William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce, only son of Robert Wilberforce (1728–1768) and Elizabeth Bird (1730–1798), was born in Kingston upon Hull on 24th August 1759. His paternal grandfather, William Wilberforce (1690–1776), established the family fortunes through the Baltic trade and was twice mayor of Hull. (1)

William was not a strong child and it was said that "his frame from infancy was feeble, his stature small, his eyes weak". He himself said that if "I was not born in less civilised times, when it would have been thought impossible to rear so delicate a child". (2)

William started at Hull Grammar School at the age of seven. He was taught by Isaac Milner who immediately recognised his talent as an orator: "Even then (as a boy) his elocution was so remarkable, that we used to set him upon a table and made him read aloud as an example to the other boys." (3)

In 1768, because of his father's premature death, he was sent to live with an uncle, also William Wilberforce, and his wife, Hannah, at their homes in St James's Place, London, and in Wimbledon. His aunt Hannah, an admirer of John Wesley and George Whitefield and friendly with the Methodists, influenced him towards evangelicalism. When he was 13, his mother decided to remove him from this "dangerous influence" and he became a boarder at Pocklington School. (4)

At seventeen Wilberforce was sent to St. John's College. Following the deaths of his grandfather in 1776 and his childless uncle William in 1777, Wilberforce was an extremely wealthy man. "He could lay claim to a personal fortune in the low hundreds of thousands of pounds, with £100,000 at that time roughly corresponding to £10 million today." (5)

Wilberforce was shocked by the behaviour of his fellow students at the University of Cambridge and later explained: "I was introduced on the very first night of my arrival to as licentious a set of men as can well be conceived. They drank hard, and their conversation was even worse than their lives." While at university he was introduced to "some of the very worse men that I ever met with in my life". (6) Wilberforce spent his time "entertaining, socializing, attending balls and visiting friends". (7)

William Wilberforce MP

After leaving university he showed no interest in the family business, and while still at Cambridge he decided to pursue a political career and at the age of twenty, he decided to become a candidate in the forthcoming parliamentary election in Kingston upon Hull in September 1780. His opponent was a rich and powerful member of the nobility, and Wilberforce had to spend nearly £9,000 on the 1,500 voters to become elected. In the House of Commons Wilberforce mainly supported the the Tory government led by Lord North but preferred the label "Independent". (8)

Wilberforce was not an active member of the House of Commons and did not make his first speech until May 1781 when he argued that the proposed legislation, the Prevention of Smuggling Act, that "it would not only be severe, but unjust to confiscate the vessel" of a captain involved in these illegal trade. The second speech also reflected the interests of his electors when he requested government contracts for Hull. In fact he spent most of his time at the three most important gentlemen's clubs, White's, Boodle's and Brooks's, in London. (9)

At the time he was a heavy gambler and later wrote "they considered me a fine, fat pigeon whom they might pluck". However, it was the experiences of others that eventually brought this addiction to an end. He saw some young aristocrats lose their entire estates. He later pointed out that most of the big losers were "heirs to future fortunes" and came to the conclusion that he could not afford to gamble. (10)

William Pitt

During this period he became very friendly with William Pitt. The two men had been at Cambridge together, but had spent little time together as Pitt took his education more seriously. Pitt was "astronomically ambitious, but being a younger son had no independent fortune". He therefore did not have the money to stand for a large town such as Hull and had to find a cheaper way to enter Parliament. With the help of his university friend, Charles Manners, 4th Duke of Rutland, secured the patronage of James Lowther, who controlled the pocket borough of Appleby; a by-election in that constituency sent Pitt to the House of Commons in January 1781. (11)

Pitt regularly stayed with Wilberforce at his house in Wimbledon and "for near three months slept almost every night there." (12) The two men, although Tories, began to turn against Lord North. Wilberforce wrote that "while the present Ministry existed there were no prospects of either peace or happiness to this Kingdom". He went on to claim that the actions of North's ministers more "resembled the career of furious madmen than the necessarily vigorous and prudent exertions of able statesmen." (13)

On 19th December 1783, George III appointed Pitt as Prime Minister, even though Lord North and Charles Fox continued to command majority support in the House of Commons. The dismissal by the King of a government with a clear majority, was unconstitutional and a total violation of the settlement of 1688. Pitt, at twenty-four, was by far the youngest Prime Minister in British history. Wilberforce, albeit without government office, was a key supporter of his minority government in its difficult early months. (14)

The historian, Ellen Gibson Wilson, has pointed out: "Wilberforce was little over five feet tall, a frail and elfin figure who in his later years weighed well under 100 pounds. His charm was legendary, his conversation delightful, his oratory impressive. He dressed in the colourful finery of the day and adorned any salon with his amiable manner. Yet his object in life - no less than the transformation of a corrupt society through serious religion - was solemn... Wilberforce, although he rejected a party label, was deeply conservative and a loyal supporter of the government led by his friend William Pitt." (15)

Campaign against the Slave-Trade

In 1784 Wilberforce became converted to Evangelical Christianity. He joined the Clapham Set, a group of evangelical members of the Anglican Church, centered around Henry Venn, rector of Clapham Church in London. As a result of this conversion, Wilberforce became interested in the subject of social reform. Other members included Hannah More, Granville Sharp, Henry Thornton, Zachary Macaulay, James Stephen, Edward James Eliot, Thomas Gisbourne, John Shore and Charles Grant. (16)

