Tuesday, 23 February 2010

William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce (24 August 1759 – 29 July 1833) was a British politician, a philanthropist and a leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade. A native of Kingston upon Hull, Yorkshire, he began his political career in 1780 and became the independent Member of Parliament for Yorkshire (1784–1812). (Pictured right: William Wilberforce by Karl Anton Hickel c.a. 1794). In 1785, he underwent a conversion experience and became an evangelical Christian, resulting in major changes to his lifestyle and a lifelong concern for reform. In 1787, he came into contact with Thomas Clarkson and a group of anti-slave-trade activists, including Granville Sharp, Hannah More and Charles Middleton. They persuaded Wilberforce to take on the cause of abolition, and he soon became one of the leading English abolitionists. He headed the parliamentary campaign against the British slave trade for twenty-six years until the passage of the Slave Trade Act 1807.
Wilberforce was convinced of the importance of religion, morality, and education. He championed causes and campaigns such as the Society for Suppression of Vice, British missionary work in India, the creation of a free colony in Sierra Leone, the foundation of the Church Mission Society and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.. His underlying conservatism led him to support politically and socially repressive legislation, and resulted in criticism that he was ignoring injustices at home while campaigning for the enslaved abroad.
In later years, Wilberforce supported the campaign for the complete abolition of slavery, and continued his involvement after 1826, when he resigned from Parliament because of his failing health. That campaign led to the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, which abolished slavery in most of the British Empire; Wilberforce died just three days after hearing that the passage of the Act through Parliament was assured. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, close to his friend William Pitt.
Early life
William Wilberforce was born in Kingston upon Hull on 24 August 1759, the only son of Robert Wilberforce (1728–1768), a wealthy merchant, and his wife Elizabeth Bird (1730-1798). He was baptised at Seaton Ross on 29 September 1759. His grandfather William (1690–1776) had made the family for
tune 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 life-long 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 mi (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 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. (Pictured left: A statue of William Wilberforce outside Wilberforce House, his birthplace in Hull). 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 1771–76. Influenced by Methodist scruples, he initially resisted Hull's lively social life, but as his religious fervour diminished, he embraced theatre-going, attended balls and played cards.
In October 1776 at the age of seventeen, Wilberforce went up to St John's College Cambridge. The deaths of his grandfather and uncle in 1776 and 1777 respectively 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 pursued a hedonistic lifestyle enjoying cards, gambling and late-night drinking sessions–although he found the excesses of some of his fellow students distasteful. Witty, generous, and an excellent conversationalist, Wilberforce was a popular figure. He made many friends, including the more studious future Prime Minister, William Pitt. Despite his lifestyle and lack of interest in studying, he managed to pass his examinations, and was awarded a B.A. in 1781 and an M.A. in 1788.
Early parliamentary career
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". Criticised at times for inconsistency, 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 Stael, 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, and in autumn 1783 Pitt, Wilberforce and Edward Eliot (later to become Pitt's brother-in-law), travelled to France for a six-week holiday together. After a difficult start in Rheims, where their presence aroused police suspicion that they were English spies, they visited Paris, meeting Benjamin Franklin, General Lafayette, Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, and joined the French court at Fontainebleau.
Pitt became Prime Minister in December 1783, with Wilberforce a key supporter of his minority government. Despite their close friendship, there is no record that Pitt offered Wilberforce a ministerial position in this or future governments. This may have been due to Wilberforce's wish to remain an independent MP. Alternatively, Wilberforce's frequent tardiness and disorganisation, as well as the chronic eye problems that at times made reading impossible, may have convinced Pitt that his trusted friend was not ministerial material.
] When Parliament was dissolved in the spring of 1784, Wilberforce decided to stand as a candidate for the county of Yorkshire in the 1784 General Election. On 6 April, he was returned as MP for Yorkshire at the age of twenty-four.
Abolition of the slave trade
Initial decision
The British had initially become 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 per cent of Great Britain's foreign income. British ships dominated the trade, supplying French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese and British colonies, and in peak years carried forty thousand enslaved men, women and children across the Atlantic in the horrific conditions of the middle passage. Of the estimated 11 million Africans transported into slavery, about 1.4 million died during the voyage.
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 ships 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, and there met Sir Charles Middleton, Lady Middleton, Thomas Clarkson, Hannah More and others, a group that later became known as the Testonites. Interested in promoting Christianity and moral improvement in Britain and overseas, they were appalled by Ramsay's reports of the depraved lifestyles of slave owners, the cruel treatment meted out to the enslaved, and the lack of Christian instruction provided to the slaves. With their encouragement and help, Ramsay spent three years writing An essay on the treatment and conversion of African slaves in the British sugar colonies, which was highly critical of slavery in the West Indies. The book, published in 1784, was to have an important impact in raising public awareness and interest, and it excited the ire of West Indian planters who in the coming years attacked both Ramsay and his ideas in a series of pro-slavery tracts.
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. (Pictured right: William Wilberforce by John Rising, 1790 pictured at the age of 29).
