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The Oak Tree

Age has wearied it, crumpling bark and withering leaves, yet it remains stoically resolute, overseeing all. The man underneath marvels at the view, exhaling a thick mist of warm breath, drawing his jacket closer into him. His phone ringing interrupts his thoughts. He switches it off and breathes in deeply, his frown fading. He watches as a gust of wind blows the remaining leaves of the Wilberforce oak, dancing.

* * *

He was looking at me with his boyish face, clearly expecting me to agree with his propositions, yet I was still to be fully convinced. I was worried about him, his head of prematurely grey hair and dark shadows that had begun to form underneath his deep brown eyes, evidencing his unfaltering dedication. Our conversation wandered onto the familiar topic of parliamentary affairs.

‘The King’s mental health has deteriorated again,’ I said. ‘Some advisors say he has become unstable.’

He replied almost instantaneously with wishes of good health, but returned immediately to his proposition, so I questioned his sincerity, considering his desire to pass his new acts through parliament. Wilberforce’s recent revelation, the ensuing conversion and devotion to ‘God’ had perturbed me. What was the reason for such a drastic commitment?

My fine china lay across our table, embellished in the royal gold, however I could not appreciate it, for my mind was astray, distracted. Everything that surrounded me was possible due to slavery. If I fought for this cause, surely the abolishment would cause my country’s imperial economy to collapse?

Wilberforce helped himself to the sugar cubes in front of him, dropping them generously into his tea.

‘Contemplate the slaves that have laboured over items such as this,’ I challenged my friend, gesturing to the container of sugar. ‘It is an integral part of the economy, Wilberforce, and without it the entire country will inevitably collapse.’

‘I can hardly imagine how many,’ he replied, ‘but how can you compare material possession to human life? Something must be done.’

Wilberforce had managed to plant a seed in my mind, though it had yet to form roots; an eradication on such a scale would require significantly more convincing on his part. My conscience knew that this oppression was wrong, but I had to secure my position in Parliament to make this change. How am I to do this if the entire country will oppose me for this view? Can I risk the lives of my people in order to save these foreigners? My fear of the overwhelming opposition I would surely encounter clouded my judgement.

We took a leisurely stroll through the orchard, casting my mind back to our time at St John’s, a joyous time. Wilberforce had always been popular at University, a witty charmer.


‘Takes me back, this does,’ I reminisce, taking a moment to consider how distant those memories seem.

’Certainly does, old friend,’ he responded, as a smile came across his face, a smile of selfless generosity, and I was struck with sudden apprehension. My friend was facing an entire lifetime of harassment and degradation for his beliefs. Should I allow this burden to consume him? I had a moral obligation to stop him, and let another take the fall.

Wilberforce continued to press me for an answer. ‘What will it take to convince you that this must be done?’

My expression didn’t waiver. However I made it clear from my stoic stance and fixed gaze that the idea of eradicating the worldwide oppression did not sit well with my duty to the people. Many people had profited from the money made from trading human life as a commodity. Who was I to challenge such an established hierarchy?

‘Through my explorations I have come to realise the monumental struggle that is ahead of us, so I can understand your apprehension.’ He turned to me and thrust his unquestioning arm around my shoulders, leading me out of the gates.

I stopped him there, unable to drive his conviction any further.

‘William, I do not believe it can happen.’

* * *

Wilberforce met me on the bench underneath the old oak overlooking the vale of Keston a few nights later, as dusk had begun to fall. I had hoped that my abrupt ending to our conversation would have dissuaded him against his ambitions, yet it had been to no avail. He approached me with a subdued smile and raised an outstretched arm; the rejection seemed to have motivated him further. He surveyed the landscape, drinking in the air, contemplatively. He began solemnly.

‘Last week a family transported to the Isle of Man were lynched. The week before hundreds of slaves were lost at sea on the middle passage across the Atlantic. These are lives you could have saved, Pitt.’

I could sense his agitation at the senseless loss of life, but I was unable to detect whether it was anger or sadness welling inside him.

His breathing shortened and he got up and paced along the path in front of us. His tone changed, increasing in volume, almost shouting.

‘If your family were torn apart, and sent overseas, never to be seen again, would you fight against it?’

I stared at Wilberforce in admiration, at what he had become: a driven man, able to convince my conscience to follow his vision. My gaze averted to the steadfast oak behind him, a pillar of strength, with the ability to bring about change, used for oppression and victory. The timber used to carry slaves across from Africa to the colonies, yet the same material used to create the Mary Rose, the ruler of the waves. Wilberforce stood strong against the oak, a symbol of strength and determination and able to bring about a change for the better.

I ushered him to sit beside me. ‘William, I want to give you notice of a motion on the subject of the slave trade.’

This story was named runner-up for The Young Walter Scott Prize 2015 (16-19 age group).

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