William Wilberforce

From Academic Kids

William Wilberforce
William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce (24 August 1759 - 29 July 1833) was an English parliamentarian and leader of the campaign against the slave trade.

Born in Hull, he was the son of a wealthy merchant who died when William was still a child. Placed under the guardianship of his uncle and aunt (a strong supporter of John Wesley), William developed an early interest in Methodism. His mother, however, was disturbed by this development and the young Wilberforce was returned to her care.

In 1776, William Wilberforce was sent to St John's College, Cambridge. He was shocked by the behaviour of most of his fellow students and later wrote: "I was introduced on the very first night of my arrival to as licentious a set of men as can well be conceived. They drank hard, and their conversation was even worse than their lives." Amongst these surroundings, he befriended William Pitt the Younger who would later become the Prime Minister.

Wilberforce decided to pursue the career of politics so he spent about nine thousand pounds to get elected as a member of parliament for Hull. In 1784, William was converted to Evangelical Christianity. Wilberforce now became interested in social reform, in particular improving working conditions in factories. Millions of men, women and children had no choice but to work sixteen hours, six days a week in grim factories. People had come to the cities to find work but had been exploited and crowded together in filthy apartments. Here, they could easily catch cholera, typhoid, and tuberculosis.

Eventually, Lady Middleton approached Wilberforce and asked him to use his power as an MP to stop the slave trade. Wilberforce wrote "I feel the great importance of the subject and I think myself unequal to the task allotted to me," but he agreed to do his best. On 12 May 1789, Wilberforce made his first speech against the slave trade. He was now seen as one of the leaders of the anti-slave trade movement.

Most of William's fellow party members, Tories, were against any limits to the slave market but Wilberforce persisted. Even when his first bill, in 1791, was defeated by a landslide of 163 votes to 88, Wilberforce did not give up. In 1805 the House of Commons finally passed a law that made it illegal for any British subject to transport slaves but the House of Lords blocked it. In 1807, a man called William Grenville made a speech which said that the slave trade was "contrary to the principles of justice, humanity and sound policy". This time, when the vote was taken, a huge majority in the House of Commons and the House of Lords backed the proposal. It became law on 25 March 1807. After 1807, with the support of friends such as Beilby Porteus, the Bishop of London, he continued to fight for the complete emancipation of slaves in the British Empire.

Although British captains were fined 100 for every slave that was found aboard their ship, this did not stop the trade. If a slave-ship was in danger of being captured by the Navy, the captain would order the slaves to be thrown overboard in order to reduce the fine. Some of the campaigners realised that the only way to stop slavery completely was to make it illegal. Wilberforce disagreed with this because he knew that both the slaves and their owners would suffer as a result. "It would be wrong to emancipate (the slaves). To grant freedom to them immediately would be to insure not only their masters' ruin, but their own. They must (first) be trained and educated for freedom."

Eventually, William was persuaded to join the campaign but he did not have much effect. Having retired in 1825, he did not play an important role. His fellow MP, Thomas Fowell Buxton continued to lead the abolition movement in Parliament. William Wilberforce died on 29 July 1833, a month before the Slavery Abolition Act was passed (an act which gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom).

Although William Wilberforce is most famous for his work towards the abolition of slavery, Wilberforce was also concerned with other matters.

The East India Company was set up to give the English a share in the East Indian spice trade (before the Spanish Armada, Portugal and Spain had monopolised the market). In 1793, the East India Company had to renew its charter and William Wilberforce suggested adding clauses to enable the company to employ religious teachers with the aim of 'introducing Christian light into India.' He had also tried to set up a mission in India. This plan was unsuccessful but Wilberforce tried again in 1813 when the charter had to be renewed again. Wilberforce, using many petitions and various statistics, managed to persuade the House of Commons to include the clauses. This resulted in the foundation of the Bishopric of Calcutta. He was also a founder member of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

William Wilberforce was a very dedicated man, compelled into religious action by his religious faith. Wilberforce wrote "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners."

'Let thy continual mercy, O Lord, enkindle in thy Church the never-failing gift of charity, that, following the example of thy servant William Wilberforce, we may have grace to defend the children of the poor, and maintain the cause of those who have no helper; for the sake of him who gave his life for us, thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever.'

The 17th-century house in which he was born is today Wilberforce House museum in Kingston upon Hull.

His children included Samuel Wilberforce and Henry William Wilberforce.

Further Reading

  • Hochschild, Adam Bury the Chain Boston,2005 Excellent story of the British Abolishionist movement

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