Today is the birthday (1759) of William Wilberforce, an English politician, philanthropist, and a significant leader in the movement to abolish the slave trade. He is often seen as the prime mover in the abolitionist movement, but this is slightly overstating the case, partly due to Wilberforce’s own claims in his lifetime. Nevertheless he played a major role.
Wilberforce was born on the High Street of Kingston-on-Hull, the only son of Robert Wilberforce (1728–68), a wealthy merchant, and his wife Elizabeth Bird (1730–98). His grandfather William (1690–1774 or 1776) had made the family fortune in the maritime trade with Baltic countries, and had twice been elected mayor of Hull. Wilberforce was a small, sickly and delicate child, with poor eyesight. In 1767 he began attending Hull Grammar School, at the time headed by a young, dynamic headmaster, Joseph Milner, who was to become a lifelong friend. Wilberforce profited from the supportive atmosphere at the school until the death of his father in 1768. With his mother struggling to cope, the nine-year-old Wilberforce was sent to a prosperous uncle and aunt with houses in both St James’ Place, London, and Wimbledon, at that time a village 7 miles (11 km) south-west of London. He attended an “indifferent” boarding school in Putney for two years, spending his holidays in Wimbledon, where he grew extremely fond of his relatives. He became interested in evangelical Christianity because of their influence, especially that of his aunt Hannah, sister of the wealthy Christian merchant John Thornton, a philanthropist and a supporter of the leading Methodist preacher George Whitefield.
Wilberforce’s staunchly Church of England mother and grandfather, alarmed at these nonconformist influences and at his leanings towards evangelicalism, brought the 12-year-old boy back to Hull in 1771. Wilberforce was heartbroken to be separated from his aunt and uncle. His family opposed a return to Hull Grammar School because the headmaster had become a Methodist. Wilberforce therefore continued his education at nearby Pocklington School from 1771 to 1776. Influenced by Methodist scruples, he initially resisted Hull’s lively social life, but as his religious fervor diminished, he began theater-going, attending balls, and playing cards.
In 1776, at the age of 17, Wilberforce went up to St John’s College, Cambridge. The deaths of his grandfather and uncle in 1777 had left him independently wealthy, and as a result he had little inclination or need to apply himself to serious study. Instead, he immersed himself in the social round of student life, and enjoyed cards, gambling and late-night drinking sessions—although he found the excesses of some of his fellow students distasteful. Among his many friends was the more studious future Prime Minister, William Pitt. Despite his dissolute lifestyle and lack of interest in studying, he managed to pass his examinations, and was awarded a B.A. in 1781. Spending 5 years on a 3-year degree does show some determination, I suppose.
Wilberforce began to consider a political career while still at university, and during the winter of 1779–80, he and Pitt frequently watched House of Commons debates from the gallery. Pitt, already set on a political career, encouraged Wilberforce to join him in obtaining a parliamentary seat. In September 1780, at the age of twenty-one and while still a student, Wilberforce was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Kingston upon Hull, spending over £8,000 to ensure he received the necessary votes, as was the custom of the time. Free from financial pressures, Wilberforce sat as an independent, resolving to be “no party man”. Wilberforce was criticized at times for inconsistency because he supported both Tory and Whig governments according to his conscience, working closely with the party in power, and voting on specific measures according to their merits. Wilberforce attended Parliament regularly, but he also maintained a lively social life, becoming an habitué of gentlemen’s gambling clubs such as Goostree’s and Boodle’s in Pall Mall, London. The writer and socialite Madame de Staël described him as the “wittiest man in England” and, according to Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the Prince of Wales said that he would go anywhere to hear Wilberforce sing.
Wilberforce used his speaking voice to great effect in political speeches; the diarist and author James Boswell witnessed Wilberforce’s eloquence in the House of Commons and noted, “I saw what seemed a mere shrimp mount upon the table; but as I listened, he grew, and grew, until the shrimp became a whale.” During the frequent government changes of 1781–84, Wilberforce supported his friend Pitt in parliamentary debates. Pitt became Prime Minister in December 1783, with Wilberforce a key supporter of his minority government.
