William Wilberforce Is known in history as one of the most vocal people that fought for and brought about the abolition of the slave trade. It has been contested by some that even tough he fought for the end to slave trade, his idea of sending the “freed slaves” to the African colony of Sierra Leone to be trained before being released of slavery was a form of slavery in itself.
William Wilberforce was born in 1759 to a wealthy merchant Robert Wilberforce and his wife Elizabeth Bird. William’s father passed away when he was of the young age of seven and he was put in the care of his aunt and uncle. His mother decided to bring him back home because she did not agree with some of the beliefs of his aunt and uncle.
At the young age of 17, William was sent to St John’s College (University of Cambridge) where he made a good friend William Pitt who would later on become the youngest ever prime minister of Britain.
At the early age of twenty, William took a great interest in politics and would eventually join parliament after going against a very wealthy noble by the name of Charles Watson- Wentworth. Once he made it into parliament, he supported the government of William Pitt who was his friend from his university days. Unlike most young members of the house, William was noted due to his eloquence and charm which came with the fact that he was wealthy.
Wilberforce had many accomplishments by all standards. He was a pioneer in the field of philanthropy (he either started or provided leadership in 69 charities). He created the society for the prevention of cruelty to animal, etc. However his greatest accomplishment was his vigorous fight to end the slave trade.
William became an Evangelical Christian which made him sympathetic to social injustices. After studying slavery with particular emphasis on the middle passage, he jumped into action and explained to parliament “so enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the trade’s wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would, I from this time determined that I will never rest until I have affected its abolition.” He believed in his ability to impact the abolition that on October 28, 1797 he wrote in his journal “God almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the Reformation manners”.
William was a friend and pier to Pastor and author of the very popular Negro spiritual Hymn Amazing Grace John Newton. In his new found spirituality and surrounding himself with people such as Newton who had actively participated in the transportation of slaves and was able to tell him of the horrors that occurred, he was even more determined to bring about the abolition. William was a bold advocated for Social justices.
Slavery has existed in one form or another since 2600 B.C as history tells us. This was mostly seen in places such as Egypt. Slavery became very lucrative in the 15th century in Europe. Britain of course was not a stranger in the rush to cash in on this trade of humans. British ships sailed from ports such as Liverpool and Bristol with goods such as gunpowder, firearms, alcohol, mirrors, jewelry, knives etc. These goods were given to African chiefs in exchange for prisoners of war from intertribal African wars. The chiefs gave these prisoners to the Ship captains in exchange for these gifts. Most of the time when Blacks talk about slavery, they talk about Africans being caught in the middle of the night and taken aboard ships or villages being attacked and people taken away. While this did happen, they forget the part in history where “brothers” sold their own “brothers, mothers, sisters, children etc” in exchange for the gifts the “white man” brought.
The conditions under which these slaves were transported were horrendous. They were often packed tightly into the bowels of the ships with no space to move. Some were chained down. They had to eat, sleep and pass waste in these quarters which often let to diseases and death. Those that died were thrown over board into the ocean. Those that had survived the journey were sold to plantation owners in places like the West Indies, colonies of America (Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia) where they were made to work producing goods such as cotton, sugar cane, tobacco etc. These goods were then shipped back to Britain for immense profits.
What made Wilberforce tick was a profound Biblical allegiance to what he called the “peculiar doctrines” of Christianity. These, he said, give rise, in turn, to true affections – what we might call “passion” or “emotions” for spiritual things, which, in turn, break the power of pride and greed and fear, and then lead to transformed morals which, in turn, lead to the political welfare of the nation. He said, “If a principle of true Religion [that is true Christianity] should gain ground, there is no estimating the effects on public morals, and the consequent influence on our political welfare.” He believed that the practice of slave trade was a gross moral wrong and went against everything Christian.
William was plague by ill health and became very ill after he accepted to take on the task against the slave trade; some scholars have attributed his health failure to the stress that came with this task. However that only delayed his drive but did not stop him because in 1791 he presented his first bill to the House of Commons which was easily defeated.