Wilberforce contemplated giving up politics for a life as a clergyman. John Newton, a former slave-trader, who had become a devout Christian, persuaded Wilberforce that he could serve God better by remaining in Parliament and campaigning for social reform. Wilberforce renounced all "things of the flesh". He resigned from all his gentlemen clubs and "exchanged his socializing and entertaining for one of reflection and re-evaluation". (17)

In June 1786 Thomas Clarkson published Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African. As Ellen Gibson Wilson has pointed out: "A substantial book (256 pages), it traced the history of slavery to its decline in Europe and arrival in Africa, made a powerful indictment of the slave system as it operated in the West Indian colonies and attacked the slave trade supporting it. In reading it, one is struck by its raw emotion as much as by its strong reasoning." (18)

In 1787 Thomas Clarkson, William Dillwyn and Granville Sharp formed the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Although Sharp and Clarkson were both Anglicans, nine out of the twelve members on the committee, were Quakers. This included John Barton (1755-1789); George Harrison (1747-1827); Samuel Hoare Jr. (1751-1825); Joseph Hooper (1732-1789); John Lloyd (1750-1811); Joseph Woods (1738-1812); James Phillips (1745-1799) and Richard Phillips (1756-1836). Influential figures such as John Wesley, Josiah Wedgwood, James Ramsay, and William Smith gave their support to the campaign. Clarkson was appointed secretary, Sharp as chairman and Hoare as treasurer. (19)

Clarkson approached another sympathiser, Charles Middleton, the MP for Rochester, to represent the group in the House of Commons. He rejected the idea and instead suggested the name of William Wilberforce, who "not only displayed very superior talents of great eloquence, but was a decided and powerful advocate of the cause of truth and virtue." Lady Middleton wrote to Wilberforce who replied: "I feel the great importance of the subject and I think myself unequal to the task allotted to me, but yet I will not positively decline it." (20)

Wilberforce agreed that while people such as Thomas Clarkson worked on gathering evidence and mobilizing public opinion through the committee for the abolition of the slave trade, Wilberforce complemented their work through his exertions in the House of Commons. He also attempted lobbied bishops and prominent laymen. On 28th October, 1787, he wrote in his journal that "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners". (21)

Wilberforce's nephew, George Stephen, was surprised by this choice as he considered him a lazy man and too conservative to do the job and had "too much deferential regard for rank and power: "He worked out nothing for himself; he was destitute of system, and desultory in his habits; he depended on others for information, and laid himself open to misguidance... he required an intellectual walking stick." (22)

Charles Fox was also unsure of Wilberforce's commitment to the anti-slavery campaign. He wrote to Thomas Walker: "There are many reasons why I am glad (Wilberforce) has undertaken it rather than I, and I think as you do, that I can be very useful in preventing him from betraying the cause, if he should be so inclined, which I own I suspect. Nothing, I think but such a disposition, or a want of judgment scarcely credible, could induce him to throw cold water upon petitions. It is from them and other demonstrations of the opinion without doors that I look for success." (23)

Political radicals such as Francis Place hated politicians such as Wilberforce "for their complacency and indifference to poverty in their own country while fighting against the same thing abroad". He described him as "an ugly epitome of the devil". (24) William Hazlitt added: "He preaches vital Christianity to untutored savages, and tolerates its worst abuses in civilised states. He thus shows his respect for religion without offending the clergy." (25)

In May 1788, Charles Fox precipitated the first parliamentary debate on the issue. He denounced the "disgraceful traffic" which ought not to be regulated but destroyed. William Dolben described shipboard horrors of slaves chained hand and foot, stowed like "herrings in a barrel" and stricken with "putrid and fatal disorders" which infected crews as well. With the support of Wilberforce Samuel Whitbread, Charles Middleton and William Smith, Dolben put forward a bill to regulate conditions on board slave ships. The legislation was initially rejected by the House of Lords but after William Pitt threatened to resign as prime minister, the bill passed 56 to 5 and received royal assent on 11th July. (26)

Wilberforce's biographer, John Wolffe, has argued: "Following the publication of the privy council report on 25 April 1789, Wilberforce marked his own delayed formal entry into the parliamentary campaign on 12 May with a closely reasoned speech of three and a half hours, using its evidence to describe the effects of the trade on Africa and the appalling conditions of the middle passage. He argued that abolition would lead to an improvement in the conditions of slaves already in the West Indies, and sought to answer the economic arguments of his opponents. For him, however, the fundamental issue was one of morality and justice. The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was very pleased with the speech and sent its thanks for his "unparalleled assiduity and perseverance". (27)

Wilberforce also became involved in other areas of social reform. In August 1789 Wilberforce stayed with Hannah More at her cottage in Blagdon, and on visiting the nearby village of Cheddar and according to William Roberts, the author of Memoirs of the Life and Correspondence of Mrs. Hannah More (1834): they were appalled to find "incredible multitudes of poor, plunged in an excess of vice, poverty, and ignorance beyond what one would suppose possible in a civilized and Christian country". As a result of this experience, More rented a house at Cheddar and engaged teachers to instruct the children in reading the Bible and the catechism. The school soon had 300 pupils and over the next ten years the More sisters opened another twelve schools in the area where the main objective was "to train up the lower classes to habits of industry and virtue". (28)

Michael Jordan, the author of The Great Abolition Sham (2005) has pointed out that More shared Wilberforce's reactionary political views: "More set up local schools in order to equip impoverished pupils with an elementary grasp of reading. This, however, was where her concern for their education effectively ended, because she did not offer her charges the additional skill of writing. To be able to read was to open a door to good ideas and sound morality (most of which was provided by Hannah More through a series of religious pamphlets); writing, on the other hand, was to be discouraged, since it would open the way to rising above one's natural station." (29)

