Slavery was a common feature of most cultures until roughly 150 years ago. It still goes on, but in modern times it is against international law and has a minute fraction of the economic status it once held. Much of this change is down to a man who was born on August 24th, 1759. William Wilberforce seemed an unlikely champion of social change in his youth, when he was a popular Cambridge student, enjoying gambling, drinking and a hedonistic social life. Amongst his many friends there was William Pitt, the future Prime Minister.
Inheriting money from his grandfather and uncle, he could afford the £8,000 it took to have him elected as MP for Hull, his birthplace. His life changed when he converted to evangelical Christianity, and resolved to atone for his rather dissolute past life by making a moral commitment to improving the world. In particular, he began to campaign against the slave trade, appalled by the cruelty and suffering it involved. It is estimated that of the approximately 11 million Africans transported into slavery, some 1 in 8 did not survive the journey. Of the ones who did, many faced lives blighted by hard working conditions and sometimes arbitrary cruelty.
His friend, William Pitt, urged him to take up his campaign in Parliament and in the country, and the “Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade” was formed, drawing in other Christian denominations as well as Evangelicals. Its famous logo of a kneeling slave was designed the Josiah Wedgwood, the celebrated potter, and was inscribed, “Am I not a Man and a Brother?”
Wilberforce made his first major speech on slavery in Parliament in 1789, describing some of the appalling conditions involved in the trade. The campaign took many years, but gradually accumulated support. Wilberforce sometimes had to take time out to cope with an illness, believed to be ulcerative colitis, that flared up occasionally but was alleviated by moderate doses of opium. Several anti-slavery bills he introduced in the House were defeated, but opinion was changing.
At length, the Prime Minister, Lord Grenville, introduced a bill to stop the use of British ships to carry men as slaves. It had huge majorities in both houses, and passed into law as the Slave Trades Act in 1807. Wilberforce wept in Parliament as it passed. The final hurdle came in 1833, with a bill to abolish slavery itself throughout the British Empire. On July 26th, on his deathbed, Wilberforce learned that the government had cleared the way to guarantee its passage, and died three days later, his life’s work having been achieved.
The life of William Wilberforce shows that one person, highly motivated and determined, can act to change events. Winston Churchill did that, Margaret Thatcher did that, and it is still possible today. You do not have to be Prime Minister to have a powerful impact on the way people think, and how they will ultimately behave. It is, however, necessary to believe in yourself, as William Wilberforce did.