Unlike many other shin-kickers from history, William Wilberforce was a card-carrying member of the privileged classes–wealthy, educated, male, white.
Born in 1759 to a wealthy merchant family in the Yorkshire port of Hull, Wilberforce spent his teen years and early adult life in what he later described as “utter idleness and dissipation”. While a student at Cambridge–where he majored in gambling, drinking, and late night parties–he began a lifelong friendship with future Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. In Pitt’s company, he discovered a new source of excitement: politics. He was first elected to the House of Commons when he was only 21 and showed every sign of being nothing more than a political playboy.
His life changed five years later, when he discovered Evangelical Christianity–then a source of political and social radicalism. His first thought was to leave Parliament and enter the ministry. John Newton, best known today as the composer of “Amazing Grace”, and Pitt* convinced him that he could do more good from Parliament than he could from the pulpit. Wilberforce soon found his cause: the movement to abolish the slave trade.
It was no small task. The Atlantic slave trade was an important part of the British economy, even though slavery was abolished in Britain itself in 1772. Britain made enormous profits on every step of the triangular trade: shipping textiles and other manufactured goods from Britain to Africa, slaves to the plantation owners of the West Indies and the American South, and slave-produced cotton, tobacco, and sugar cane back to Britain.
From 1787 until he retired from Parliament in 1825, Wilberforce was the public face of the abolitionist movement in England. He proposed legislation outlawing the slave trade every year for eighteen years. He was backed by petitions signed by hundreds of thousands of British subjects and opposed by the powerful shipping interest.
In 1807, Parliament passed a law abolishing the slave trade in British colonies and making it illegal to carry slaves in British ships. The practical impact of the legislation was limited. The statute did not change the legal position of those who were already enslaved. Brazil replaced Britain as the most important slave-trading nation and British slave traders continued to sail under foreign ship registrations. The efforts of the British navy to enforce the ban by patrolling the African coastline and treating all slave ships as pirates simply resulted in higher prices.**
Wilberforce and his colleagues turned their attention to the next step in their campaign: abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire.
Wilberforce was on his deathbed when the Abolition of Slavery Act finally passed on July 23, 1833. Job done, he died three days later.
*Already prime minister at the age of 26. Hanging out in history can give a person an inferiority complex.
**Economics can be a bitch.