In October 1784, Wilberforce embarked upon a tour of Europe which would ultimately change his life and determine his future career. He traveled with his mother and sister in the company of Isaac Milner, the brilliant younger brother of his former headmaster, who had been Fellow of Queens’ College, Cambridge, in the year when Wilberforce first went up. They visited the French Riviera and enjoyed the usual pastimes of dinners, cards, and gambling. In February 1785, Wilberforce returned to the United Kingdom temporarily, to support Pitt’s proposals for parliamentary reforms. He rejoined the party in Genoa, Italy, from where they continued their tour to Switzerland. Milner accompanied Wilberforce to England, and on the journey they read The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul by Philip Doddridge, a leading early 18th-century English nonconformist.
Thereafter he started to rise early to read the Bible and pray and kept a private journal. He underwent an evangelical conversion, regretting his past life and resolving to commit his future life and work to the service of God. While remaining outwardly cheerful, interested and respectful, inwardly, he became relentlessly self-critical, harshly judging his spirituality, use of time, vanity, self-control and relationships with others. At the time, religious enthusiasm was generally regarded as a social transgression and was stigmatized in polite society. Wilberforce’s conversion led him to question whether he should remain in public life. He sought guidance from friends, including Pitt, who counseled him to remain in politics, and he resolved to do so “with increased diligence and conscientiousness”. Thereafter, his political views were informed by his faith and by his desire to promote Christianity and Christian ethics in private and public life. His views were often deeply conservative, opposed to radical changes in a God-given political and social order, and focused on issues such as the observance of the Sabbath and the eradication of immorality through education and reform. As a result, he was often distrusted by progressive voices because of his conservatism, and regarded with suspicion by many Tories who saw Evangelicals as radicals, bent on the overthrow of church and state.
Wilberforce is best remembered for his part in the abolition of the slave trade. The British initially became involved in the slave trade during the 16th century. By 1783, the triangular route that took British-made goods to Africa to buy slaves, transported the enslaved to the West Indies, and then brought slave-grown products such as sugar, tobacco, and cotton to Britain, represented about 80% Britain’s foreign income. The British campaign to abolish the slave trade is generally considered to have begun in the 1780s with the establishment of the Quakers’ antislavery committees, and their presentation to Parliament of the first slave trade petition in 1783. The same year, Wilberforce, while dining with his old Cambridge friend Gerard Edwards, met Rev. James Ramsay, a ship’s surgeon who had become a clergyman on the island of St Christopher (later St Kitts) in the Leeward Islands, and a medical supervisor of the plantations there. What Ramsay had witnessed of the conditions endured by the slaves, both at sea and on the plantations, horrified him. Returning to England after fifteen years, he accepted the living of Teston, Kent in 1781 as rector, and there met Sir Charles Middleton, Lady Middleton, Thomas Clarkson, Hannah More and others, a group that later became known as the Testonites, staunch abolitionists.
Wilberforce apparently did not follow up on his meeting with Ramsay. However, three years later, and inspired by his new faith, Wilberforce was growing interested in humanitarian reform. In November 1786, he received a letter from Sir Charles Middleton that re-opened his interest in the slave trade. At the urging of Lady Middleton, Sir Charles suggested that Wilberforce bring forward the abolition of the slave trade in Parliament. Wilberforce responded that he “felt the great importance of the subject, and thought himself unequal to the task allotted to him, but yet would not positively decline it”. He began to read widely on the subject, and met with the Testonites at Middleton’s home at Barham Court in Teston in the early winter of 1786–87.
WHM146809 Portrait of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), 1794 (oil on canvas) by Hickel, Anton (1745-98)
oil on canvas
© Wilberforce House, Hull City Museums and Art Galleries, UK
German, out of copyright
In early 1787, Thomas Clarkson, a fellow graduate of St John’s, Cambridge, who had become convinced of the need to end the slave trade after writing a prize-winning essay on the subject while at Cambridge, called upon Wilberforce at Old Palace Yard with a published copy of the work. This was the first time the two men had met; their collaboration would last nearly fifty years. Clarkson began to visit Wilberforce on a weekly basis, bringing first-hand evidence he had obtained about the slave trade. The Quakers, already working for abolition, also recognized the need for influence within Parliament, and urged Clarkson to secure a commitment from Wilberforce to bring forward the case for abolition in the House of Commons.
