People of Yorkshire Volume 17 – William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce was a politician and humanitarian campaigner whose work helped to abolish the slave trade in the UK. It was his dedication to the cause and determination to overcome the many obstacles that lay before him that makes him a great historical Yorkshireman.

Wilberforce was born in 1759 on the High Street of Hull, nowadays known as the “old town.” He was educated firstly at the city’s grammar school, and then Pocklington School, after a brief spell living in London with his auntie and uncle after his father died.

Painting of William Willberforce, Picture Credia John Riaing, Wikipedia, Public Domain
Painting of Wiliam Willberforce, Picture Credia John Riaing, Wikipedia, Public Domain

He then went to St John’s College, Cambridge where he met the future Prime Minister, William Pitt. The two became friends and would watch The House of Commons Debates together from the public gallery. He also drank and gambled his recently received family inheritance money. On graduation from University, he decided to use some of this new wealth to better effect and run for Parliament in 1780. He won a seat in his native Kingston-upon Hull as an independent candidate. This meant that he was not tied to a particular party, neither Tory nor Whig and so gave him the freedom to vote with his conscience, rather than it being forced by a party whip. However it also meant that should he propose any new legislation he would have to find support from the other parties in order for it to be passed.

In 1784 Wilberforce went on a tour of Europe, which would ultimately change his life and re-discover his Christian faith. Gone were the days of gambling and avarice enjoyed in his student days. He dedicated himself to a path which followed god for the good of the country. He would use his position, initially to try and pass laws on social reform, factory conditions and public health and then later in his career, slavery.

At the time Great Britain was heavily involved with the International slave trade. Although there were never any plantations on these shores, such as in the USA, the UK grew rich from the business by sending sales supplies to Africa, such as copper, cloth, guns and ammunition. These would then be traded for African slaves, who were shipped over to the Caribbean and America. The money raised through selling them to plantation owners would be used to buy products such as sugar, cotton and rum to be brought back to Britain for consumption.

In 1787, Wilberforce met the abolitionist, Thomas Clarkson, and joined his movement, The Society for the Abolition of the slave trade.” Clarkson and Wilberforce would meet regularly to read and discuss issues surrounding slavery, including the terrible conditions and lack of human rights they endured. In the same year a discussion between Wilberforce and his old friend, William Pitt, then Prime Minister encouraged his friend to raise a motion in Parliament to abolish slavery.

Speaking passionately on the issue in the House of Commons in 1789 he said

I mean not to accuse anyone, but to take the shame upon myself, in common indeed, with the whole parliament of Great Britain for having suffered this horrible trade to be carried on under their authority.”

The motion however was defeated by 163 votes to 88. The problem was that too many MPs and the establishment at the time had a stake in the slave trade. Great wealth was being created for the country and the people in the corridors of power of the 1790s were not going to get rid of it easily. Undeterred Wilberforce tried again to instigate another abolishment law in 1792, where it was decided under the influence of Home secretary, Henry Dundas, that abolition should be a “gradual process over several years.” Although this may have seemed like progress, the idea was seen by many as a way of delaying the decision forever, while seeking to appease the reformers in the process. In 1793 war was declared on France and so any suggestion of disrupting the slave trade, an important source of income during times of conflict were talked down and dismissed as rebellious talk. The previously vocal abolition society stopped meeting and Thomas Clarkson, retired to the Lake District in 1795. Wilberforce continued in Parliament, unsuccessfully attempting to introduce new anti-slavery bills with little success.

Attitudes though were to slowly change. During the war, Napoleon’s France re-introduced slavery to their African colonies and so from a British point of view, the abolition of the trade was suddenly seen as being anti-French. A more invigorated Clarkson re-joined the fold in 1804 and the society began meeting again, complete with new members. A new bill was introduced in the same year, which was passed in the Commons, but ran out of time in the session to be voted on by the House of Lords. A second Commons vote in 1805 ended up with the bill being rejected again. Even Prime minister, William Pitt, who had supported Wilberforce throughout the process voted against it. A new tactic was needed. Indeed a new bill was proposed, this time introducing a new law which meant that British Citizens could not be involved with aiding the French slave trade. This made sense to many MPs as it seemed silly to help a nation of which they were at war with.

Moreover the movement to abolish slavery was given a further boost when Pitt died, and Lord Grenville became the new Prime Minister. He was in favour of abolishing slavery and the issue had been one of the biggest reasons why he had been voted into power. Members of the military, who had seen the horrors of slavery themselves during service in the Napoleonic war suddenly turned in favour of abolishing the trade too. Furthermore the 1806 Act of Union allowed 100 pro-abolition Irish MPs into the House of Commons too. Together with Wilberforce he promised to set the wheels in motion in order for an 1807 bill to be launched and passed, first in the House of Lords and then the Commons, the opposite way round to normal laws. The idea worked and the 1807 The Slave Trade Act received Royal assent in March of that year.

The act did not abolish slavery altogether, but made it illegal for British ships to carry slaves on them, meaning that the trade stopped altogether in the colonies. The act did not free people who were already slaves but at least prevented their flow across the Atlantic.

In his later years Wilberforce, despite failing health led the campaign to abolish slavery altogether, along with his many followers, including religious groups, women and like-minded politicians. Throughout the intervening years from 1807 to 1832 a raft of European countries signed agreements with Britain to abolish or reduce their trades, including Sweden, Portugal, The Netherlands, Spain and notably France.

Enforcing the ban was a difficult job. The Royal Navy patrolled the seas fining captains £100 per slave aboard their boats. Some were thrown overboard if they saw an approaching Navy ship.

Throughout the 1820s Wilberforce continued his work to fully abolish slavery worldwide. Due to his age and ill health he took more of a political back seat and became a figurehead for the emancipation cause, leaving the majority of the work to his friend and fellow MP, Thomas Fowell Buxton. In 1823 the Anti-Slavery Society was set up, a follow on from the original 1787 group.

Wilberforce resigned his seat in the Commons due to failing health in 1826 but continued chairing meetings, leading petitions and making speeches on the subject, while Fowell – Buxton continued to promote the campaign inside the Houses of Parliament.

The 1832 Reform Act enabled more people to vote and as slavery was becoming a national issue, more pro abolition MPs were voted into power. This paved the way for the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act which would end slavery for good in the British Empire and emancipate African 800,000 slaves mainly in the West Indies and all children under six. A frail but ecstatic Wilberforce was told of the guaranteed passing of the bill in both houses. He died three days later.

He is buried and honoured at Westminster Abbey near his friend and adversary, William Pitt. On the day of his funeral Parliament stopped working as a mark of respect.

His achievements have been celebrated in many ways, including a statue in his hometown of Hull, as a well as the house in which he was born, which was converted into  a slavery museum. In 2006 a film, “Amazing Grace” was made about his life to commemorate two hundred years since the passing of the Slave Trade Act.

William Wilberforce showed the character of a true Yorkshireman, grit, determination plus an ability to take on the Southern-based establishment and win.