William Wilberforce and the Abolition of the British Slave Trade

In 1787, William Wilberforce wrote that “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners” (Isaac and Wilberforce v.1 149). He would dedicate his entire life to fighting for the abolition of the British slave trade and later, slavery itself. 

William Wilberforce

Wilberforce was born in High Street, England, on August 24th 1759. His family was part of the merchant class and were very well-to-do. When he was very young, Wilberforce was sent away to his aunt and uncle Hannah and John Thornton, but was removed from their care when his mother found out he was converting to Methodism. The prospect of zealous religious faith frightened his family, and much effort was spent into making him a respectable member of society (“Biography”). As he reflected on this period later in life, many “pains had been taken by my nearest relatives and guardians to make me dissipated and vain” (Isaac and Wilberforce v.5 145-147). Wilberforce attended St. John’s College in Cambridge, where this same process would continue. He was immature and idle, and there he said, “most of those very men who ought to have used both authority and influence to root out these propensities, and to implant better, rather confirmed than abated them” (v.5 145-147).

After graduation Wilberforce entered into politics as a representative in the House of Commons. There he met many individuals who would later become important to his future endeavors (including William Pitt, future Prime Minister of England). During this first period of his parliamentary life, Wilberforce considered himself “very ambitious.” But he was not directed towards anything significant until his conversion in 1785. This he described as “the great change.” Upon spending time with his former tutor Isaac Milner on a vacation, both decided to read Phillip Doddridge’s The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. It was during their conversation and reading that he became convinced of the truth of Christianity. Through an on-going process, Wilberforce became conflicted about whether to remain in politics or live a life of spiritual contemplation. When he addressed Pitt with these concerns, though not a Christian himself, Pitt responded by asking, “Surely the principles as well as the practice of Christianity are simple, and lead not to meditation only but to action?” (v. 1 p 94) Later Wilberforce noted how he was “much affected” by Pitt’s answer, and with the ongoing counsel of others (John Newton especially), he decided to pursue a parliamentary career in a way consistent with his newfound faith. 

“Surely the principles as well as the practice of Christianity are simple, and lead not to meditation only but to action?”

Around the same time as his conversion Wilberforce was confronted with the horrors of the British slave trade. What he discovered would change the trajectory of his life and imparted a holy fear for the country he served: Britain was complicit in a commercial trade of human beings, heinous in its proportions.

Over the course of more than 400 years, American and European slave traders transported over 12.5 million people onto slave ships (“Middle Passage”). Between 1640 and 1807, the British Empire alone transported over 3.1 million Africans to their colonies in North and South America, the Caribbean, and other countries (Farfan).  The voyage across the Atlantic, called the “Middle Passage,” has been estimated to have led to the deaths of over 1 million Africans (“Middle Passage”).

One of the most well-known accounts of the Middle Passage was recorded by Olaudah Equiano, who documented his experience being kidnapped into slavery. As soon as he arrived on the slave ship, Equiano wrote: “I was soon put down under the decks, and here I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything” (“Equiano”). The slave hold was tightly compacted—carrying 350-450 people per ship. Its climate was so suffocating there was not enough oxygen to light a candle; and with the presence of bodily fluids, excrement, and human waste, it was not unusual for captives to die during the months-long voyage. Historians estimate anywhere from 15 percent to 25 percent died aboard the ships (“The Middle Passage”).

“Between 1640 and 1807, the British Empire alone transported over 3.1 million Africans to their colonies in North and South America, the Caribbean, and other countries.”

Original manuscript copy of Thomas Clarkson’s sketch of a slave ship

Awareness of the trade first started making grounds in Britain with the individual efforts of abolitionists Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson. Sharp, a lawyer by trade, first became interested in the cause after witnessing the legal disenfranchisement of Jonathan Strong, an African man a court ruled was the “chattel” of his master (“Granville Sharp”). He would later become well-known for his ruling in the Somerset case, which resulted in the greatest symbolic victory against slavery up until that point. Clarkson made his name while a student, specifically for his award winning dissertation “An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species.” The two would dedicate their lives to abolition, but without a spokesperson to advocate for their cause in Parliament, the movement had little organized power. 