Wilberforce had planned to introduce a motion giving notice that he would bring forward a bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade during the 1789 parliamentary session. However, in January 1788, he was taken ill with a probable stress-related condition, now thought to be ulcerative colitis. It was several months before he was able to resume work, and he spent time convalescing at Bath and Cambridge. His regular bouts of gastrointestinal illnesses precipitated the use of moderate quantities of opium, which proved effective in alleviating his condition, and which he continued to use for the rest of his life. In Wilberforce’s absence, Pitt, who had long been supportive of abolition, introduced the preparatory motion himself, and ordered a Privy Council investigation into the slave trade, followed by a House of Commons review.
With the publication of the Privy Council report in April 1789 and following months of planning, Wilberforce commenced his parliamentary campaign. On 12 May 1789, he made his first major speech on the subject of abolition in the House of Commons, in which he reasoned that the trade was morally reprehensible and an issue of natural justice. Drawing on Thomas Clarkson’s mass of evidence, he described in detail the appalling conditions in which slaves traveled from Africa in the middle passage, and argued that abolishing the trade would also bring an improvement to the conditions of existing slaves in the West Indies. He moved 12 resolutions condemning the slave trade, but made no reference to the abolition of slavery itself, instead dwelling on the potential for reproduction in the existing slave population should the trade be abolished. With the tide running against them, the opponents of abolition delayed the vote by proposing that the House of Commons hear its own evidence, and Wilberforce, in a move that has subsequently been criticized for prolonging the slave trade, reluctantly agreed. The hearings were not completed by the end of the parliamentary session, and were deferred until the following year. In the meantime, Wilberforce and Clarkson tried unsuccessfully to take advantage of the egalitarian atmosphere of the French Revolution to press for France’s abolition of the trade, which was, in any event, to be abolished in 1794 as a result of the bloody slave revolt in St. Domingue (later to be known as Haiti), although later briefly restored by Napoleon in 1802.
In January 1790, Wilberforce succeeded in speeding up the hearings by gaining approval for a smaller parliamentary select committee to consider the vast quantity of evidence which had been accumulated. Interrupted by a general election in June 1790, the committee finally finished hearing witnesses, and in April 1791 with a closely reasoned four-hour speech, Wilberforce introduced the first parliamentary bill to abolish the slave trade. However, after two evenings of debate, the bill was easily defeated by 163 votes to 88, the political climate having swung in a conservative direction in the wake of the French Revolution and in reaction to an increase in radicalism and to slave revolts in the French West Indies. Such was the public hysteria of the time that even Wilberforce himself was suspected by some of being a Jacobin agitator. This was the beginning of a protracted parliamentary campaign, during which Wilberforce’s commitment never wavered, despite frustration and hostility.
I’ll spare you the details of the entire campaign to abolish the slave trade in Britain and note that The Slave Trade Act which abolished the slave trade received royal assent on 25 March 1807. What I will say is that Wilberforce was a rich man and there is no doubt that his wealth came indirectly from an economy that profited from the slave trade and slavery in general. Furthermore his political power came from that wealth. Sound familiar? The thing is that he put his social conscience before personal gain.
We also need to remember that Wilberforce was deeply conservative when it came to challenges to the existing political and social order. He advocated change in society through Christianity and improvement in morals, education and religion, fearing and opposing radical causes and revolution. The radical writer William Cobbett was among those who attacked what they saw as Wilberforce’s hypocrisy in campaigning for better working conditions for slaves while British workers lived in terrible conditions at home. “Never have you done one single act, in favour of the labourers of this country”, he wrote. Critics noted Wilberforce’s support of the suspension of habeas corpus in 1795 and his votes for Pitt’s “Gagging Bills”, which banned meetings of more than 50 people, allowing speakers to be arrested and imposing harsh penalties on those who attacked the constitution. Wilberforce was opposed to giving workers’ rights to organize into unions, in 1799 speaking in favor of the Combination Act, which suppressed trade union activity throughout the United Kingdom, and calling unions “a general disease in our society”. He also opposed an enquiry into the 1819 Peterloo Massacre https://www.bookofdaystales.com/peterloo/ in which eleven protesters were killed at a political rally demanding reform. Concerned about “bad men who wished to produce anarchy and confusion”, he approved of the government’s Six Acts, which further limited public meetings and seditious writings. Wilberforce’s actions led the essayist William Hazlitt to condemn him as one “who preaches vital Christianity to untutored savages, and tolerates its worst abuses in civilised states.”
