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God’s politician: William Wilberforce’s struggle

30 November, 1999

Author Garth Lean’s story of William Wilberforce’s struggle against slavery shows that one person can make a difference, and that it is possible to combine integrity and conscience with a successful political career.

pp. 180. Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd. To purchase this book online, go to www.darton-longman-todd.co.uk


Foreword to the 2007 Edition
Author’s Note

  1. The Great Uprooting
  2. Hull Boy Makes Good
  3. ‘The Foinsters’
  4. Member for Yorkshire
  5. The ‘Great Change’
  6. Seeking a Destiny
  7. ‘The Execrable Villainy’
  8. Struggle and Triumph
  9. State of the Nation
  10. The Reformation of Manners
  11. Serenity under Fire
  12. The Clapham Community
  13. The Community in Action
  14. Fisher of Men
  15. ‘The Practical View’
  16. Domestic Life of a Reformer
  17. Did He Neglect the Whites for the Blacks?
  18. Freeing the Slaves
  19. Statesman Lost – or Found?

Select Bibliography

It is not revolutions and upheavals that clear the road to new and better days,
But revelations, lavishness and torments of someone’s soul, inspired and ablaze.

Boris Pasternak

Wilberforce proved that one man can change his times, but he cannot do it alone. John Pollock

God Almighty has set before me two great objects – the suppression if the slave trade and the reformation if manners. William Wilberforce


Originally written in 1980, Garth Lean’s story of the life of William Wilberforce has been re-issued this year to coincide with the bicentenary of the end of the slave trade and the release of the film Amazing Grace, directed by Michael Apted, with Ioan Gruffudd as Wilberforce.

It is the story of how one man can swim against the stream and survive, as well as effect a change in the prevailing attitudes on an important social question. Lean’s book introduces us to the characters and the debates of the time – Edmund Burke, John Wesley, John Newton, William Pitt, and the Clapham Community.

It also deals with another theme of the time – the reformation of manners – and shows how the polititcal struggles impacted on his domestic life.



Two hundred years ago, Britain was the world’s leading slave-trading nation. From Liverpool, Bristol or London her ships sailed for the West African coast; and there gathered their cargo by direct seizure, purchase from Arab traders or barter with local chiefs. Often chiefs would sell the entire population of one of their own, or of a neighbour’s, villages. The British officials were just as ruthless. Once, a British military governor delivered up a hundred African guests whom he was entertaining in his fort when the slave captains arrived.

Once captured, the slaves were herded into barracoons to await the arrival of the ships. The fit were branded with their new owner’s mark, while the old and deformed were often killed as useless. Many had to be flogged to force them into the canoes which took them through the surf to the slave ship. There, they were chained in pairs between decks on shelves with only two and a half feet head-room. A ship of 150 tons often carried as many as 500 slaves. The crew, who had often been press-ganged into service, generally took their pick of the women.

It was obviously in the slaver’s interest to keep their cargo in as good health as possible. When weather permitted, therefore, they were taken on deck and forced to jump around under threat of the whip.

In bad weather, on the other hand, they would lie for weeks in their own filth and the stench could be smelt across a mile of ocean. By the time a ship reached America or the West Indies, ten per cent of the cargo would normally have died, while many others would be desperately ill.

On arrival a few days would be spent tarting them up for market. Their bodies were fattened and oiled, their sores disguised. Finally, they would be paraded naked through the streets and auctioned. Strong men would fetch
as much as £40, while the sick and wounded were sold off in cheap lots with the women and children. Families were ruthlessly split up. Those who were too sick to be marketable were left on the quay to die. Nor was that the end of their ordeal. A third of those who survived thus far died from the vicious discipline imposed by their new owners. The process was politely known as ‘seasoning’.

The Trade was dominated by the British. In 1770 British ships carried over half the 100,000 slaves exported from West Africa. Between 1783 and 1793, Liverpool slavers alone transported 303,737 to the West Indies, selling them for £15,186,850 (roughly £250 millions at today’s values). The profit on the triangular voyage, taking into account goods bartered in Africa and cargo brought back from the West Indies, as well as the price of the slaves, was often over 100% of the original outlay, and was widely shared among the inhabitants of the Western ports. ‘Many of the small ships that carry about a hundred slaves are fitted out by attorneys, drapers, ropers, grocers, barbers, tailors etc. Almost every order of the people is interested in a Guinea cargo’, wrote a Liverpudlian in 1795.