William Wilberforce by John Rising (1788)
William Wilberforce by John Rising (1788)

The House of Commons agreed to establish a committee to look into the slave trade. Wilberforce said he did not intend to introduce new testimony as the case against the trade was already in the public record. Ellen Gibson Wilson, a leading historian on the slave trade has argued: "Everyone thought the hearing would be brief, perhaps one sitting. Instead, the slaving interests prolonged it so skilfully that when the House adjourned on 23 June, their witnesses were still testifying." (30)

James Ramsay, the veteran campaigner against the slave trade, was now extremely ill. He wrote to Thomas Clarkson: "Whether the bill goes through the House or not, the discussion attending it will have a most beneficial effect. The whole of this business I think now to be in such a train as to enable me to bid farewell to the present scene with the satisfaction of not having lived in vain." Ten days later Ramsay died from a gastric haemorrhage. The vote on the slave trade was postponed to 1790. (31)

The French Revolution

Wilberforce initially welcomed the French Revolution as he believed that the new government would abolish the country's slave trade. He wrote to Abbé de la Jeard on 17th July 1789 commenting that "I sympathize warmly in what is going forward in your country." Clarkson commented: "Mr. Wilberforce, always solicitous for the good of this great cause, was of the opinion that, as commotions have taken place in France, which then aimed at political reforms, it was possible that the leading persons concerned in them might, if an application were made to them judiciously, be induced to take the slave trade into their consideration, and incorporated among the abuses to be done away." (32)

Wilberforce intended to visit France but he was persuaded by friends that it would be dangerous for an English politician to be in the country during a revolution. Wilberforce therefore asked Clarkson to visit Paris on behalf of himself and the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Clarkson was welcomed by the French abolitionists and later that month the government published A Declaration of the Rights of Man asserting that all men were born and remained free and equal. (33)

However, the visit was a failure as Clarkson could not persuade the French National Assembly to discuss the abolition of the slave trade. Marquis de Lafayette said "he hoped the day was near at hand, when two great nations, which had been hitherto distinguished only for their hostility would unite in so sublime a measure (abolition) and that they would follow up their union by another, still more lovely, for the preservation of eternal and universal peace." Clarkson thought Lafayette "as uncompromising an enemy of the slave-trade and slavery, as any man I ever knew". (34)

On his return to England Thomas Clarkson continued to gather information for the campaign against the slave-trade. Over the next four months he covered over 7,000 miles. During this period he could only find twenty men willing to testify before the House of Commons. He later recalled: "I was disgusted... to find how little men were disposed to make sacrifices for so great a cause." There were some seamen who were willing to make the trip to London. One captain told Clarkson: "I had rather live on bread and water, and tell what I know of the slave trade, than live in the greatest affluence and withhold it." (35)

Wilberforce believed that the support for the French Revolution by the leading members of the Society for the Abolition of Slave Trade was creating difficulties for his attempts to bring an end to the slave trade in the House of Commons. He told Thomas Clarkson: "I wanted much to see you to tell you to keep clear from the subject of the French Revolution and I hope you will." Wilberforce had changed his views on the subject because of the way that radicals such as Thomas Paine had welcomed the French Revolution. (36)

Wilberforce's conservative friends were also very concerned about the other leaders of the anti-slavery movement. Isaac Milner, a leader of the Clapham Set, had a long talk with Clarkson, and then commented to Wilberforce: "I wish him better health, and better notions in politics; no government can stand on such principles as he maintains. I am very sorry for it, because I see plainly advantage is taken of such cases as his, in order to represent the friends of Abolition as levellers." (37)

1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act

On 18th April 1791 Wilberforce introduced a bill to abolish the slave trade. Wilberforce was supported by William Pitt, William Smith, Charles Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, William Grenville and Henry Brougham. The opposition was led by Lord John Russell and Colonel Banastre Tarleton, the MP for Liverpool. There was no reasoned justification of slavery or the slave-trade. Thomas Grosvenor, the MP for Chester, acknowledged that it was "not an amiable trade but neither was the trade of a butcher an amiable trade, and yet a mutton chop was, nevertheless, a good thing." One observer commented that it was "a war of the pigmies against the giants of the House". However, on 19th April, the motion was defeated by 163 to 88. (38)

Granville Sharp came up with the idea that the black community in London should be allowed to to start a colony in Sierra Leone. The country was chosen largely on the strength of evidence from the explorer, Mungo Park and a encouraging report from the botanist, Henry Smeathman, who had recently spent three years in the area. The British government supported Sharp's plan and agreed to give £12 per African towards the cost of transport. Sharp contributed more than £1,700 to the venture. In the summer and autumn 1791 Wilberforce worked with his close friend Henry Thornton to launch the company. (39)

William Wilberforce by Anton Hickel (1794)
William Wilberforce by Anton Hickel (1794)

Richard S. Reddie, the author of Abolition! The Struggle to Abolish Slavery in the British Colonies (2007) has argued: "Some detractors have since denounced the Sierra Leone project as repatriation by another name. It has been seen as a high-minded yet hypocritical way of ridding the country of its rising black population... Some in Britain wanted Africans to leave because they feared they were corrupting the virtues of the country's white women, while others were tired of seeing them reduced to begging on London streets." (40)

In March 1796, Wilberforce's proposal to abolish the slave trade was defeated in the House of Commons by only four votes. At least a dozen abolitionist MPs were out of town or at the new comic opera in London. Thomas Clarkson commented: "To have all our endeavours blasted by the vote of a single night is both vexatious and discouraging." Wilberforce wrote in his diary: "Enough at the Opera to have carried it. Very much vexed and incensed at our opponents". (41)