More progressively, Wilberforce advocated legislation to improve the working conditions for chimney-sweeps and textile workers, engaged in prison reform, and supported campaigns to restrict capital punishment and the severe punishments meted out under the Game Laws. He recognized the importance of education in alleviating poverty, and when Hannah More and her sister established Sunday schools for the poor in Somerset and the Mendips, he provided financial and moral support as they faced opposition from landowners and Anglican clergy. From the late 1780s onward, Wilberforce campaigned for limited parliamentary reform, such as the abolition of rotten boroughs and the redistribution of Commons seats to growing towns and cities, though by 1832, he feared that such measures went too far. With others, Wilberforce founded the world’s first animal welfare organisation, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (later the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). In 1824, Wilberforce was one of over 30 eminent gentlemen who put their names at the inaugural public meeting to the fledgling National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, later named the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. He was also opposed to dueling, which he described as the “disgrace of a Christian society” and was appalled when his friend Pitt engaged in a duel in 1798, particularly as it occurred on a Sunday.
Wilberforce was generous with his time and money, believing that those with wealth had a duty to give a significant portion of their income to the needy. Yearly, he gave away thousands of pounds, much of it to clergymen to distribute in their parishes. He paid off the debts of others, supported education and missions, and in a year of food shortages, gave to charity more than his own yearly income. He was exceptionally hospitable, and could not bear to fire any of his servants. As a result, his home was full of old and incompetent servants kept on in charity. Although he was often months behind in his correspondence, Wilberforce responded to numerous requests for advice or for help in obtaining professorships, military promotions and livings for clergymen, or for the reprieve of death sentences.
The 18th century was a time of great cooking changes in England. When Wilberforce was born, meat was the star player. Only the rich could afford fruit, and vegetables were not common (and had to be cooked). But as the century wore on things changed. Potatoes, which had been around for 200 years, became common – eventually poor food. The slave-based sugar trade from the West Indies lowered the price of sugar for ordinary people, and fruits were more plentiful. The more recognizable 19th century culinary tradition gradually emerged as circumstances changed. Poor food had often meant bread and gruel in the 18th century, making the price of wheat critical for survival and the cause of great concern and protest. Vegetarian dishes were not so uncommon, even for the rich. Here is a great recipe from the 18th century called “onion pie,” although in reality it is much more than onions – eggs, apples, and potatoes all feature equally. This same recipe is found from the 18th to the 19th centuries in a number of cookbooks. This is Hannah Glasse’s:
Wash and pare some potatoes and cut them in slices, peel some onions, cut them in slices, pare some apples and slice them, make a good crust, cover your dish, lay a quarter of a pound of butter all over, take a quarter of an ounce of mace beat fine, a nutmeg grated, a tea-spoonful of beaten pepper, three tea-spoonfuls of salt; mix all together, strew some over the butter, lay a layer of potatoes, a layer of onions, a layer of apples, and a layer of eggs, and so on till you have filled your pie, strewing a little of the seasoning between each layer, and a quarter of a pound of butter in bits, and six spoonfuls of water; close your pie, and bake it an hour and a half. A pound of potatoes, a pound of onions, a pound of apples, and twelve eggs will do.
If you’re going to make this pie you’ll certainly want to adjust the quantities. Four pounds of ingredients is a lot. Half is more suitable. I’d also use stock to moisten the filling rather than water. You could replace the butter with grated cheese. That would be more to my tastes.