William Wilberforce (1759-1833)

William Wilberforce "removed from England the guilt of the African Slave Trade, and prepared the way for the Abolition of Slavery in every Colony of the Empire" - from an inscription in Westminster Abbey, London

William Wilberforce was born into a wealthy merchant family in Kingston-upon-Hull, Yorkshire. His father died when he was nine, and he went to live with an aunt and uncle, his mother being unable to look after him. Their Methodist views shaped the mind of the young man and he grew up with a strict moral code of conduct, which, although scorned for a while, was to return and steer him through the rest of his life. It was while under their care that he was introduced to the evangelical preacher, John Newton, an ex-slaveship captain, who was to have a profound influence on his later life.

Wilberforce went to Cambridge University when he was 17. He was initially shocked at the students' behaviour (it seems it was the same then as it is now!) but soon fell in with a crowd of drinkers and gamblers. His intelligence and eloquence meant that he did not have to spend much time working and was free to indulge in these pursuits. One of his friends at university was William Pitt, who was later to become Prime Minister, and Wilberforce became greatly interested in politics. As soon as he graduated he stood for election and was duly elected as Member of Parliament for Hull at the age of 21.

His political career was fairly uneventful for a time. In 1785 he suddenly realised that he had been frittering his life away and he once again became a devout Christian. He was on the verge of giving up his seat in the House of Commons so that he could evangelise, but he was persuaded by John Newton to use his obvious talent for eloquence to fight for reform through Parliament. At this time he joined other high ranking officials in the Clapham Sect and became more and more convinced of the evils of slavery. He was asked by Lady Middleton to promote the idea of abolition of slavery in Parliament, and this set him on the path for which he is now most famous.

At first Wilberforce was of the opinion that if the slave trade was abolished owners would treat their 'property' much more humanely since there could be no replacement if they died from their mistreatment. This view made him very unpopular with the public, especially merchants and seamen; even Horatio Nelson is said to have despised him and his ideas. Such was the ill feeling towards him that he received death threats and consequently suffered a nervous breakdown. He was not deterred and fought a long and uphill battle against the establishment until finally, after 18 years, he won a majority and it became illegal to trade in slaves.

The battle was over but the war was not yet won - slavery continued to be a problem and Wilberforce continued to fight against it, at home and abroad, this time demanding their complete emancipation. It was a battle which was to take him the rest of his life, but a battle in which he was to be victorious. Wilberforce died in 1833, three days after Parliament made slavery illegal.

  • A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity (London: T. Cadell, jun. & W. Davies, 1797)
  • A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Addressed to the Freeholders of Yorkshire (London: T. Cadell & W. Davies, J. Hatchard, 1807)
  • A Letter to his Excellency the Prince of Talleyrand Perigord on the Subject of the Slave Trade (London: J. Hatchard, 1814)
  • An Appeal to the Religion, Justice, and Humanity of the inhabitants of the British Empire: in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies (London: J. Hatchard, 1823)
  • Nominal and Real Christianity Contrasted (London: Religious Tract Society, 1830). An abridgement of A Practical View
  • Wilberforce's many parliamentary speeches have never been collected into one place. Few exist in definitive versions. The most reliable versions can be found in: William Cobbett's The Parliamentary History of England. From the Norman Conquest in 1066 to the year 1803, 36 vols (London: T. Curson Hansard, 1806-1820), and Parliamentary Debates From the Year 1803 to the Present Time: Forming a Continuation of the Work Entitled "The Parliamentary History of England From the Earliest Period to the year 1803" (London: Thomas Curson Hansard, 1812-1889). A modern reprint of one version of the 1789 speech is available in: Kitson, Peter, et al, eds, Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation: Writings in the British Romantic Period, 8 vols (London: Pickering and Chatto, 1999), 2, pp. 135-151.


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