The Abolitionist’s Tale

Tales from End to End
The Abolitionist’s Tale

by Alison Lewis

William Wilberforce Statue
William Wilberforce Statue

Slavery has been practised for centuries, world-wide, and between many nations. Why then was this moment in history – 1807, in Britain – to become a turning point in the international trade and ownership and forced labour of people? And what was the role of William Wilberforce, born in Hull in August 1759, and its Member of Parliament?

By 1786 connections were developing between anti-slave trade activists in Britain, some in politics, others in faith groups. The more he learned about slave trading and slavery, the more committed Wilberforce became, with others, to end the practice where Britain was concerned.

‘We are all to blame’ hardly calmed the opposition, especially as some MPs were slave owners, but it did support the emerging campaigns throughout Britain. Decisive action was proposed. Wilberforce took the challenge of abolition of the British slave trade before Parliament, articulately and frequently, and despite strong opposition and poor health.

Wilberforce was well informed of the risks – and the profits – taken by the British slave traders in the early 19th century. In the ‘triangular trade’ ships left Britain, and other European countries, laden with goods which were in demand by African traders – cloth, beads, weapons, alcohol. These were exchanged in slave markets in West Africa for people from many and varied communities, across the region.

Where these people came from is rarely recorded. They had become commodities. Slaves transported across the Atlantic and sold from British ships fetched, on average, £36 each – about £10 profit per slave. Proceeds from the sale of the Africans in the Caribbean meant the slave traders could buy sugar, rum, tobacco or cotton, produced by slaves. These were then sold in Britain for the benefit of the traders, land-owners and investors – some of whom were Members of Parliament.

Anti-slavery campaigns across Britain were influential. In his role, Wilberforce was described as a misguided ‘do-gooder’, ignorant of the benefits of the slave trade to British industry, and of the competition with other European trading countries. The Abolitionists were up against powerful opposition. However, on 12 May 1789, in support of the first Anti-Slave Trade Bill, Wilberforce made the most compelling Parliamentary speech of his life, three and a half hours of it, and to ecstatic acclaim.

This ‘Abolitionist’ offered a positive alternative to the slave trade. He challenged Parliament with ‘we can no longer plead ignorance, we cannot evade it, … we may spurn it, we may kick it out of our way, but we cannot turn aside so as to avoid seeing it’. Yet, realist as he was, he was ill-prepared for the lengthy opposition and political upheavals of the time. Wilberforce would have to introduce a Motion every year until 1807 when, at last, Parliament voted overwhelmingly to abolish the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Historic victory though this was, the powerful influence of the slave supporters continued and it wasn’t until 1833 that Parliament finally passed the Bill to abolish slavery itself in the British Empire. By this time, Wilberforce was ill and died on 29th July, just 3 days after the Commons approved the Abolition of Slavery Bill which emancipated all slaves in Britain’s colonies. Royal Assent came a month later.

Wilberforce, at his death, was honoured by the nation in being buried at Westminster Abbey and having a statue erected in his memory. In Hull his former house on High Street is an impressive museum – about abolition and slavery. Yet slavery in its different forms still persists to the present day with an estimated 27 million human beings trapped in lifelong bondage.

Alison Lewis is a retired Geography lecturer and created the ‘Walking with Wilberforce’ heritage trail through Hull Old Town.