The total number of slaves carried by the British in the eighteenth century is hard to estimate, but an American authority calculates that they had supplied three millions to the French, Spanish and British colonies by 1776.
For England, indeed, the Trade had become not just another successful business, but national policy. It had not always been so. When she discovered that Sir John Hawkins had made two profitable slaving voyages, Queen Elizabeth was horrified and told him that, if any Africans had been carried away without their own consent, ‘it would be detestable and call down the vengeance of Heaven on the undertakers’. However, this attitude of distaste turned to approval as the profits involved became apparent, and as Britain herself acquired colonies in the Caribbean. The Trade was legalized by Royal Charters of 1631, 1633 and 1672 and by Act of Parliament in 1698. One of the most prized fruits of the War of Spanish Succession was the Assiento clause of the Treaty of Utrecht, giving Britain the sole right to supply slaves to the Spanish Colonies. Meanwhile, ‘The Institution’, as slavery itself was called, was considered ‘the pillar and support of the British plantation industry in the West Indies’.

Moreover, it became part of the conventional wisdom that the slave trade was crucial to national security. It provided, it was said, an admirable training for British seamen, and an essential recruiting ground for the British navy. Others declared that it alone made possible the prosperity and even the solvency of the herring and Newfoundland fisheries, and of the sugar refining and ship-building and other associated industries.

The national investment involved was certainly considerable. ‘Abolition’, contended Colonel Tarleton, a Member for Liverpool, in 1791, ‘would instantly annihilate a trade, which annually employed upwards of 5,500 sailors, upwards of 160 ships, and whose exports amount to £800,000 sterling, and would undoubtedly bring the West India trade to decay, whose exports and imports amount to upwards of £6,000,000 sterling, and which give employment to upwards of 160,000 tons of additional shipping, and sailors in proportion.’ ‘The present British capital in the West Indies’, stated the Duke of Clarence eight years later, ‘is equal to £100,000,000 sterling.’

A trade where so much money and national prestige was involved naturally exercised a good deal of influence in Parliament and in the country. Many planters and traders had used their new wealth to buy ‘rotten’ and ‘pocket’ boroughs, which sent themselves or Members controlled by them to the Commons. Thus Lord Chesterfield complained in 1767 that a borough jobber, to whom he had offered £2,500 for a seat, ‘laughed at’ his bid and said that East and West Indian planters were paying anything from £3,000 to £5,000 each. By the end of the century, the Trade controlled a considerable block of seats.

The Trade’s main support in Parliament, however, was among the much larger number of Members who, revering property and the status quo, were convinced that the ‘absolute necessity’ of slaves to the West Indies meant that the trade could never be discontinued. Few were prepared to meddle with the interests of the West Indian colonists in the years immediately after the loss of the American colonies; and it was felt that if the British ceased to carry slaves, her continental rivals would merely wax rich on her restraint.

Meanwhile, in the country at large, there was widespread ignorance about the conditions which the slaves had to endure. Even people in Bristol and Liverpool, let alone those in the country at large, neither saw the slaves nor experienced the conditions of the Middle Passage between Africa and the Americas. They merely saw the cotton goods with which the ships were loaded and the tropical products they brought back. Moreover, white Englishmen, too, were frequently transported to Australia for petty crimes and unseen cruelties did not stand out too sharply in an age when inhumanity abounded at home.

A few voices were raised in protest. The Quakers had condemned the Trade as early as 1724 and, in concert with their Pennsylvanian brethren, disowned all Friends taking part in it from 1761. Alexander Pope, John Locke and the non-conformist Divine, Richard Baxter, wrote against it. John Wesley, who quarrelled with George Whitefield about it, produced a widely read pamphlet terming it ‘the execrable sum of all villainy’. Dr Johnson scandalized his hosts at an Oxford High Table by toasting the next Negro revolt in the West Indies.

The first practical restriction on the evil, however, was the work of a seemingly insignificant clerk in the Minuting Branch of the Ordinance Office. Granville Sharp was a brilliant eccentric, gifted with phenomenal intellectual energy and determination. He taught himself Greek so as to be able to confound a colleague on the New Testament, and Hebrew to correct a Rabbi on the Biblical prophesies. He then became convinced that slavery could not legally exist on English soil; and that the 14,000 black slaves then living in Britain should be set free. Every lawyer he consulted, from the great Blackstone downwards, disagreed with him but in 1772 a reluctant Chief Justice Mansfield was forced to endorse his opinion, and the 14,000 slaves were declared free.

