William Wilberforce – The original Black Lives Matter Campaigner
Updated: Dec 2, 2020
After the recent Black Lives Matter protests around the world it was quite apt when one of my fellow guides, Nick Smith, the owner of Yor Tours sent me an interesting recent article on William Wilberforce the great anti-slavery campaigner and his links not just with Hull but Markington Hall between Harrogate and Ripon.
Whilst I will probably cover these links in a future blog, I thought it would be relevant to give some perspective and history on the man “who was responsible for ending the slave trade in Britain” and was a very early Black Lives Matter supporter before the slogan was ever heard.
William Wilberforce 1759 – 1833
The Wilberforce family name originated in York and were originally named Wiberfoss after the River Foss which runs through York. They made their fortune out of trade with the Baltic States and were based in Hull, a Port and one of the most important cities for trading with the Baltic region at the time.
Young William Wilberforce was born into the Hull aristocracy and was sent to board at Pocklington School after his father died when he was 9. A keen scholar he went on to study at Cambridge University.
He entered parliament in 1780 at just 21 as a Tory MP, starting at the same time as his University friend William Pitt – The Younger, who later became Prime Minister. Wilberforce secured the seat of Hull , but after being ignored for office by a series of Prime Ministers he became a true independent MP for Yorkshire.
He was a small man, standing at just 5ft 3 inches and had a chest size of 33 inches. But he was full of charisma, political nouse and was by all accounts a wonderful orator. One documents records him in action when addressing potential voters…
“this man the size of a shrimp fills up to the size of a whale at hustings”
In 1785 William Wilberforce became an Evangelical Christian and joined the Clapham Sect – a network of social activists who shared the same moral and spiritual values. Through his dealing with the Clapham Sect he gained a particular interest into the welfare of slaves travelling between Africa and the West Indies.
At the same time he also championed causes such as campaigning against Bull Baiting (which led to the founding of the RSPCA), but it was human rights issues such as social reform and the rights of factory workers, the suppression of vice as well as the abhorrent practice of slavery that he was most passionate about.
Wilberforce was influenced by the Abolitionist Thomas Clarkson who wanted to see the transportation of slaves in terrible conditions on ships to be ended. He took up the mantle and started actively lobbying parliament against the practice. He was often opposed by MP’s from the West in Liverpool and Bristol, whose constituencies were complicit in the slave trade and making lots of money from it. He regularly introduced bills designed to stop the trade and even brought in a model boat into parliament to explain to MP’s the terrible conditions slaves were transported in.
William Wilberforce was a determined man and organised petitions, leaflet distribution and mass rallies to draw attention to the cause.
In 1807 he brought about the Slave Trade Act when his Anti-slavery Bill was passed through parliament to a standing ovation. It meant that slaves could not be transported in British ships but sadly it did not abolish the practice of actual slavery.
William Wilberforce continued to campaign against the complete abolition of slavery even after he retired as a politician in 1826 due to ailing health. He lived just long enough to see Parliament outlaw slavery when The Slavery Abolition Act was passed in 1833 which provided the emancipation of slaves from all British Colonies. Wilberforce died just 3 days later.
He was buried in West Minster Abbey near his close friend William Pitt.
“You may choose to look the other away, but you can never say again that you did not know” – William Wilberforce
This proud Yorkshireman – was not the only person campaigning against the slave trade but his profile and passion gave the movement a voice and a momentum which eventually became unstoppable.
Wilberforce was known throughout his campaigning as “the conscience of the nation”.
Wilberforce House in Hull – the birth place of William Wilberforce is now a museum which tells the story of the transatlantic slave trade and its abolition as well as the story of modern day slavery. It is located in Hull’s Museum Quarter and is well worth a visit.
In 2007 as part of the celebrations of the 200 year anniversary of the 1807 Slave trade Act – Hull Freedom Festival was founded in honour of one of Hull’s favourite sons. The Festival has grown year on year and now has become one of the UK’s leading Arts Festivals with audiences of 100,000 descending upon the City of Hull each year. A fitting tribute to the man who I am sure would be a key Black Lives Matter campaigner today if still alive.