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William Wilberforce – the first modern campaigner

January 16, 2016







One of the most interesting and inspiring books I read in 2015 was William Hague’s biography of the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce. While familiar, in general, with Wilberforce as a historical figure I did not know a great deal of the details of his life and work.  It was fascinating to learn about both the highs and lows of the battle to abolish slavery and the particular role which Wilberforce played in it.  It also made me reflect on the wider issues of challenging injustice, affecting social change and confronting vested interests.

Wilberforce was born in 1759 in Hull and, with the exception of a short but important period, when on the death of his father, he lived with his Methodist aunt and uncle in Wimbledon, was brought up and educated in East Yorkshire. His family had made their fortune in the Baltic Trade and Wilberforce had the benefit of a substantial independent income throughout his life.

Wilberforce entered Parliament in 1780 and was a MP for a total of 45 years. While conservative in many respects and a close friend of William Pitt the Younger, Wilberforce sat as an Independent in Parliament.  Best known for his championing of the abolition of the slave trade Wilberforce was a very active Parliamentarian, taking an interest in and speaking on a wide range of other issues.

Wilberforce is also known for his strong evangelical faith and his membership of the Clapham sect.   Introduced, briefly, to Methodism when he was young he underwent a conversion experience in his mid-20s.  Religion, henceforth, played a major role in his life and was central to his deep and persistent beliefs on the issue of slavery which he saw fundamentally inhuman and unchristian.

Finally Wilberforce had many of the attributes of the natural campaigner. As well as a deep sense of passion on the issues he was concerned with, he was an eloquent speaker in Parliament and on other public occasions. He was a greater builder of partnerships who put the hours in building up a broad constituency of support for the causes he believed in.

Despite his efforts and those of many other committed and passionate campaigners, it took over 20 years to pass legislation banning the slave trade and a further 25 to achieve the final ending of slavery in the British Empire 1834. For something as morally repulsive as slavery it is salutary to understand why change took so long to achieve.  Some of the factors are specific to that age but many are just as relevant to understanding why it is so difficult today to challenge injustice and vested interests.

Winning the moral case against slavery was perhaps the easier part of the equation. Wilberforce and his allies were effective in exposing the brutal realties of the slave trade, including the dreadful and overcrowded conditions in which slaves were transported and the resulting loss of life.  This was in the age before social media and its ability to create an instant sense of outrage or concern.  Indeed even mass circulation newspapers were a thing of the future.  The campaign needed the willingness to travel and speak at numerous public meetings in order to get the message across.  Physical tokens had their place.  A famous pottery medallion produced by Josiah Wedgewood with an image of a slave and the motto “Am I not a man and brother” was an important campaigning tool.  All in all after the 1790s it was impossible for the pro-slavery lobby to make an effective moral argument in defence of the trade.  They could do much, however, to resist the passage of legislation abolishing it.

Two factors combined to make the passage of legislation difficult. In the late 18th century political parties in the way we understand today were non-existent.  Although Wilberforce and other anti-slavery campaigners had the support of Prime Ministers and Opposition leaders that was no guarantee of legislative success.  Gradually a majority for abolition built up in the Commons but the Lords was altogether a more difficult ask.  At the same time events in Europe, the French revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic wars made radical change on an issue of this kind harder. A key argument was that if Britain withdrew from the slave trade other countries would fill the gap.  As often today, for instance in respect of action on climate change, the absence of multi-lateral support stands in the way of unilateral actions which are the morally right thing to do.

Even before the age of mass democracy, public option had a big role to play. The abolitionists managed to secure 579 petitions in favour of abolition with a total of 500,000 signatures, an enormous number for those days.  On the other side only 4 petitions supported the continuation of the trade.  In time, changes in Parliamentary representation also had an effect on the issue.  The arrival of Irish MPs, after the 1801 Act of Union, increased the Commons majority for abolition in 1807 and changes in the composition of the Commons after the 1832 Great Reform Act made more possible the passage of the legislation in 1833 leading to the eventual ending of slavery.

Widespread boycotts of sugar by ordinary people also helped. The soaring demand for sugar, and the enormous wealth which stemmed from it, was the biggest single factor perpetuating the slave trade.  As often vested interests can successfully see off moral challenge until that challenge is felt economically.  The actions of individuals as economic agents have an essential role today in forcing change.

In the end the conditions prevailed for action to abolish the slave trade and in its turn slavery itself. No one individual can ever been seen as the sole agent of historical change on this scale.  Wilberforce, though, does have a powerful claim for the importance of his contribution, as an eloquent advocate for the cause and as tactician.  Above all though, he deserves credit for his moral perseverance.  Many men would have desisted when events did not go their way.  Wilberforce refused to flinch from a position he believed to be fundamental to his morality and beliefs.  The same cannot be said of all politicians.  His is an example worth turning to in an age when injustice and vested interests are still rampant.




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