Such individual skirmishes had some effect, but it needed the well-publicized atrocity of the slave ship Zong in 1783 to rouse a national response. The ship had lost its way in the Middle Passage, sixty slaves and seven crew had died of an epidemic and its supply of water was running low, though not critically so. The ship’s captain, realizing that more slaves would die and the rest might make low prices in Jamaica, threw one hundred and thirty two overboard. He reckoned that this could be shown to be for the safety of the ship and that the underwriters would pay compensation. Most of the slaves were thrown overboard shackled, but the last ten broke free and jumped. One of them managed to clamber back on board and survived to tell Granville Sharp his story.

The captain, on his return, was rewarded, but the underwriters brought an action against the ship’s owners, which Sharp intended to follow with a criminal prosecution for murder. Even the civil action, however, failed. It was, said the Attorney-General, ‘a case of goods and chattels’, ‘a throwing of goods overboard to save the residue’. The law, added the ever meticulous Chief Justice Mansfield, was ‘exactly as if horses had been thrown overboard’. The Solicitor-General meanwhile deprecated the ‘pretended appeals’ to humanity and agreed that the master had the unquestioned right to drown as many slaves as he thought fit without ‘any shew or suggestions of cruelty’ or any ‘surmise of impropriety’.

It was perhaps the shock of this appalling case which hastened the formation of the first Committee, all Quakers, ‘for the relief and liberation of the negro slaves in the West Indies and for the discouragement of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa’. The same year, a book by James Ramsay, a former naval surgeon turned parson, gave the first eye-witness account of the conditions on the Middle Passage and in the plantations. In 1785 Thomas Clarkson, a Cambridge prizeman, who was to become the movement’s most assiduous researcher, joined the campaign; and two years later the Quaker Committee was enlarged to include Clarkson, and Granville Sharp as Chairman. It was obvious, however, that the real battle would have to be fought out in Parliament and, there, the Abolitionists still lacked an adequate advocate.

As early as 1780 Edmund Burke, the great ‘political moralist’, had considered a measure to mitigate and finally abolish the Trade, but abandoned it for fear that the West Indian lobby would shatter the Whig Party. Nor did Pitt, the new young Prime Minister, dare to lead such a fight against the opposition of both the King and most of his Cabinet. Any politician who took up the issue would clearly have to say farewell to the chance of high office, yet be weighty enough to capture the attention of the great. He would need to be orator enough to arouse the pity and disgust of the House, and to have the determination to pursue a cause, year after year, the intelligence to master a complicated subject and the charm to disarm prejudice, where he could not dispel it. Where could such a man be found?

In fact, he was in the House of Commons already, and being prepared in more ways than one. In October 1780, at the age of twenty-one, William Wilberforce had taken his seat as Member for Hull, just three months before his Cambridge contemporary, William Pitt. The two young men became close friends and, while Pitt became first, Chancellor of the Exchequer and then Prime Minister, Wilberforce won for himself one of the two seats for Yorkshire, the greatest county of England. Meanwhile, too, something even stranger had befallen Wilberforce, something which would dispose him to espouse a great cause. To understand that timely coincidence we must go back and see what manner of young man he was.



William Wilberforce was born on August 24th, 1759, the annus mirabilis in which Wolfe captured Quebec and the French were defeated on sea and land, at Quiberon Bay, Lagos and Minden. Two years earlier, Clive had established British power in India at the decisive battle of Plessey. Britain under the Elder Pitt, now Lord Chatham, was acknowledged as the coming world power. Only their kith and kin in America were to give the British a sharp lesson as William grew to manhood.

His birthplace, Hull, was the fourth port of the Kingdom, and the only one of the four not engaged in the Slave Trade. Facing east, she thrived on the older Baltic Trade, importing Swedish ore, Norwegian timber and Russian hemp, and shipping back Sheffield knives and Yorkshire textiles. It was also a major whaling port. The Wilberforces had been well-known traders in nearby Beverley for two hundred years, but William’s grandfather moved to Hull at the beginning of the century, became Mayor at the age of 32 and was, by the time of William’s birth, established in a fine red-brick house in High Street, with his back windows looking out on the Hull River which carried his trade.

