William Wilberforce, born in August of 1759, was a powerful advocate for the abolition of slavery in the then extensive British Empire. Great Britain’s involvement in the promulgation of slavery was, for most part, driven by economic and commercial interests that spanned the globe. The industrial revolution that began in England, was essentially financed by its colonial activities that embraced slavery.
Wilberforce was born into a wealthy and influential family in Hull, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, England. Following his father’s untimely death in 1768, his mother sent her nine-year old son to his affluent uncle and aunt who had residences at St. James’ Place, London and Wimbledon. He eventually became very attached to his “new” family. His mother, however, was a member of England’s traditional Anglican Church and was concerned about her son’s exposure to Evangelical Christianity and had him return to her at the age of 12. It was his Aunt Hannah who was especially influential in this regard.
At eighteen years of age (1777), Wilberforce attended St. John’s College in Cambridge University. He was not an exceptional student; he already had an inheritance and was not particularly motivated. However, there be became close friends with William Pitt who would later become Prime Minister (1783-1801 and 1804-1806). Nearing the end of his stay at Cambridge, Wilberforce decided to run for Parliament and won a seat at the age of 21 as an independent.
While he was in Parliament, he distinguished himself as an eloquent speaker. There, he met James Ramsay in 1783 and for the first time the subject of slavery was discussed. The Reverend James Ramsay (1733 – 1789) was a ship's surgeon, Anglican priest, and was a leader in the abolitionist movement. This relationship signaled a change in Wilberforce’s perception. Between 1784 and 1786, Wilberforce seemed to have experienced an intense religious conversion. As a result, he was tempted to abandon his political ambitions; however, his good friend and mentor John Newton encouraged him to use his political position to push for social reform. John Newton was an Anglican clergyman and former slave ship master who eventually spoke out against the slave trade. In 1789, Wilberforce witnessed his country’s loss of the American Colonies after its defeat in the American Revolutionary War. This may have impressed upon him the reality of a shrinking British Empire as further encouragement for the need for major reform.
Using his new-found religious conviction, Wilberforce began to lead, guided by conscience. The slave trade and the abhorrent character of slavery, inspired him to become a forceful advocate for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade. He was encouraged by Sir Charles Middleton to represent the cause in Parliament. Charles Middleton was a British Royal Naval officer who, in his later years, played a critical role in the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. He was also influenced by the writings of Rev. James Ramsay (as mentioned earlier). Furthermore, in 1787, Wilberforce was introduced to Thomas Clarkson who gave him a copy of his treatise on slavery entitled, “Essay on Slavery.” They joined together in a collaborative effort to abolish the slave trade that lasted nearly a half of a century.
The following is Wilberforce’s impassioned speech in support of the abolition of slavery to the Parliament in 1789 in its entirety –
“When I consider the magnitude of the subject which I am to bring before the House—a subject, in which the interests, not of this country, nor of Europe alone, but of the whole world, and of posterity, are involved: and when I think, at the same time, on the weakness of the advocate who has undertaken this great cause—when these reflections press upon my mind, it is impossible for me not to feel both terrified and concerned at my own inadequacy to such a task. But when I reflect, however, on the encouragement which I have had, through the whole course of a long and laborious examination of this question, and how much candor I have experienced, and how conviction has increased within my own mind, in proportion as I have advanced in my labours;—when I reflect, especially, that however averse any gentleman may now be, yet we shall all be of one opinion in the end;—when I turn myself to these thoughts, I take courage—I determine to forget all my other fears, and I march forward with a firmer step in the full assurance that my cause will bear me out, and that I shall be able to justify upon the clearest principles, every resolution in my hand, the avowed end of which is, the total abolition of the slave trade. I wish exceedingly, in the outset, to guard both myself and the House from entering into the subject with any sort of passion. It is not their passions I shall appeal to—I ask only for their cool and impartial reason; and I wish not to take them by surprise, but to deliberate, point by point, upon every part of this question. I mean not to accuse any one, but to take the shame upon myself, in common, indeed, with the whole parliament of Great Britain, for having suffered this horrid trade to be carried on under their authority. We are all guilty - we ought all to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others; and I therefore deprecate every kind of reflection against the various descriptions of people who are more immediately involved in this wretched business. Having now disposed of the first part of this subject, I must speak of the transit of the slaves in the West Indies. This I confess, in my own opinion, is the most wretched part of the whole subject. So much misery condensed in so little room, is more than the human imagination had ever before conceived. I will not accuse the Liverpool merchants: I will allow them, nay, I will believe them to be men of humanity; and I will therefore believe, if it were not for the enormous magnitude and extent of the evil which distracts their attention from individual cases, and makes them think generally, and therefore less feelingly on the subject, they would never have persisted in the trade. I verily believe therefore, if the William Wilberforce’s 1789 Abolition Speech National History Day 2007 61 wretchedness of any one of the many hundred Negroes stowed in each ship could be brought before their view, and remain within the sight of the African Merchant, that there is no one among them whose heart would bear it. Let anyone imagine to himself 6 or 700 of these wretches chained two and two, surrounded with every object that is nauseous and disgusting, diseased, and struggling under every kind of wretchedness! How can we bear to think of such a scene as this? One would think it had been determined to heap upon them all the varieties of bodily pain, for the purpose of blunting the feelings of the mind; and yet, in this very point (to show the power of human prejudice) the situation of the slaves has been described by Mr. Norris, one of the Liverpool delegates, in a manner which, I am sure will convince the House how interest can draw a film across the eyes, so thick, that total blindness could do no more; and how it is our duty therefore to trust not to the reasonings of interested men, or to their way of colouring a transaction... As soon as ever I had arrived thus far in my investigation of the slave trade, I confess to you sir, so enormous so dreadful, so irremediable did its wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for the abolition. A trade founded in iniquity, and carried on as this was, must be abolished, let the policy be what it might - let the consequences be what they would, I from this time determined that I would never rest till I had effected its abolition.”
After years of concerted effort during which time public sentiment in favor of abolition grew, Wilberforce put forth a bill called the Slave Trade Act that made it illegal for slave owners to participate in the trading of slaves with the French colonies. Although this bill fell short of an entire ban on the slave trade, it reduced the slave trade by 75% - it was a masterful piece of legislation. It became law in 1807.
However, the battle was not yet won. Finally, in 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed. This act made slavery illegal in most parts of the Empire. Just three days after this monumental reform in British law and custom, Wilberforce died on July 29, 1833.
Without Wilberforce’s persistent and undaunted efforts to end the support of slavery In the British Empire, it probably would not have happened in a timely fashion. It would take some thirty years before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863} that ended slavery in the United States in the midst of the disastrous American Civil War.
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