Ward's Book of Days.

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On this day in history in 1759, was born William Wilberforce.

Wilberforce was a politician was the foremost advocate of the abolition of slavery and whose mission was completed shortly after his death.

Wilberforce was born in Hull, Yorkshire, the son of a prosperous merchant. He was educated at Pocklington School and St John’s College, Cambridge. At Cambridge, he became acquainted with William Pitt the Younger, the future Prime Minister, and became interested in Pitt’s views on radical reform. Wilberforce and Pitt entered Parliament simultaneously in 1780, Wilberforce spending £9,000, to obtain the seat of Hull.

In 1784, Wilberforce declared that he had been converted to Evangelical Christianity. He helped to found the Society for the Reformation of Manners, known as the Proclamation Society, whose aim was the suppression of obscene publications. Here he drew the attention of Lady Middleton, sister of Home Secretary, Lord Sydney, who asked Wilberforce to join the newly formed Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, known as the Anti-Slavery Society. Slavery was, at that time, illegal in Britain but rife in the colonies. Slaves were purchased in West Africa and shipped in British vessels to the West Indies where they were sold to plantation owners.

The Anti-Slavery Society was a broad group, discretely controlled by a select group of influential people, known as the Clapham Sect, of whom Wilberforce became the natural leader due to his prominence in the House of Commons.  The Clapham Sect, known to their adversaries as the Saints, were mostly Anglican, Tory wealthy men whose Christian zeal was directed to projects such as the curbing of gambling, alcohol, cruel sports, pornography and licentiousness. The suppression of slavery became top of their agenda. They sought to achieve their object by campaigning in Parliament and by using their wealth and influence to gain support in the country.

Wilberforce was the most eloquent member of the group. He campaigned tirelessly in the House of Commons. In 1791, Wilberforce introduced an Anti-Slavery Bill to the House, which was defeated by a landslide. In 1805, after much canvassing, a similar Bill passed the Commons but was defeated in the Lords. In 1807, Wilberforce achieved his first success with the passing of the Slave Trade Act, which prohibited the carrying of slaves from Africa to the British West Indies. The Act, however, did not abolish slavery as nothing was done to alleviate the condition of existing slaves. The legislation provided for a fine of £100 per slave, levied on any ship’s captain found transporting slaves. The Act did not work efficiently as many ships continued to transport slaves and, when in danger of being caught out, dumped the slaves overboard.

Wilberforce carried on the fight for total abolition. He also tried to reform the East India Company, with a view to “introducing Christian Light into India.” He was unable to compel the Company to introduce religious teachers but Wilberforce did send missionaries to India and founded the bishopric of Calcutta.

Eventually the campaign for abolition was a success. Wilberforce persuaded his colleagues that a Bill to abolish slavery must contain a clause providing compensation to slave owners for the loss of their property. On 29 July 1833, a Bill containing such a clause passed through Parliament. The Slavery Abolition Act gave freedom to all slaves in the British Empire and eradicated slavery permanently. Slave owners were compensated for their losses. It was reported that Bishop Phillpotts of Exeter received £13,000 for the slaves in his possession at the time.

Wilberforce did not live to see the end of slavery, having died of influenza one month before the Act was passed. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, in ‘Statesman’s Corner'. His house in Hull is now a museum of slavery, and contains grisly specimens of the appurtenances of the slave trade. [Wilberforce House, 23-25 High Street, Hull, Yorkshire, HU1 1NQ]

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