William Wilberforce’s Fight Against Slavery

Anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce was horrified by the plight of slaves from Africa
Anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce was horrified by the plight of slaves from Africa

by Ray Setterfield


July 29, 1833 — Every year in the late 1700s English traders would raid the coast of Africa, capture between 35,000 to 50,000 Africans, ship them across the Atlantic and sell them into slavery. It was a highly profitable business and it had been going on for centuries.

Present day estimates are that up to 12.8 million Africans were involved over a 400-year period. The horrific conditions in which they were transported – almost like sardines in a can – meant that over two million of them are thought to have died on the journey.

For his part, William Wilberforce knew and cared little about it. As a fun-loving teenager he was more interested in playing cards, theatre-going, gambling and late-night drinking sessions.

But in later life his eyes were opened when he became an evangelical Christian, a conversion that brought major changes to his lifestyle and a lifelong concern for others.

Persuaded to join the campaign against slavery and faced with evidence of its horrors, he wrote: "So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the [slave] trade's wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would: I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.”

Wilberforce was born in 1759 at Kingston upon Hull in the north-east of England, the son of a wealthy merchant. His grandfather had twice been elected Mayor of the town.

At 17, he began studying at Cambridge University where he made many friends including the future Prime Minister, William Pitt. Wilberforce’s life at Cambridge was made easier by the deaths of his grandfather and uncle in 1777, which left him independently wealthy.

Encouraged by Pitt, Wilberforce decided to enter politics and in 1780 he was elected Member of Parliament for his home town of Kingston upon Hull when he was just 21 and still a student. It was said that he had spent £8,000 buying votes, but this was accepted practice at the time.

He was an eloquent and impressive speaker in Parliament. After watching him, Samuel Johnson’s biographer, the diarist James Boswell, wrote: “I saw what seemed a mere shrimp . . . but as I listened, he grew, and grew, until the shrimp became a whale.”

Under the influence of campaigner Thomas Clarkson, Wilberforce took up the fight against slavery. According to the Christian History website, “he was initially optimistic, even naively so. He expressed ‘no doubt’ about his chances of quick success. As early as 1789, he and Clarkson introduced 12 resolutions against the slave trade – only to be outmanoeuvred on fine legal points.

“The pathway to abolition was blocked by vested interests, parliamentary filibustering, entrenched bigotry, international politics, slave unrest, personal sickness, and political fear. Bills introduced by Wilberforce were defeated in 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805.”

The trade in slaves was prominent in the West Indies and one supporter of it, writing at the time, showed the scale of opposition that Wilberforce faced: "The impossibility of doing without slaves in the West Indies will always prevent this traffic being dropped. The necessity, the absolute necessity, then, of carrying it on, must, since there is no other, be its excuse.”

Wilberforce’s religious convictions meant that anti-slavery was by no means his only passion. As Christian History reports: “At one time he was active in support of 69 philanthropic causes and he gave away a quarter of his annual income to the poor.

“He fought on behalf of chimney sweeps, single mothers, Sunday schools, orphans, and juvenile delinquents. He helped found groups like the Society for Bettering the Cause of the Poor, the Church Missionary Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society, and, of course, the Antislavery Society.” Wilberforce also founded the world's first animal welfare organisation, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Unfortunately, he had suffered from ill health all his life, sometimes being bedridden for weeks. He wrote about the effect of this when in his late twenties: "I am . . . a prisoner, wholly unequal even to such a little business as I am now engaged in: add to which my eyes are so bad that I can scarce see how to direct my pen.”

Wilberforce turned to the new drug, opium, to combat his ailments and became addicted to it. Though offering some physical relief, he found that the hallucinations and depression that the drug inspired were terrifying.

His ill health meant eventually that he had to pass the campaign torch to others and as the 1820s progressed he increasingly became more or less just a figurehead for the abolitionist movement.

His final public anti-slavery speech came in April 1833. Then on July 26 of that year a frail Wilberforce was told of government concessions that guaranteed the passing of a Bill for the Abolition of Slavery.

The good news was not enough to trigger a recovery of his health and he died three days later, aged 73. The Slavery Abolition Act was passed the following month, abolishing slavery in most of the British Empire from August 1834.

Published: July 5, 2020

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