William Wilberforce held conservative views on most other issues. He opposed parliamentary reform and supported the suspension of Habeas Corpus that resulted in political activists such as Thomas Hardy and John Thelwall being imprisoned. He also supported the government when it passed Combination Acts of 1799–1800. This made it illegal for workers to join together to press their employers for shorter hours or may pay. As a result trade unions were thus effectively made illegal. (42)

In 1804 Thomas Clarkson returned to his campaign against the slave trade and toured the country on horseback obtaining new evidence and maintaining support for the campaigners in Parliament. A new generation of activists such as Henry Brougham, Zachary Macaulay and James Stephen, helped to galvanize older members of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. (43)

William Wilberforce introduced an abolition bill on 30th May 1804. It passed all stages in the House of Commons and on 28th June it moved to the House of Lords. The Whig leader in the Lords, Lord Grenville, said as so many "friends of abolition had already gone home" the bill would be defeated and advised Wilberforce to leave the vote to the following year. Wilberforce agreed and later commented "that in the House of Lords a bill from the House of Commons is in a destitute and orphan state, unless it has some peer to adopt and take the conduct of it". (44)

In February 1805, Wilberforce presented his eleventh abolition bill to the House of Commons. Charles Brooke reported that the French slave trade was resurgent, so that abolition would merely hand British commerce over to the enemy. Wilberforce replied: "The opportunity now offered may never return, and if the present moment be neglected, events may occur which render the whole of the West India islands one general scene of devastation and horror. The storm is fast gathering; every instant it becomes blacker and blacker. Even now I know not whether it be too late to avert the impending evil, but of this I am quite sure - that we have no time to lose." This time the pro-slave trade MPs were better organised and it was defeated by seven votes. (45)

In February, 1806 Lord Grenville was invited by the king to form a new Whig administration. Grenville, was a strong opponent of the slave trade. Grenville was determined to bring an end to British involvement in the trade. He had spoken against the slave-trade in nearly all the debates in the 1790s. Thomas Clarkson sent a circular to all supporters of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade claiming that "we have rather more friends in the Cabinet than formerly" and suggested "spontaneous" lobbying of MPs. He added: "There was never perhaps a season when so much virtuous feeling pervading all ranks." (46)

Grenville's Foreign Secretary, Charles Fox, led the campaign in the House of Commons to ban the slave trade in captured colonies. Clarkson commented that Fox was "determined upon the abolition of it (the slave trade) as the highest glory of his administration, and as the greatest earthly blessing which it was the power of the Government to bestow." Wilberforce praised the new, younger, members of Parliament "whose lofty and liberal sentiments... show to the people that their legislators, and especially the higher order of their youth, are forward to assert the rights of the weak against the strong." (47)

This time there was little opposition and the bill was passed by an overwhelming 114 to 15. In the House of Lords Lord Greenville made a passionate speech that lasted three hours where he argued that the trade was "contrary to the principles of justice, humanity and sound policy" and criticised fellow members for "not having abolished the trade long ago". Ellen Gibson Wilson has pointed out: "Lord Grenville ... opposed a delaying inquiry but several last-ditch petitions came from West Indian, London and Liverpool shipping and planting spokesmen.... He was determined to succeed and his canvassing of support had been meticulous." When the vote was taken the bill was passed in the House of Lords by 41 votes to 20. (48)

Wilberforce now spent his energies developing the Sierra Leone Company as a foundation for disseminating Christianity and civilization in Africa. It has been argued by Stephen Tomkins that during this period "Wilberforce... allowed the abolitionist colony of Sierra Leone... to use slave labour and buy and sell slaves.... After abolition, the British navy patrolled the Atlantic seizing slave ships. The crew were arrested, but what to do with the African captives? With the knowledge and consent of Wilberforce and friends, they were taken to Sierra Leone and put to slave labour in Freetown. They were called 'apprentices', but they were slaves. The governor of Sierra Leone paid the navy a bounty per head, put some of the men to work for the government, and sold the rest to landowners. They did forced labour, under threat of punishment, without pay, and those who escaped to neighbouring African villages to work for wages were arrested and brought back". (49)

In the General Election following the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act Wilberforce was challenged by a political opponent. He won but the hard contest had left him "thin and old beyond his years". In 1811 he decided to give up the county seat for reasons of health. Lord Calthorpe offered him a pocket borough at Bramber and he was returned from there in 1812 without having to leave his holiday home. (50)

Francis Burdett was a supporter of Wilberforce's campaign against the slave trade. In 1816 he attacked Wilberforce when he refused to complain about the suspension of Habeas Corpus, during the campaign for parliamentary reform. Burdett commented: "How happened it that the honourable and religious member was not shocked at Englishmen being taken up under this act and treated like African slaves?" Wilberforce replied that Burdett was opposing the government in a deliberate scheme to destroy the liberty and happiness of the people. (51)

It gradually became clear that there were serious problems with the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. British captains who were caught continuing the trade were fined £100 for every slave found on board. However, this law did not stop the British slave trade. In fact, the situation became worse. Now that the supply had officially ceased, the demand grew and with it the price of slaves. For high prices the traders were prepared to take the additional risks. If slave-ships were in danger of being captured by the British navy, captains often reduced the fines they had to pay by ordering the slaves to be thrown into the sea. (52)

