William Burge and the abolition debate

William Burge and the abolition debate

William Burge [1786 – 1849] was a British politician of the 19th century. Burge matriculated at Wadham College, Oxford, in 1803. He joined the Colonial Service, and became the Attorney General for Jamaica. 

Jamaica provided him with a number of opportunities - he married into a wealthy Somerset family with plantations in Jamaica and increased his wealth through the many slaves which worked on their property. 

Burge not only benefitted economically from but was also a strong defender of the institution of slavery on moral and ethical grounds - not only did he own slaves but he also worked hard to politically oppose the abolitionist movement. In Jamaica, he used his power to arrest and exile two out-spoken abolitionists from the island (Louis Celeste Lecesne and John Escoffery, 1823). 

Burge's career exemplifies the interesting way in which even those who defended slavery in the 19th century were forced to condemn it, while arguing that the time was not yet ripe for freedom. In 1831 he was involved in the parliamentary debate on slavery in the British Empire. During this debate he declared that abolition: 

“Must inevitably retard the progress of his civilization, and surely no man dreamt of giving him freedom until he attained that state. First, let him improve his moral character; impart onh is the truths of christianity… raise him to the state of society… Until he has acquired habits of industry, and which he could not possess until he was further advances in civilization, the gift of freedom would be worse that useless to him.”

Burge was one of many British citizens who claimed compensation for his slaves after the 1833 passage of the Slavery Aboliton Act. Burge claimed compensation for 102 slaves on two plantations in Jamaica.


Ben Graham, "A Window into Oxford's Connections with Proslavery Politics"
William Whyte, ‘Burge, William (1786-1849)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, October 2016)
William Burge, A Letter to the Right Honorable Sir George Murray Relative to the Deportation of Lecesne and Escoffery from Jamaica (London, 1829), 30.