Wilberforce pondered their cause. After his conversion to Christianity, he was given “a higher sense of the duties of my station” (Isaac and Wilberforce v.1 187). He considered taking on the slave trade, but doing so would be no task to weight lightly. British slavers were a deeply powerful interest group in parliamentary politics. Any fight would be an uphill battle.

Wilberforce consulted with Clarkson and other like-minded friends to exchange evidence and information about the slave trade (Belmonte 104). Among those in his confidence were Sir Charles and Lady Margaret Middleton, Hannah More, and James Ramsey. Being friends with Clarkson, Equiano also participated in these conversations and educated Wilberforce with a real-world account of the trade’s brutality. Each and every one of these individuals would contribute to the fight for abolition.

After the Christmas of 1787, Wilberforce decided to notify the House of Commons about his intentions to propose a bill for the abolition of the slave trade. Along with his friends, the Society for Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed. Shortly thereafter, unfortunately, Wilberforce would become bedridden for a time with a serious illness that almost killed him. His friends kept working nonetheless. William Pitt took the mantle for a time and over 100 petitions against the trade were presented to Parliament. After recovering from what many thought would be his end, in May 1789, Wilberforce resumed his leadership position and introduced twelve resolutions condemning the slave trade. In the Spring of that year, he would give a speech many newspapers considered was one of the most elegant ever delivered in the Commons (“William Wilberforce”). This speech exemplified his depth of conviction and character, as well as the principles that drove him to so vigorously oppose the slave trade. It is worth quoting at length: 

“Policy, however…is not my principle, and I am not ashamed to say it. There is a principle above every thing that is political…[W]hen I reflect on the command which says, “Thou shalt do no murder,” believing the authority to be divine, how can I dare to set up any reasonings of my own against it? And…when we think of eternity, and of the future consequences of all human conduct, what is there in this life that should make any man contradict the dictates of his conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion, and of God…

[T]he nature and all the circumstances of this trade are now laid open to us; we can no longer plead ignorance – we cannot evade it – it is now an object placed before us – we cannot pass it; we may spurn it, we may kick it out of the way, but we cannot turn aside so as to avoid seeing it…[I]t is brought now so directly before our eyes, that this House must decide, and must justify to all the world, and to their own consciences, the rectitude of the grounds and principles of their decision.” (Isaac and Wilberforce v.1 p. 173) 

For Wilberforce, there was a morally enduring order that testified to the injustices being committed by his nation—a voice he could either faithfully listen to (as it spoke to his conscience), or ignore. The slave trade was not of mere practical concern. It involved human lives, whose treatment mattered eternally before God. 

Pictured above: the House of Commons in Wilberforce’s Time

Unfortunately, the first motion to abolish the slave trade was rejected by 75 votes. From then on Wilberforce introduced a motion advocating for abolition during every session of Parliament. The next time he brought the subject to the table, it was received more warmly, with many eloquent speeches given in support of the measure. However, many were not keen on the idea of complete abolition, and in 1792 the gradual abolition of the slave trade was approved 238 to 85. Whatever progress may have been gained by this result was short lived, because just a year later, war would break out with France, which left the House of Lords distasteful to end a trade that kept them economically competitive with the French. The legislation never moved forward. 

In 1795, Wilberforce tried again, and again his bill was refused in the Commons 74 to 70. Wilberforce attempted to propose similar bills in 1797, 1798, and 1799, but each time they were defeated. As anti-Jacobin sentiment started to recede, he believed the momentum was swinging back their way. In 1804, he brought forward another motion, but once more the Commons voted it down.