Some people involved in the anti-slave trade campaign argued that the only way to end the suffering of the slaves was to make slavery illegal. A new Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1823. Thomas Clarkson, Henry Brougham and Thomas Fowell Buxton. "Its purpose was to rouse public opinion to bring as much pressure as possible on parliament, and the new generation realized that for this they still needed Clarkson.... He rode some 10,000 miles and achieved his masterpiece: by the summer of 1824, 777 petitions had been sent to parliament demanding gradual emancipation". (53)

Some people involved in the anti-slave trade campaign such as Thomas Fowell Buxton, argued that the only way to end the suffering of the slaves was to make slavery illegal. "I now regret that I and those honourable friends who thought with me on this subject have not before attempted to put an end, not merely to the evils of the slave trade, but to the evils of slavery itself." (54)

Wilberforce disagreed, he believed that at this time slaves were not ready to be granted their freedom. He pointed out in A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Addressed to the Freeholders and other inhabitants of Yorkshire that: "It would be wrong to emancipate (the slaves). To grant freedom to them immediately, would be to insure not only their masters' ruin, but their own. They must (first) be trained and educated for freedom." (55)

In 1823 Wilberforce published his Appeal to the Religion, Justice and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies. "In this pamphlet he dwelt on the moral and spiritual degradation of the slaves and presented their emancipation as a matter of national duty to God. It proved to be a powerful inspiration for the anti-slavery agitation in the country." (56)

It also stirred William Cobbett into a virulent published attack on Wilberforce for his alleged failure to acknowledge the extent of the deprivation and oppression suffered by the "free British labourers". Over the years the intensified his attacks on what Cobbett"saw as the hypocrisy of Wilberforce in campaigning for better conditions for Negro slaves abroad while British people lived in desperate conditions at home in the new manufacturing towns". (57)

Women and the Anti-Slavery Movement

In 1824 Elizabeth Heyrick published her pamphlet Immediate not Gradual Abolition. In her pamphlet Heyrick argued passionately in favour of the immediate emancipation of the slaves in the British colonies. This differed from the official policy of the Anti-Slavery Society that believed in gradual abolition. She called this "the very masterpiece of satanic policy" and called for a boycott of the sugar produced on slave plantations. (58)

In the pamphlet Heyrick attacked the "slow, cautious, accommodating measures" of the leaders like Wilberforce. "The perpetuation of slavery in our West India colonies is not an abstract question, to be settled between the government and the planters; it is one in which we are all implicated, we are all guilty of supporting and perpetuating slavery. The West Indian planter and the people of this country stand in the same moral relation to each other as the thief and receiver of stolen goods". (59)

The leadership of the organisation attempted to suppress information about the existence of this pamphlet and William Wilberforce gave out instructions for leaders of the movement not to speak on the same platforms as Heyrick and other women who favoured an immediate end to slavery. His biographer, William Hague, claims that Wilberforce was unable to adjust to the idea of women becoming involved in politics "occurring as this did nearly a century before women would be given the vote in Britain". (60)

Although women were allowed to be members they were virtually excluded from its leadership. Wilberforce disliked to militancy of the women and wrote to Thomas Babington protesting that "for ladies to meet, to publish, to go from house to house stirring up petitions - these appear to me proceedings unsuited to the female character as delineated in Scripture". (61)

Thomas Clarkson, another leader of the anti-slavery movement, was much more sympathetic towards women. Unusually for a man of his day, he believed women deserved a full education and a role in public life and admired the way the Quakers allowed women to speak in their meetings. Clarkson told Elizabeth Heyrick's friend, Lucy Townsend, that he objected to the fact that "women are still weighed in a different scale from men... If homage be paid to their beauty, very little is paid to their opinions." (62)

Records show that about ten per cent of the financial supporters of the organisation were women. In some areas, such as Manchester, women made up over a quarter of all subscribers. Lucy Townsend asked Thomas Clarkson how she could contribute in the fight against slavery. He replied that it would be a good idea to establish a women's anti-slavery society. (63)

On 8th April, 1825, Lucy Townsend held a meeting at her home to discuss the issue of the role of women in the anti-slavery movement. Townsend, Elizabeth Heyrick, Mary Lloyd, Sarah Wedgwood, Sophia Sturge and the other women at the meeting decided to form the Birmingham Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves (later the group changed its name to the Female Society for Birmingham). (64) The group "promoted the sugar boycott, targeting shops as well as shoppers, visiting thousands of homes and distributing pamphlets, calling meetings and drawing petitions." (65)

The society which was, from its foundation, independent of both the national Anti-Slavery Society and of the local men's anti-slavery society. As Clare Midgley has pointed out: "It acted as the hub of a developing national network of female anti-slavery societies, rather than as a local auxiliary. It also had important international connections, and publicity on its activities in Benjamin Lundy's abolitionist periodical The Genius of Universal Emancipation influenced the formation of the first female anti-slavery societies in America". (66)

The formation of other independent women's groups soon followed the setting up of the Female Society for Birmingham. This included groups in Nottingham (Ann Taylor Gilbert), Sheffield (Mary Anne Rawson, Mary Roberts), Leicester (Elizabeth Heyrick, Susanna Watts), Glasgow (Jane Smeal), Norwich (Amelia Opie, Anna Gurney), London (Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck, Mary Foster), Darlington (Elizabeth Pease) and Chelmsford (Anne Knight). Over the next seven years seventy-three of these women's organisations were formed to campaign against slavery. (67)