Hull did not throw up men of spectacular wealth like Bristol or Liverpool. Its gaieties, which some considered second only to London’s, ensured that many of the West Riding county families kept town houses there, but it was run by an oligarchy of solid mercantile families of whom the Wilberforces were one. William’s grandfather had married into the Thorntons, another prosperous Baltic Trade family, and his elder son, another William, married his first cousin, Hannah Thornton, and joined his father-in-law in London, where he plied a sizeable trade with Russia and was also a director of the Bank of England. Robert, the younger son and our William’s father, managed the business in Hull, together with a partner, Abel Smith, and they married two sisters. Abel came from a Nottingham banking family, and founded banks in Hull and London which were ancestors of the present National Westminster. So young William was born into comfortable circumstances and a strong mercantile and banking tradition.

He was a weak child, tiny, frail, and with the poor eyesight which plagued him all his life. He often said in
later life that, had he been born ‘in less civilized times’ and he might have added less comfortable circumstances – it would have been thought impossible to rear him. But if his body was weak, his mind was vigorous, his nature affectionate and his temper, at times, hot. He also had a voice of unusual range and beauty, and his headmaster at Hull Grammar School, Joseph Milner, would stand him on a table to read to the rest of the class, because of his small size and clarity of diction.

William’s stay there was brief, however. When he was nine his father died and he went to live with his childless
uncle and aunt, William and Hannah Wilberforce, who had a town house in St James’s Place and a country villa on Wimbledon Common.

They sent him to a boarding school in Putney where he learnt little, but, in the holidays, he absorbed a great deal from his uncle and aunt. They were friends of George Whitefield, one of the Wesleys’ first recruits to the Holy Club in Oxford and the third great figure of their awakening. Whitefield’s more dramatic preaching had made a deeper impression on the wealthier classes than John Wesley’s plainer manner and he had, in 1754, converted Hannah’s half-brother, John Thornton, one of the most prosperous men in the city. John Thornton lived in Clapham, and Hannah often took William to hear the evangelical sermons preached in the parish church there. His heart was won by what he heard, and particularly by the sermons and stories of the Reverend John Newton, a former slave ship captain who was a frequent visitor to Clapham. ‘I reverenced him as a parent when I was a child’, William said later in life.

William’s mother, at home in Hull, became thoroughly alarmed by her son’s letters, fearing that he was ‘turning Methodist’. She was religious in a formal sense, but loved social life in the ‘Dublin of England’ and had the fashionable hatred of ‘enthusiasm’. She took the coach to London to rescue her only son from what she considered ‘little less than poison’, while Grandfather Wilberforce vowed that ‘if Billy turns Methodist he shall not have a sixpence of mine’. William’s uncle and aunt protested, but his mother blandly replied, ‘You should not fear. If it be a work of grace, you cannot fail’, and bore William away to Hull. Since Joseph Milner was by now also suspected of ‘Methodism’, he was not returned to the Grammar School. but, instead, dispatched to his grandfather’s old school at Pocklington, thirty miles away.

William felt the parting from his aunt and uncle deeply. ‘It almost broke my heart’, he said later, and his letters to them over the next three years show that this was one of the unhappiest periods of his life. The letters are full of his lonely struggles to retain his faith in the face of a concerted opposition from his home and his new headmaster, the Reverend K. Basket. They had to be written in secret. ‘P.S. 1 cannot write more because it is seen where the letter is to’, he concludes one note in November 1771, and in September of the following year explains that he is taking, ‘the opportunity of writing by a maid who goes away tomorrow: thinking it the better way than sending to my uncle, since grandpa might perhaps see the letter’.

Meanwhile the gaieties of Hull were gradually having their effect on his naturally vivacious spirit. ‘The theatre,
balls, great suppers and card parties were the delight of the principal families of the town,’ he wrote later. ‘The usual dinner hour was two o’clock, and at six they met for sumptuous suppers. This mode of life was at first distressing to me, but by degrees I acquired a relish for it . . . As grandson of one of the principal inhabitants, I was everywhere invited and caressed: my voice and love of music made me still more acceptable. The religious impressions which I gained at Wimbledon continued for a considerable time, but my friends spared no pains to stifle them. I might almost say that no pious parent ever laboured more to impress a beloved child with sentiments of piety than they did to give me a taste of the world and its diversions.’

By 1774:, to judge from his letters, the social whirl had captured him and, in spite of the pain he had gone through, Wilberforce was later to reflect that it might all have been a ‘blessing in disguise’. His mother’s removing him ‘when about thirteen and then completely a Methodist, has probably been the means of my being connected with political men and becoming useful in life,’ he wrote when 37. ‘If I had staid with my uncle I should probably have become a bigoted and despised Methodist; yet to come to what I am now, after so many years of folly as those which elapsed between my last year at school and 1785, is wonderful.’

