Two hundred years ago, on 23 February 1807, the British Parliament passed a bill outlawing the slave trade. It was the culmination of a twenty year campaign by William Wilberforce and his friends.
Last month we saw how the young parliamentarian was converted to Christ and began his crusade to abolish this evil trade. Here we bring the story to its conclusion. Wilberforce first introduced his Abolition Bill in May 1789 but subsequently suffered much slander and abuse. His life was threatened, he was challenged to a duel, and was stalked for two years by a certain Captain Kimber, whom he had publicly accused of cruelty.
The Clapham Circle
In 1792 Wilberforce shared a house with his cousin Henry Thornton in Clapham, and before long a group of influential, mainly evangelical, Anglicans were meeting to promote the cause of Abolition and Christian teaching at home and overseas.
This ‘circle’ was later called the Clapham Sect. They secured John Venn as Rector of Holy Trinity – an able evangelical preacher who helped found the Church Missionary Society.
Then in 1793 France declared war on England and Abolition became a low national priority. In 1796 he again presented the Abolition Bill, which passed its second reading, but was lost by 74 votes to 40 after the third reading on 7 March.
This was as devastating as it was unexpected. In theory he had enough supporters to carry the bill but many of them chose to attend the opera that night rather than deliver Britain from ‘the foulest blot on the moral character of our country’.
Meanwhile, Wilberforce, concerned for the souls of his friends in the higher and middle classes, frequently engaged them in serious conversation – seeking to devise what he called ‘launchers’ or openings to witness to the gospel.
To make his own beliefs clear and to challenge their largely nominal Christianity with the true gospel, he published Practical Christianity in 1797. To those relying on their good works for salvation he declared, ‘Christianity is a scheme for “justifying the ungodly” by Christ’s dying for them “when yet sinners” [and] for making the fruits of holiness the effects, not the cause, of our being justified and reconciled’.
Copies were sent to his contacts and, through an intermediary, to the royal household. John Newton exclaimed, ‘Such a book by such a man, and at such a time!’ It will ‘be read by persons in higher circles – who will neither hear what we can say, nor read what we may write’.
The following year he met Barbara Ann Spooner, of Elmdon Hall, Warwickshire. On 23 April he wrote: ‘I believe her to be a real Christian, affectionate, sensible, rational in habits, moderate in desires and pursuits; capable of bearing prosperity without intoxication, and adversity without repining. If I have been precipitate, forgive me, O God’.
Six weeks later they married on 30 May 1797. She was 20, he 38. She bore him six children and his family gave him the greatest pleasure, so at the end he could say, ‘What more could any man wish at the close of his life, than to be attended by his own children, and his own wife, and all treating him with such uniform kindness and affection’.
He established a pattern of morning and evening family prayers, attended also by his 14 servants. In the morning, he read sequentially a portion of the Scriptures, generally of the New Testament, explaining it eloquently – and ‘always with affectionate earnestness and an extraordinary knowledge of God’s word’.
Henry Martyn observed on a visit in 1804, ‘At evening worship Mr Wilberforce expounded sacred Scripture with plainness, and prayed in the midst of his large household’. Nine years later Wilberforce notes, ‘We have heard of excellent Martyn’s death in Persia, on his way to the Mediterranean homewards. It is a mysterious Providence’.
The tide turns
Each year he brought forward the Abolition Bill, but was continually defeated. Prime Minister Pitt treated the matter coolly, being more concerned with acquiring and developing new colonies in the West Indies.
It grieved Wilberforce that Pitt remained in unbelief: ‘he told me of his thinking the great bulk of the more serious clergy great rascals … the prejudice arose out of the confidence he reposed in the Bishop of Lincoln’. Pitt died on 23 January 1806, owing £40,000 to tradesmen. ‘Poor Pitt’, wrote Wilberforce; ‘I almost believe [he] died of a broken heart!’
Pitt’s death resulted in a coalition government under Grenville. The Abolition Bill needed a sponsor in the Upper House, and Grenville ‘agreed to introduce it in the Lords, assuring Mr Wilberforce that he should be “happy to promote the object in any way”.’
Before long, leading ministers had declared the trade to be ‘contrary to the principles of justice, humanity, and sound policy’. Fox, once his opponent, now became Foreign Secretary, and supported Abolition. Although dying with dropsy (oedema), he ‘wished to go down to the house once more to say something on the Slave Trade’.
Wilberforce’s heart went out to him, ‘Oh that I might be the instrument of bringing him to the knowledge of Christ!’ Fox died three months later in September.
Victory at last
Wilberforce retained his Yorkshire seat in the election of November 1806. The following January he recorded, ‘The Princes [are] canvassing against us, alas’. But on 4 February, at 5am, the Abolition Bill was carried by the House of Lords, helped by a famous speech from Grenville (which the hostile press failed to report!)
Wilberforce records, ‘How popular Abolition is just now! God can turn the hearts of men … Never surely had I more cause for gratitude than now, when carrying the great object of my life, to which a gracious Providence directed my thoughts twenty-six or twenty-seven years ago, and led my endeavours in 1787 or 1788’.
At the second reading on 23 February the spontaneous applause acknowledging Wilberforce’s 20-year effort was quite unprecedented, and the bill was carried 283 to 16. He was congratulated at a gathering of about eight friends back at Palace Yard, when he quipped to Henry Thornton, ‘Well, Henry, what shall we abolish next?’ ‘The lottery, I think’, replied his sterner friend.
The Abolition Bill passed the third reading and received royal assent on 25 March 1807.
It was one thing to pass the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, but another to police and enforce it – so penalties had now to be added. Naval warships had to be sourced and manned to combat the smuggling of slaves. 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. Facing capture by the British navy, captains often reduced their liability to fines by throwing slaves overboard. Another long struggle ensued.
Treaties banning the slave trade were made with various European countries, and a register of colonial slaves was established in 1819.
The only answer was for a total abolition of slavery, namely, emancipation. Eventually, on Friday 26 July 1833 the Emancipation Bill passed its second reading – as Wilberforce was on his death-bed.
He remarked, ‘Thank God that I should have lived to witness a day in which England is willing to give twenty millions sterling for the Abolition of Slavery’. This was the culmination of fifty years’ struggle. He died at 3am on Monday 29 July at the age of 73.
After his family received a petition from both Houses of Parliament, he was interred alongside Pitt, Fox and Canning in Westminster Abbey. The Dukes of Sussex and Gloucester, the Lord Chancellor, the Speaker and four peers acted as pall-bearers.
The ‘Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies; for promoting the Industry of the manumitted Slaves; and for compensating the Persons hitherto entitled to the Services of such Slaves’ became law on 28 August 1833.
Acquaint thyself with God
William Wilberforce was awarded no titles or honours in this life. His sons recorded that he had ‘acquired no other than the distinguished title of the “Friend of Man”. But he could well have claimed with Paul, ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day’ (2 Timothy 4:7-8).
His meekness, however, would have inhibited such boldness. In his last distress he was comforted by being told he had his feet on the Rock. ‘I do not venture’, he replied, ‘to speak so positively; but I hope I have’.
We conclude with some words of advice from this consummate politician: ‘How toilsome and unsatisfactory a path is that of politics! How much more satisfactory is that of religion! Acquaint thyself with God and be at peace’.