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 recognised 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.
It was arranged that Bennet Langton, a Lincolnshire landowner and mutual acquaintance of Wilberforce and Clarkson, would organise a dinner party in order to ask Wilberforce formally to lead the parliamentary campaign. The dinner took place on 13 March 1787; other guests included Charles Middleton, Sir Joshua Reynolds, William Windham, MP, James Boswell and Isaac Hawkins Browne, MP. By the end of the evening, Wilberforce had agreed in general terms that he would bring forward the abolition of the slave trade in Parliament, "provided that no person more proper could be found".
The same spring, on 12 May 1787, the still hesitant Wilberforce held a conversation with William Pitt and the future Prime Minister William Grenville as they sat under a large oak tree on Pitt's estate in Kent. Under what came to be known as the "Wilberforce Oak" at Holwood, Pitt challenged his friend: "Wilberforce, why don’t you give notice of a motion on the subject of the Slave Trade? You have already taken great pains to collect evidence, and are therefore fully entitled to the credit which doing so will ensure you. Do not lose time, or the ground will be occupied by another." Wilberforce’s response is not recorded, but he later declared in old age that he could "distinctly remember the very knoll on which I was sitting near Pitt and Grenville" where he made his decision.
Wilberforce's involvement in the abolition movement was motivated by a desire to put his Christian principles into action and to serve God in public life.
] He and other Evangelicals were horrified by what they perceived was a depraved and unchristian trade, and the greed and avarice of the owners and traders. Wilberforce sensed a call from God, writing in a journal entry in 1787 that "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners [moral values]". The conspicuous involvement of Evangelicals in the highly popular anti-slavery movement served to improve the status of a group otherwise associated with the less popular campaigns against vice and immorality.]
Last years
Wilberforce's health was continuing to fail, and he suffered further illnesses in 1824 and 1825. With his family concerned that his life was endangered, he declined a peerage and resigned his seat in Parliament, leaving the campaign in the hands of others. Thomas Clarkson continued to travel, visiting anti-slavery groups throughout Britain, motivating activists and acting as an ambassador for the anti-slavery cause to other countries, while Buxton pursued the cause of reform in Parliament. Public meetings and petitions demanding emancipation continued, with an increasing number supporting immediate abolition rather than the gradual approach favoured by Wilberforce, Clarkson and their colleagues.
Wilberforce was buried in Westminster Abbey next to Pitt. This memorial statue was erected in 1840 in the north choir aisle.
In 1826, Wilberforce moved from his large house in Kensington Gore to Highwood Hill, a more modest property in the countryside of Mill Hill, north of London, where he was soon joined by his son William and family. William had attempted a series of educational and career paths, and a venture into farming in 1830 led to huge losses, which his father repaid in full, despite offers from others to assist. This left Wilberforce with little income, and he was obliged to let his home and spend the rest of his life visiting family members and friends. He continued his support for the anti-
slavery cause, including attending and chairing meetings of the Anti-Slavery Society. (Pictured left: The House of Commons in Wilberforce's day by Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson 1808-1811).
Wilberforce approved of the 1830 election victory of the more progressive Whigs, though he was concerned about the implications of their Reform Bill which proposed the redistribution of parliamentary seats towards newer towns and cities and an extension of the franchise. In the event, the Reform
Act 1832 was to bring more abolitionist MPs into Parliament as a result of intense and increasing public agitation against slavery. In addition, the 1832 slave review in Jamaica convinced government ministers that abolition was essential to avoid further rebellion. In 1833, Wilberforce's health declined further and he suffered a severe attack of influenza from which he never fully recovered He made a final anti-slavery speech in April 1833 at a public meeting in Maidstone, Kent. The following month, the Whig government introduced the Bill for the Abolitionof Slavery, formally saluting Wilberforce in the process. On 26 July 1833, Wilberforce heard of government concessions that guaranteed the passing of the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery. The following day he grew much weaker, and he died early on the morning of 29 July at his cousin's house in Cadogan Place, London.
One month later, the House of Lords passed the Slavery Abolition Act, which abolished slavery in most of the British Empire from August 1834. They voted plantation owners £20 million in compensation, giving full emancipation to children younger than six, and instituting a system of Apprenticeship requiring other enslaved peoples to work for their former masters for four to six years in the British West Indies, South Africa, Mauritius, British Honduras and Canada. Nearly 800,000 African slaves were freed, the vast majority in the Caribbean.
Wilberforce had left instructions that he was to be buried with his sister and daughter at Stoke
Newington, just north of London. However, the leading members of both Houses of Parliament urged that he be honoured with a burial in Westminster Abbey. The family agreed and, on 3 August 1833, Wilberforce was buried in the north transept, close to his friend William Pitt. The funeral was attended by many Members of Parliament, as well as by members of the public. The pallbearers included the Duke of Gloucester, the Lord Chancellor Henry Brougham and the Speaker of the House of Commons Charles Manners-Sutton. While tributes were paid and Wilberforce was laid to rest, both Houses of Parliament suspended their business as a mark of respect.