In 1830, the Female Society for Birmingham submitted a resolution to the National Conference of the Anti-Slavery Society calling for the organisation to campaign for an immediate end to slavery in the British colonies. Elizabeth Heyrick, who was treasurer of the organisation suggested a new strategy to persuade the male leadership to change its mind on this issue. In April 1830 they decided that the group would only give their annual £50 donation to the national anti-slavery society only "when they are willing to give up the word 'gradual' in their title." At the national conference the following month, the Anti-Slavery Society agreed to drop the words "gradual abolition" from its title. It also agreed to support Female Society's plan for a new campaign to bring about immediate abolition. (68)

The Female Society for Birmingham played an important role in the propaganda campaign against slavery. Lucy Townsend, wrote the anti-slavery pamphlet To the Law and to the Testimony (1832). "Under Lucy Townsend's and Mary Lloyd's leadership the society developed the distinctive forms of female anti-slavery activity, involving an emphasis on the sufferings of women under slavery, systematic promotion of abstention from slave-grown sugar through door-to-door canvassing, and the production of innovative forms of propaganda, such as albums containing tracts, poems, and illustrations, embroidered anti-slavery workbags." (69)

William Wilberforce's final decline in health began early in 1833 with a severe attack of influenza. He went to Bath, where the waters had so often in the past appeared beneficial to him, but this time he experienced no relief, suffering "much from pain and languor". In mid-July he was moved to London, where for some days he seemed to improve. (70)

On 26th July, 1833, Wilberforce received news that the Slavery Abolition Act had passed its third reading. This act gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom. The British government paid £20 million in compensation to the slave owners. The amount that the plantation owners received depended on the number of slaves that they had. For example, Henry Phillpotts, the Bishop of Exeter, received £12,700 for the 665 slaves he owned. (71)

William Wilberforce died on 29th July 1833 at 44 Cadogan Place, Sloane Street. The following year Robert Wilberforce and Samuel Wilberforce, began work on their father's biography. The book was published in 1838. As Ellen Gibson Wilson, the author of Thomas Clarkson (1989), pointed out: "The five volumes which the Wilberforces published in 1838 vindicated Clarkson's worst fears that he would be forced to reply. How far the memoir was Christian, I must leave to others to decide. That it was unfair to Clarkson is not disputed. Where possible, the authors ignored Clarkson; where they could not they disparaged him. In the whole rambling work, using the thousands of documents available to them, they found no space for anything illustrating the mutual affection and regard between the two great men, or between Wilberforce and Clarkson's brother."

Wilson goes on to argue that the book has completely distorted the history of the campaign against the slave-trade: "The Life has been treated as an authoritative source for 150 years of histories and biographies. It is readily available and cannot be ignored because of the wealth of original material it contains. It has not always been read with the caution it deserves. That its treatment of Clarkson, in particular, a deservedly towering figure in the abolition struggle, is invalidated by untruths, omissions and misrepresentations of his motives and his achievements is not understood by later generations, unfamiliar with the jealousy that motivated the holy authors. When all the contemporary shouting had died away, the Life survived to take from Clarkson both his fame and his good name. It left us with the simplistic myth of Wilberforce and his evangelical warriors in a holy crusade". (72)

Eventually, Robert Wilberforce and Samuel Wilberforce apologized for what they had done to Clarkson: "As it is now several years since the conclusion of all differences between us, and we can take a more dispassionate view than formerly of the circumstances of the case, we think ourselves bound to acknowledge that we were in the wrong in the manner in which we treated you in the memoir of our father.... we are conscious that too jealous a regard for what we thought our father's fame, led us to entertain an ungrounded prejudice against you and this led us into a tone of writing which we now acknowledge was practically unjust." (73)

Primary Sources

(1) Charles Fox, letter to Thomas Walker (May 1788)

There are many reasons why I am glad (Wilberforce) has undertaken it rather than I, and I think as you do, that I can be very useful in preventing him from betraying the cause, if he should be so inclined, which I own I suspect. Nothing, I think but such a disposition, or a want of judgment scarcely credible, could induce him to throw cold water upon petitions. It is from them and other demonstrations of the opinion without doors that I look for success.

(2) William Wilberforce, letter to Thomas Clarkson (August 1793)

We have long acted together in the greatest cause which ever engaged the efforts of public men, and so I trust we shall continue to act with one heart and one hand, relieving our labours as hitherto with the comforts of social intercourse. And notwithstanding what you say of your irreconcilable hostility to the present administration, and of my bigoted attachment to them, I trust if our lives are spared, that after the favourite wish of our hearts has been gratified by the Abolition of the Slave Trade, there may still be many occasions on which we may co-operate for the glory of our Maker, and the improvement and happiness of our fellow-creatures.

(3) Thomas Clarkson, History of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade (1807)

For what, for example, could I myself have done if I had not derived so much assistance from the committee? What could Mr Wilberforce have done in parliament, if I ... had not collected that great body of evidence, to which there was such a constant appeal? And what could the committee have done without the parliamentary aid of Mr Wilberforce?

(4) Stephen Tomkins, The Guardian (3rd August, 2010)

William Wilberforce, the most celebrated campaigner against the slave trade, was also implicated in slavery and the trade, according to a forthcoming book about him and the Clapham sect, written, it so happens, by me. Having given 20 years of his life to the struggle, after the Abolition Act was passed in 1807, he allowed the abolitionist colony of Sierra Leone, which the Clapham sect managed, to use slave labour and buy and sell slaves.

This is not a claim I make with the relish of trying to bring down an over-venerated icon a peg or two. I'm a critical fan of Wilberforce for his central role in the astounding achievement in abolition, which without his stamina would certainly have failed.