The ‘idle life at home’ and the social success which had made him ‘very vain’ did not dispose him to much academic exertion either at Pocklington or at St John’s College, Cambridge, which he entered in 1776 at the age of seventeen.

His grandfather’s death two years earlier had supplied him with ample funds, and he settled easily into eighteenth
century Cambridge where dons were content that young men of independent means, if not studying for the Church or the Bar, should treat the university as a place to gather a little culture, together with a trifling acquaintance with mathematics and the classics.

‘The first night I arrived,’ he wrote, ‘I supped with my tutor and was introduced to two of the most gambling, vicious characters perhaps in all England.’ In his second year, he broke with this group and lived much with the Fellows in a state of what he called ‘sober dissipation’. ‘I used to play at cards a great deal and nothing else,’ he added, ‘If ever I became studious they said to me, “Why in the world should a man of your future trouble himself with fagging?'” However, he had a natural love of the classics and managed, with little work and a good memory, to pass his examinations, though not with honours.

His neighbour, Thomas Gisborne, who was to become a life-long friend, was reading for holy orders. He won the Chancellor’s medal for Classics and was Sixth Wrangler in Mathematics. Flatterers said, in Wilberforce’s hearing, that ‘Gisborne is very clever, but he fags, whereas Wilberforce can do as much without working at all.’ It was not true, and Wilberforce always regretted afterwards that he had not acquired the disciplined concentration of a Gisborne.

Wilberforce was naturally gregarious and soon became extremely popular. ‘By his talents, his wit, his kindness, his social powers, his universal acceptability, and his love of society, he speedily became the centre of attraction to all the clever and idle of his own college and of other colleges,’ Gisborne wrote in old age. ‘His rooms swarmed with them from the time when he rose, generally very late, till he went to bed. . . . He spent much of his time visiting, and when he returned late in the evening he would summon me by the music of his tongs and poker – our chimneypieces being back to back – or by the melodious challenge of his voice. He was so winning and amusing that I often sat up half the night with him, much to the detriment of my attendance of lectures the next day.’ Wilberforce always kept a vast Yorkshire pie in his room to regale his many guests, among whom, says Gisborne, he was facile princeps.

Others of Wilberforce’s Cambridge companions, men like the feckless Rutland landowner Gerard Edwards, also became life-long friends, but Wilberforce saw little of young William Pitt although they were contemporaries. They first got to know each other well in the gallery of the House of Commons where, immediately after going down from Cambridge, they listened to the debates night after night. For Wilberforce, like Pitt, had decided to make politics his career. The death of his Wimbledon uncle brought him a substantial legacy and his cousin, Abel Smith, was more than happy to run the business in Hull; so he was free to do so. Pitt was powered by a deeper motive. He was possessed by a smouldering bitterness against the American War, which had done so much to wreck his father’s work. So the two young men longed for an election, but not too soon, for no one could stand for Parliament under the age of 21. Fortunately, the Government survived the necessary months, and Pitt stood for Cambridge, while Wilberforce threw his cap into the ring in Hull.

He was, of course, well known there, but it was a bold ambition for so young a man. Hull had one of the twenty largest borough electorates in Britain, with about 1,100 electors in a population of 15,000. It was a two-Member seat and each elector had two votes. Traditionally, the Government of the day could secure the return of one member through the votes of the garrison and excise officers. Their man. for thirty-three years, who intended to stand again, was Lord Robert Manners, uncle of the Duke of Rutland. The great Whig families, headed by the Marquess of Rockingham, generally returned the other Member, who was then David Hartley, a dull speaker, an opponent of the American war and something of an eccentric. He may have been the first person to speak seriously to Wilberforce about the evils of the slave trade.

The mass of the electors were hereditary freemen, generally ‘persons of low station’ who required a bribe. The going rate for a resident freeman was two guineas a vote, or four for a ‘plumper’, when an elector voted for one candidate but did not exercise his second vote. An elector who had to travel from London, on the other hand, could expect £10. It was, of course, their ample means which gave the great Whig families their power, but on this occasion, Wilberforce’s charm and purse, supplemented by an ox roast for the town at large on his 21st birthday, enabled him to beat both the Government and Rockingham factions. He secured 1,126 votes, exactly the number obtained by the other two candidates added together. It had cost him £8,000.

So Wilberforce and Manners were elected. Pitt, meanwhile, had been defeated at Cambridge, but entered Par
liament three months later for the ‘rotten borough’ of Appleby, made available to him by the great Northern borough-monger, Sir James Lowther.

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