When Wilberforce delivered his bill for the abolition of slave trade, it took him three and a half hours with 12 resolutions to abolish the trade. Reports were later written that the speech was the most gripping and moving speech ever delivered in parliament. William Pitt declared that Wilberforce “the greatest natural eloquence of all men I ever knew”.
At this stage he was fighting a loosing battle because most of the lords and other nobles had a vested interest in this slave trade. Abolishing the slave trade was seen as an issue that was going to have dire consequences on the economy which in fact was true because workers were needed for the fields and mills. This did not deter William because in 1805 at his insistence and that of others in his corner such as Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp, the House of Commons passed a bill that made it illegal for any British person to participate in the transportation of slaves. Unfortunately for them this did not become law as it was blocked by the House of Lords. However with much persuasion, the House of Lords passed the bill and it became law on March 25 1807.
William believed that instead of the slaves to be just freed outright, they needed to be trained so they could do something for themselves in stead of becoming a burden to the “crown” or turning to petty crime to survive. Hence the creation of the colony Sierra Leone where the “freed slaves” will be taken and trained. History states that this was no freedom and some historians claim that the slaves were taken to Freetown the capital and were put to work. It has been written that they were required to work as “apprentices” for 14 years than will be freed and even though most of them were freed sooner it was still a form of slavery.
These practices were called scandalous and William Wilberforce along with others who fought for the abolition of slave trade were accused of another form of slavery.
Whatever the case with the passing of the Law of March 25th 1807 it was made more difficult even though it did not stop it completely for British captains to trade in slaves as those who were caught were asked to pay a fine of 100 pounds per head of slave found on their ship. Even though things were so the slave trade was not abolished completely or made completely illegal and William Wilberforce spoke out strongly against it. Even though he resigned from the House of Commons in 1825 he still spoke out against it and wrote articles on the atrocities of the slave trade. He called for the complete abolishment to all parts of the empire including its colonies. On July 26 1833 the Bill passed completely abolishing the slave trade.
William Wilberforce died three days after the bill was passed on July 29th 1833. He saw his wishes come true . Sure he did not fight this fight by himself but you can never talk about the abolition of the slave trade and not talk about Wilberforce. His drive and his belief in the injustices of man being owned by man and being of indecisive servitude was wrong. That belief made him many enemies but he stood his ground and will forever be remembered in history as one of the loudest voices in the abolition of the slave trade.
Wilberforce fought not only for the eradication of the slave trade in British Empire, he worked with other countries such as the US and organizations such as the African Institute to enforce and promote the abolition.
In the words of the emancipated leader Frederick Douglas who saluted Wilberforce for his determination by saying “that finally thawed the British heart into sympathy for the slave, and moved the strong arm of the government in mercy to put an end to this bondage. Let no American, especially no colored American, withhold generous recognition of this stupendous achievement. A triumph of right over wrong, of good over evil, and a victory for the whole human race.
James Stephen who knew William well said “factories do not spring up faster in Leeds and Manchester than the schemes of benevolence beneath his roof”.
To understand the importance of Wilberforce in the fight of the abolition of slave trade, all one has to do is look at the accolade from those others that fought very hard as well Such as Thomas Clarkson who said in reference to Wilberforce "I cannot but look back to those happy days when we began our labors together; or rather when we worked together - for he began before me - and we made the first step towards that great object, the completion of which is the purpose of our assembling this day."
This impacts me because being African, I might not be in the position I am in today because if the slave trade was not abolished, who is to say my great grand father or mother would not have been traded as a slave especially because I come from a former colony of great Britain and many of my direct ancestors were traded. I am grateful to the conscience and fight of great men such as William Wilberforce who fought to end one of the greatest atrocities of mankind; the salve trade.
Although the abolition of the slave trade created financials hardships and downfalls in Britain, its colonies and other parts of the world, it is one the greatest achievements of mankind towards each other. It created a world where man feels valued and equal to one another without the fear of being put into forced servitude and cruelty. We of course are not self deceptive in our thinking that the abolition eradicated the inequalities amongst man based on race, status etc but it can be said to be the single hugest step that started mankind in the direction of equality.