Neither is it a case of reading too much between the lines of meagre evidence. The facts are indisputably clear from colonial office manuscripts in the Public Record Office, whatever interpretation one might put on them. It's just a matter of information that biographers of Wilberforce have not picked up on – a point I make without any great arrogance, having been one of them myself.

The story starts 15 years before the abolition of the slave trade, when Wilberforce and the Clapham sect founded the colony of Sierra Leone as a new front in the abolition campaign – to resettle former slaves and establish legitimate commerce with Africa. They continued to effectively manage it when it became a crown colony on the abolition of the slave trade in 1807.

After abolition, the British navy patrolled the Atlantic seizing slave ships. The crew were arrested, but what to do with the African captives? With the knowledge and consent of Wilberforce and friends, they were taken to Sierra Leone and put to slave labour in Freetown.

They were called "apprentices", but they were slaves. The governor of Sierra Leone paid the navy a bounty per head, put some of the men to work for the government, and sold the rest to landowners. They did forced labour, under threat of punishment, without pay, and those who escaped to neighbouring African villages to work for wages were arrested and brought back. Women were "given away".

The one difference by which apprenticeship was distinguished from slavery was that it had a maximum term of 14 years – and in fact apprentices were generally freed a lot sooner. But this only makes it temporary rather than permanent slavery.

The first crown governor of Sierra Leone, Lt Thomas Perronet Thompson, turned up when this was already underway. He was an abolitionist protege of Wilberforce, chosen by him for the job, and he was appalled at what was happening. "These apprenticeships", he complained, "have after 16 years successful struggle at last introduced actual slavery into the colony".

He single-handedly abolished apprenticeship and freed the slaves. He filed scandalised reports to the colonial office. Wilberforce told him he was being rash and hasty, and he and his colleagues voted unanimously for his dismissal. Wilberforce advised him to go quietly for the sake of his career, which he did and indeed eventually became a general and MP.

What are we to make of it all? No interpretation that involves Wilberforce being corrupt, or insincere in his abolitionism, can possibly hold water. Vast amounts of his private letters and even privater journals are publicly available, and they reveal a man of extraordinary integrity and an implacable and lifelong (if slightly sentimental) hatred of slavery.

The key I think is that the apprenticeship system was explicitly authorised in the 1807 Abolition Act. Wilberforce told Thompson, "I wish I had time to go into particulars respecting the difficulties which forced us into acquiescing in the system of apprenticing". Which is tantalising, but also suggests that Wilberforce had made a political decision to support it as a government policy.

My theory is that Wilberforce and the Clapham sect believed that the Abolition Act would not get through the House of Lords without the apprenticeship clause, and once it was passed felt duty bound to support the system against Thompson's maverick actions.

But if so, and if Wilberforce was right that without apprenticeship the abolition bill would not have been passed, then it follows that he made the right choice to support it. Before abolition, 40,000 African people each year were being made slaves by the British. After abolition, several hundred of them a year were still ending up as slaves in Freetown.

It is a bitter irony, and a disappointment, but it does seem that Wilberforce was faced with a choice between two evils, and chose the less.

(5) Ellen Gibson Wilson, Thomas Clarkson (1989)

The five volumes which the Wilberforces published in 1838 vindicated Clarkson's worst fears that he would be forced to reply. How far the memoir was Christian, I must leave to others to decide. That it was unfair to Clarkson is not disputed. Where possible, the authors ignored Clarkson; where they could not they disparaged him. In the whole rambling work, using the thousands of documents available to them, they found no space for anything illustrating the mutual affection and regard between the two great men, or between Wilberforce and Clarkson's brother. They had room, however, to exploit two highly personal incidents, involving Clarkson's letters about his financial subscription and his plea for his brother's promotion. These were written when Clarkson was shattered in mind and body. The Wilberforce's use of them attracted almost universal condemnation at the time...

The problem raised by the Wilberforce Life was identified by Henry Robinson. Not one in a hundred readers of the Life would be able to compare its account of the abolition campaign with Clarkson's History, published 30 years before. The Life has been treated as an authoritative source for 150 years of histories and biographies. It is readily available and cannot be ignored because of the wealth of original material it contains. It has not always been read with the caution it deserves. That its treatment of Clarkson, in particular, a deservedly towering figure in the abolition struggle, is invalidated by untruths, omissions and misrepresentations of his motives and his achievements is not understood by later generations, unfamiliar with the jealousy that motivated the holy authors. When all the contemporary shouting had died away, the Life survived to take from Clarkson both his fame and his good name. It left us with the simplistic myth of Wilberforce and his evangelical warriors in a holy crusade.

(6) Robert Wilberforce and Samuel Wilberforce, letter to Thomas Clarkson (1786)

As it is now several years since the conclusion of all differences between us, and we can take a more dispassionate view than formerly of the circumstances of the case, we think ourselves bound to acknowledge that we were in the wrong in the manner in which we treated you in the memoir of our father.... we are conscious that too jealous a regard for what we thought our father's fame, led us to entertain an ungrounded prejudice against you and this led us into a tone of writing which we now acknowledge was practically unjust.

(7) Wayne Ackerson, The African Institution and the Antislavery Movement in Great Britain (2005)

The African Institution was a pivotal abolitionist and antislavery group in Britain during the early nineteenth century, and its members included royalty, prominent lawyers, Members of Parliament, and noted reformers such as William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, and Zachary Macaulay. Focusing on the spread of Western civilization to Africa, the abolition of the foreign slave trade, and improving the lives of slaves in British colonies, the group's influence extended far into Britain's diplomatic relations in addition to the government's domestic affairs. The African Institution carried the torch for antislavery reform for twenty years and paved the way for later humanitarian efforts in Great Britain.

