William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the famous British anti-slavery campaigner, was born into a rich family (he was the son of a wealthy merchant). After studying at Cambridge University, he became a politician, representing Hull and later Yorkshire in the British Parliament.
Then in 1780 he became an evangelical Christian. His religious beliefs led him to give up his formerly hedonistic lifestyle and to become a staunch advocate of social change, for example, the improvement of factory conditions in Britain and Roman Catholic emancipation.
Largely through the influence of his friends Thomas Clarkson, an abolitionist, and John Newton, a former slave trader, Wilberforce became aware of the dreadful conditions that slaves endured during their transportation on British ships from Africa across the Atlantic Ocean to the West Indies where they were destined to be bought and sold as chattels (goods).
In 1787 Wilberforce helped to found the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (often called the Anti-Slavery Society). Year after year, Wilberforce and his colleagues in this Society used books, pamphlets, petitions, and public meetings to raise public awareness of the anti-slavery cause.
26 Years of Struggle Against Slavery
Over a period of 26 years Wilberforce headed the parliamentary campaign against the slave trade and introduced 18 resolutions in the House of Commons (the lower house of the British Parliament) against the practice. Unfortunately all his efforts — even with the help of his parliamentary colleagues William Pitt the Younger, Charles Fox and Edmund Burke — failed for many years. A compromise measure was passed in 1791 that would see slavery gradually abolished. It was not until 1807 that he finally achieved success with the slave trade being finally abolished throughout the British Empire.
Unfortunately, this law did not affect the legal position of those persons already enslaved in the British Empire, who were to remain slaves for the rest of their lives. It was not until July 29, 1833 (just three days before Wilberforce died) that the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in the House of Commons and gave freedom to all slaves in the Empire.
It is not widely known that Wilberforce was involved in many other areas of social reform. He aimed for the bettering of working conditions in British factories and he opposed the publication of obscenity. He supported Roman Catholic emancipation and pressed for more humane criminal laws.
He was also involved with the Association for the Better Observance of Sunday, which advocated going beyond preaching sermons and instead providing children with frequent and practical instruction in reading, hygiene and Christian values.
Furthermore, he was an early member of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (R.S.P.C.A.). This British animal welfare organization was founded in 1824 by Wilberforce and a group of other reformers — including the parliamentarian Richard Martin (later nicknamed Humanity Dick) and the Reverend Arthur Broome — who were horrified at the cruelty to farm animals, particularly cattle, that they had seen.
They succeeded in passing a law against this cruelty and then set up the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (later known as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals after Queen Victoria granted it royal status) to encourage enforcement of the law by employing inspectors of market places, slaughter houses and transport businesses (which employed horses to pull coaches and carts). In later years the R.S.P.C.A. supported laws against animal baiting and experimentation on animals.
William Wilberforce, politician, philanthropist and humanitarian, could have had an easy, pleasure-filled life. Instead, he chose the hard and unpopular road of fighting against the slave trade, and for a better life for many other groups such as children and animals.