Time and time again, Wilberforce experienced bitter defeat. Every moment it seemed like the abolition movement was about to succeed in its objectives, another setback would come. Abolitionists were set against the apathy of their fellow legislators, the vitriol and constant defamation of their opponents, and the limitations of their own bodies. On multiple occasions, Wilberforce became so ill he would need to remove himself from active political life. On one of these occurrences, upon his impending return, he wrote in his diary: “I have lately felt and now feel a sort of terror on reentering the world.” (v. 2 p. 144) After many setbacks and blows, he suffered a nervous breakdown and started feeling like abolition would never come to fruition. Was he wasting his life?

He wrote to John Newton about his discouragement and expressed a willingness to potentially exit public life. The letter Newton sent back, no doubt, encouraged him to continue the cause God placed on His heart. Like Wilberforce’s speech, it also deserves to be quoted at length:

“Some of [God’s] people may be emphatically said not to live to themselves. May it not be said of you? . . . You meet with many things which weary and disgust you …[b]ut then they are inseparably connected with your path of duty; and though you cannot do all the good you wish for, some good is done…

It is true that you live in the midst of difficulties and snares, and you need a double guard of watchfulness and prayer. But since you know both your need of help, and where to look for it, I may say to you as Darius o Daniel. “Thy God whom thou servest continually is able to preserve and deliver you.” Daniel, likewise, was a public man, and in critical circumstances; but he trusted in the Lord; was faithful in his department, and therefore though he had enemies, they could not prevail against him.

Happy the man who has a deep impression of our Lord’s words, “Without Me you can do nothing.” …May the Lord bless you…may He be your sun and your shield, and fill you with all joy and peace in believing.” (Wilberforce v. 1 p. 130-144)

Newton’s letter was but one voice of many encouraging Wilberforce to renew his strength by resting in the promise of God’s sovereignty. John Wesley, one of the core leaders of Methodist revivalism, reminded Wilberforce that “Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils; but if God be for you, who can be against you?” (Isaac and Wilberforce v. 3 p. 297). 

Despite years of defeat, the path for abolition of the slave trade was slowly being paved. Little did they realize until it happened, but abolitionism was gaining overwhelming support amongst the British citizenry. More legislators were joining their cause. Abolitionist societies were spawning left and right. 

By 1807, the tireless efforts of the abolitionists endeavors would come to fruition. 

The hearts that needed to be moved were changed. The votes they needed were secured. What God started in 1787, He would be faithful to finish.

January 1807, Wilberforce proposed a bill for the complete abolition of the slave trade. By now abolitionism had gained considerable traction in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The House passed his motion 283 to 16. It passed the Lords, and it was given royal assent in March 1807. 

It took twenty years, but the British slave trade was no more. Wilberforce’s efforts were not in vain.

Works Cited:

Belmonte, Kevin Charles. Hero for Humanity: A Biography of William Wilberforce. Navpress, 2002.

Equiano, Olaudah. THE INTERESTING NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE OF OLAUDAH EQUIANO, OR GUSTAVUS VASSA, THE AFRICAN. 1789, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/15399/15399-h/15399-h.htm.

Farfan, Abraham. “The British founding of Sierra Leone was never a ‘Province of Freedom.’” LSE Blogs, 27 June 2020, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/africaatlse/2020/06/27/british-founding-sierra-leone-slave-trade/. Accessed 9 December 2022.

“Granville Sharp | English scholar and philanthropist | Britannica.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 6 November 2022, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Granville-Sharp. Accessed 9 December 2022.

Isaac, Robert, and Samuel Wilberforce. The Life of William Wilberforce. London, 1868.

“Middle Passage.” Slavery and Remembrance, https://slaveryandremembrance.org/articles/article/?id=A0032. Accessed 9 December 2022.

Wilberforce, William. A Journey to the Lake District from Cambridge: A Summer Diary. London: Iriel Press, 1983.

“William Wilberforce Biography.” Wilberforce School, https://www.wilberforceschool.org/updated-about-us/william-wilberforce. Accessed 9 December 2022.

“William Wilberforce | Biography, Achievements, & Facts | Britannica.” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Wilberforce. Accessed 9 December 2022.

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This is great Liam! Awesome job!