Student Activities

Child Labour Simulation (Teacher Notes)

Richard Arkwright and the Factory System (Answer Commentary)

Robert Owen and New Lanark (Answer Commentary)

James Watt and Steam Power (Answer Commentary)

The Domestic System (Answer Commentary)

The Luddites: 1775-1825 (Answer Commentary)

The Plight of the Handloom Weavers (Answer Commentary)

Road Transport and the Industrial Revolution (Answer Commentary)

Early Development of the Railways (Answer Commentary)

References

(1) John Wolffe, William Wilberforce : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) Robert Wilberforce and Samuel Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce (1863) page 2

(3) Stephen Tomkins, William Wilberforce (2007) page 9

(4) Michael Jordan, The Great Abolition Sham (2005) page 69

(5) William Hague, William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner (2008) page 21

(6) Robert Wilberforce and Samuel Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce (1863) page 10

(7) Richard Reddie, Abolition! The Struggle to Abolish Slavery in the British Colonies (2007) page 166

(8) Stephen Tomkins, William Wilberforce (2007) pages 23-24

(9) William Hague, William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner (2008) pages 37-38

(10) Robert Wilberforce and Samuel Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce (1863) page 19

(11) Stephen Tomkins, William Wilberforce (2007) page 25

(12) Robin Furneaux, William Wilberforce (1974) page 21

(13) William Wilberforce, speech in the House of Commons (22nd February, 1782)

(14) John Wolffe, William Wilberforce : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(15) Ellen Gibson Wilson, Thomas Clarkson (1989) page 2

(16) William Hague, William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner (2008) page 218

(17) Richard Reddie, Abolition! The Struggle to Abolish Slavery in the British Colonies (2007) page 167

(18) Ellen Gibson Wilson, Thomas Clarkson (1989) page 14

(19) Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade (1997) page 492

(20) Stephen Tomkins, William Wilberforce (2007) page 55

(21) William Wilberforce, diary entry (28th October, 1787)

(22) George Stephen, Anti-Slavery Recollections (1854) page 790

(23) Charles Fox, letter to Thomas Walker (May 1788)

(24) Jack Gratus, The Great White Lie (1973) page 202

(25) William Hazlitt, The Spirit of the Age: Contemporary Portraits (1825) pages 324-330

(26) Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (2005) page 140

(27) John Wolffe, William Wilberforce : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(28) William Roberts, Memoirs of the Life and Correspondence of Mrs. Hannah More (1834) page 455

(29) Michael Jordan, The Great Abolition Sham (2005) page 130

(30) Ellen Gibson Wilson, Thomas Clarkson (1989) page 51

(31) James Ramsay, letter to Thomas Clarkson (10th July 1789)

(32) John Pollock, Wilberforce (1977) page 82

(33) William Hague, William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner (2008) page 188

(34) Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (2005) page 156

(35) Earl Leslie Grig̊gs, Thomas Clarkson, The Friend of Slaves (1938) page 63

(36) Stephen Tomkins, William Wilberforce (2007) page 93

(37) Earl Leslie Grig̊gs, Thomas Clarkson, The Friend of Slaves (1938) page 71

(38) Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade (1997) page 524

(39) John Wolffe, William Wilberforce : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(40) Richard Reddie, Abolition! The Struggle to Abolish Slavery in the British Colonies (2007) page 163

(41) William Wilberforce, diary (15th March 1796)

(42) John Wolffe, William Wilberforce : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(43) Hugh Brogan, Thomas Clarkson : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(44) William Wilberforce, letter to Lord Grenville (27th June, 1804)

(45) Stephen Tomkins, William Wilberforce (2007) page 160

(46) Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade (1997) page 552

(47) William Wilberforce, speech in the House of Commons (23rd February, 1807)

(48) Ellen Gibson Wilson, Thomas Clarkson (1989) page 113

(49) Stephen Tomkins, The Guardian (3rd August, 2010)

(50) William Hague, William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner (2008) page 401

(51) Stephen Tomkins, William Wilberforce (2007) page 194

(52) Jack Gratus, The Great White Lie (1973) page 136

(53) Hugh Brogan, Thomas Clarkson : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(54) Jack Gratus, The Great White Lie (1973) page 160

(55) A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Addressed to the Freeholders and other inhabitants of Yorkshire (1807)

(56) John Wolffe, William Wilberforce : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(57) William Hague, William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner (2008) page 440

(58) Stephen Tomkins, William Wilberforce (2007) page 206

(59) Elizabeth Heyrick, Immediate not Gradual Abolition (1824)

(60) William Hague, William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner (2008) page 487

(61) William Wilberforce, letter to Thomas Babington (31st January, 1826)

(62) Ellen Gibson Wilson, Thomas Clarkson: A Biography (1989) page 91

(63) Thomas Clarkson, letter to Lucy Townsend (3rd August, 1825)

(64) Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (2005) page 326

(65) Stephen Tomkins, William Wilberforce (2007) page 208

(66) Clare Midgley, Lucy Townsend : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(67) Richard Reddie, Abolition! The Struggle to Abolish Slavery in the British Colonies (2007) page 214

(68) Female Society for Birmingham, resolution passed at National Conference (8th April, 1830)

(69) Clare Midgley, Lucy Townsend : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(70) John Wolffe, William Wilberforce : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(71) Jack Gratus, The Great White Lie (1973) page 240

(72) Ellen Gibson Wilson, Thomas Clarkson (1989)

(73) Robert Wilberforce and Samuel Wilberforce, letter to Thomas Clarkson (1786)