in Congo and Ethiopia) played an important part in mission developments. The family relationships by marriage–Barclays, Grubbs, Hookers, Studds–would provide a map of a large sector of the British evangelical world.

  2. Charles Buxton, ed., Memoirs of Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, Baronet (London, 1848; Philadelphia, 1849), p. 139.

  3. Ibid., p. 46.

  4. Thomas F. Buxton, The African Slave Trade and its Remedy (London: Murray, 1839-40; repr. 6, Frank Cass, London, 1867), p. 529.

  5. See especially Roger Anstey, The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition (London: Macmillan, 1975).

  6. Buxton, Letter to John Philip 10.11.1830, Memoirs, p. 209.

  7. Buxton, Letter to Mrs. Upcher, 23.5.1838, Memoirs, p. 364.

  8. On Philip, see A. C. Ross, John Philip (1775-1851): Missions, Race and Politics in South Africa (Aberdeen University Press, 1986) and Philip’s own rumbustious Researches in South Africa; illustrating the civil, moral, and religious condition of the native tribes (London, 1838).

  9. T. F. Buxton, Letter to Miss Gurney, 18.3.1837, Memoirs, pp. 314ff.

  10. Aborigines’ Report p. 4.

  11. Charles Buxton, Memoirs, p. 365.

  12. The book has a complex publishing history, since there was a private circulation version for government ministers, separate publication of part one, and revisions of it thereafter. See the preface to the Cass reprint. References here are to the second edition, 1840.

  13. T. F. Buxton, African Slave Trade, p. 8.

  14. Ibid, p. 511.

  15. There are accounts of the expedition in William Allen and T. R. H. Thomson, Narrative of the Expedition sent by Her Majesty’s Government to the River Niger in 1841 (London, 1848) and Journals of the Rev. James Frederick Schon and Mr. Samuel Crowther who accompanied the expedition up the Niger… (London, 1842).

  16. See the ludicrous scheme for a coffee colony at “Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger,” in Dickens’ Bleak House.

  17. Memoirs p. 471.

  18. An account by participant in Hope Masterton Waddell, Twenty-nine years in the West Indies and Central Africa, London, 1863.

  19. Accounts in S. O. Biobaku, The Egba and their Neighbours (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975) and J. F. Ade Ayayi, Christian Missions in Nigeria: The Making of a New Elite (London: Longmans 1965).

  20. On Venn, see W. R. Shenk, Henry Venn–Missionary Statesman (Mary-knoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1983). A good example of Venn’s Buxtonian thought is his West African Colonies (London, 1865).

  21. David Livingstone, Cambridge Lectures… (Cambridge, 1858) p. 24. On the connection between Buxton, Venn, and Livingstone see further Andrew F. Walls, “The Legacy of David Livingstone,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 11, no. 3 (July 1987): 125-29.

  22. T. F. Buxton, African Slave Trade, p. 525.


Buxton’s only major writing is The African Slave Trade and its Remedy. London: Murray 1839-40. Reprinted by Frank Cass, London, 1967. Various speeches, pamphlets and contributions to the Anti-Slavery Reporter were published but have not been collected.

Charles Buxton, ed. Memoirs of Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, Baronet.* London, 1848; Philadelphia, 1849. It gives generous selections of Buxton’s correspondence. A modern scholarly study is needed.

Report of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Aboriginal Tribes (British Settlements). Reprinted with comments by the Aborigines Protection Society, London, 1837.

R. Anstey. “The pattern of British abolitionism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” In Anti-slavery, Religion and Reform, edited by C. Bolt and S. Drescher. Folkestone: Dawson, 1980.

S. Drescher.* Econocide: British slavery and the Slave Trade in the era of abolition.* Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1977.


Taken from Jesse Page, The Black Bishop – Samuel Adjai Crowther. London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., Ltd, 1910.

This article, is reproduced, with permission, from the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Apr. 91, Vol. 15 Issue 2, p. 74-78, copyright© 1991, edited by G. H. Anderson, J. M. Phillips, and R. T. Coote. All rights reserved.

External link

Encyclopaedia Britannica (complete article): Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, 1st Baronet