Detail of an illustration of Wilberforce House - birthplace of anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce

Early life

William Wilberforce was born in Hull on 24 August 1759, the only son of a Hull merchant whose wealth derived from the Baltic trade. The family had originally come from the village of Wilberfoss near York. William attended Hull Grammar School but his Hull schooldays were cut short by the death of his father and he was placed in the care of his uncle and aunt at Wimbledon. He later attended Pocklington Grammar School and St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he met William Pitt, the future Prime Minister. William became interested in politics and was elected MP for Hull in 1780. Four years later he became MP for Yorkshire, a very influential position.

Spiritual Crisis

Wilberforce enjoyed the theatres, clubs and parties of London society and was quickly accepted for his wit, charm and conversation. However he was soon to turn his back on this busy social life. A tour of Europe with Isaac Milner in 1785 marked the beginnings of Wilberforce’s conversion to Evangelical Christianity. He discussed his spiritual crisis with the Rev. John Newton, the Rector of St. Mary Woolworth who had been a slave trader before his conversion.

Newton persuaded Wilberforce to stay in public life and Wilberforce joined the group of leading Evangelical Christians who lived at Clapham and were later to be known as the “Clapham Sect”. Not long afterwards he was approached by several Abolitionists who asked him to take up the cause of slavery. In 1787, during a conversation with Pitt and Grenville, Wilberforce decided to give notice of his intention to raise the subject in the House of Commons.

Abolition of the Slave Trade

Wilberforce led the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade in Parliament, whilst the Abolition society collected evidence and organised petitions. Leaflets, songs and badges were distributed to rally public opinion. However, their opponents were also well organised and fought back with their own propaganda. The progress of abolition was halted by the outbreak of the French revolution and a slave rebellion in San Domingo, but in 1807 the Act to abolish the Slave trade was finally passed, a great victory for Wilberforce and his friends. They believed that slaves would now be treated more humanely as the supply of slaves dwindled, but the illegal slave trade flourished.

Five years later, Wilberforce resigned his Yorkshire seat in favour of a quieter constituency, preferring to spend more time with his family. During his final years in the Commons he was attacked for not helping the poor in Britain. In 1815 he supported the Corn Laws which raised the price of corn and three years later approved harsh laws following the Peterloo massacre.

Wilberforce died on 29 July 1833, believing the abolition of slavery to be within reach. On his deathbed he heard that the Bill to free all slaves in the British colonies had passed its second reading in the Commons. “Thank God”, he said “that I should have lived to witness a day in which England is willing to give twenty millions sterling for the Abolition of Slavery”. A month after his death the Bill became law.

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