On the 24th of February, 1793, a tired eighty-eight
year old man wrote Wilberforce, "Unless God has raised you up . . . I see not how you
can go through with your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy. . . .
You will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils; but if God is with you, who can
be against you? Oh, be not weary in well-doing. Go on, in the name of God and in the power
of his might, till even American slavery, the vilest that ever saw the sun, shall banish
away before it." One week later John Wesley was dead. It was the last letter he would
William Wilberforce entered the world sickly and nearly blind.
When he was only nine his father died; his mother, unable to care for him, consigned him
to the care of relatives. These people took him regularly to their evangelical Anglican
parish church. What the youngster heard there, especially the stories and sermons of his
favorite guest-preacher, The Reverend John Newton, went deep. For Newton had been captain
of a slaveship, but had by the grace of God been rendered preacher, hymnwriter
("Amazing Grace") and spiritual counselor. His influence upon the boy was
incalculable: " I revered him as a parent when I was a child," Wilberforce would
Slaves were picked up in West Africa and brought in chains to
England in ships without sanitation facilities. Once put ashore, they were fattened up to
disguise the ravages of months of poor nutrition and seasickness. Then they were oiled
(dull skin being a sign of ill health) and paraded naked before buyers so that their
physique could be assessed and market-value assigned. In the ten years following 1783 one
British seaport alone (Liverpool) shipped 303,737 slaves to the New World. In no time
Britain, the worlds leader in the trade, had supplied three million to French,
Spanish and British colonies.
The captain of a British slaver threw 132 slaves overboard during
a mid-ocean storm in order to lighten the vessel. Upon returning to England he made an
insurance claim on the lost cargo! Sensitive people were outraged. The Attorney-General,
however, insisted that the captain was without "any show or suggestion of
cruelty"; it was his privilege to do with the cargo as he pleased. In any case, no
public outrage was going to overturn anything unless a Member of Parliament, championing
the welfare of slaves, cold persuade fellow-politicians. Besides, slaves were economically
essential as a cheap source of labour, even as the trade was militarily necessary in
training personnel for the Royal Navy.
In the meantime Wilberforce had found his way to Cambridge
University, where he did little besides play cards. Soon his talent for eloquence got him
elected to Parliament. He was twenty-one, and newly immersed in upper-class degradation.
His earlier Christian formation appeared to recede as he groped and stumbled in gambling
and intemperate drinking. By now he had scorned his Methodist upbringing as
"vulgar" and "uninformed."
Then, while he holidayed in the south of France, a devotional
book by Philip Doddridge, an English clergyman, found its way into his hands and heart.
Soon he was reading the New Testament in Greek. Torment consumed him as he became
convicted of his depravity. Now he deplored the "shapeless idleness" of his
frivolous life, speaking of it in terms of "deep guilt" and "black
ingratitude." With gospel-quickened insight he acknowledged "a sense of my great
sinfulness in having so long neglected the unspeakable mercies of my God and
Assurance of his salvation turned the badge of
"Methodist" from contemptible disgrace to glorious declaration. Immediately he
resigned from five fashionable clubs, renounced gambling, and found himself fired with an
intellectual zeal unknown at university. For the rest of his life he would labour
ceaselessly on behalf of the earths wretched.
Wilberforces first target was the abolition of the trading
in slaves. (He felt that if trafficking in black people ceased, slave-owners would have to
treat their "property" more humanely, there being no replacement.) Admiral
Nelson wrote from his ship, H.H.S. Victory, that as long as he would speak and
fight he would resist "the damnable doctrines of Wilberforce and his hypocritical
allies." An irate sea-captain pummeled Wilberforce on the street. It was whispered
slanderously when he was yet unmarried that his wife was black and that he beat her. His
friends were accused of being spies in the service of the French.
While petitions poured into government offices to end slavery,
the petitioners themselves were not at risk. Wilberforce was, for his position was never
going to advance his political career even if he survived assassinations. In 1793 he
advanced a bill in the House of Commons advocating gradual abolition. It failed by eight
votes, most members absenting themselves form the House so as not to have to vote. Next he
brought forward a bill prohibiting British ships from carrying slaves to foreign
territories. It lost by two votes in a near-empty House. Promised the support of some
Members of Parliament, he found himself abandoned. Nevertheless his resolve never abated
even as his courage and eloquence never diminished. The tide began to turn. In 1807
Britain outlawed trading in slaves. Wilberforce incessantly lobbied the governments of
other nations and was rewarded by seeing them do the same.
One task remained: the freeing of those already enslaved. That
task absorbed all his energies for the next twenty-five years. The night that Wilberforce
died, his supporters in the House of Commons were passing the clause in the Emancipation
Act that declared all slaves free in one year and their masters given twenty million
pounds in compensation.
The villainy, as vile as it was execrable, was over.