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Donkin's World: William Wilberforce

Richard Donkin hails William Wilberforce, a great Englishman and "a voice of reason and compassion in a world that had launched itself on an unbridled expansion of trade and commerce in which ethical, moral and religious concerns had been trampled beneath a headstrong pursuit of wealth and position.''

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William Wilberforce 1759-1833

Looking back from a 21st century perspective it is difficult to rationalise the morality of a landed and mercantile British oligarchy that no more than 200 years ago sought by every means at its disposal to maintain the inhumane exploitation of African slaves. One man, small in stature, strong in tenacity and faith, stood in its way. His name was William Wilberforce (1759-1833).

Was Wilberforce a hero? He would have been the last to claim such an epithet. Throughout his life he eschewed honours and titles. Only in death was some measure of his greatness recognised when he was buried in Westminster Abbey, the customary honour reserved for Britainís most notable servants.

Wilberforce was born to a wealthy merchant family in Hull at a time when the trade in slaves was regarded as an acceptable part of daily commerce. He had three sisters but only one of them Sarah, survived in to adulthood. William was 10 years old when his father died. A few months later his mother became seriously ill so the boy was sent to live with his staunchly Methodist aunt and uncle in Putney. During the two years he spent there Wilberforce met John Newton, a slave ship captain turned priest who would become an opponent of slavery in later years.

Although Wilberforce was exposed to both Methodism and the slavery debate at this young age, any zeal he may have developed for either was put aside during his teenage years. For part of his time at Cambridge University his studies took a back seat to socialising and gambling at cards with friends during late night parties.

The same socialising spirit characterised his first few years in Parliament. He would come to lament this behaviour later yet many of the friends he made during those years, including William Pitt, were to become the political luminaries of their era.

Wilberforce would need such friends during his 20-year-long struggle to abolish the slave trade when he was ostracised by the plantation owners and sometimes threatened with harm by those he had criticised. One former slave trader lay in wait to attack him and another challenged him to a duel but Wilberforce declined.

Wilberforce was shunned by those in the establishment with most to lose from abolition. He was castigated as a hypocrite, a do-gooder and sometimes, mockingly, as a saint by those suspicious and resentful, not only of his class and his deeply-held Christian faith, but also of his principled political views that refused to toe any party line.

At a time that public life and morals in the UK had reached a low ebb, Wilberforce displayed the rarest of attributes among the moneyed classes. First to last he was his own man prepared to campaign for what he believed to be right. The law that banned the trade was finally enacted in 1807. Outright abolition of slavery came in to force throughout the British colonies in 1834, a year after his death.

For much of his parliamentary career the strongest argument against unilateral abolition was that such a move would hand control and profits from the trade to Britainís traditional enemies, the French. Some feared that manumission would lead to insurrection in the colonies. While most MPs were content to play realpolitik, Wilberforce would always follow his conscience, even if occasionally it pitched him against his greatest friends. In 1792, for example, he put forward a motion to end the war with France that hurt his friend, the prime minister, William Pitt who had encouraged him in his abolition campaign.

Wilberforce was feted during his lifetime for his sharp intellect, wit and conversation, a legacy of those late night Cambridge parties. He was recognised as one of the finest orators of his generation yet is deemed to have said nothing worthy of inclusion in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

This is the contradiction of the man. How can someone who did so much for human rights have suffered such a mixed press both in his lifetime and beyond? If he is remembered for anything beyond his stand on slavery it should be as one of our great Parliamentarians, capable of swaying the chamber with the power of his words.

More than that, he was a voice of reason and compassion in a world that had launched itself on an unbridled expansion of trade and commerce in which ethical, moral and religious concerns had been trampled beneath a headstrong pursuit of wealth and position. The leadership of legislative reform would need a rare combination of mental agility, moral toughness, strong principles and sharp political nous. Wilberforce possessed all of these attributes wedded to an unwavering determination to win. He was a man for his time.

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