The movement to abolish the Transatlantic slave trade was a long and difficult struggle. Campaigners for abolition used every means they could, including sugar boycotts, meetings, petitions, publications, and circulating images showing its shameful nature, to bring the issue to people’s attention in Europe. Enslaved Africans played an essential part, having long resisted their enslavement and treatment through ‘go-slows’, revolts, intellectual and religious claims, and demonstrable capacity to retain and transmit their African or creole (mixed) cultures and languages. Escaped or freed slaves forced judges and social elites to confront the issue through court cases, publications, and performances. Propelled by much of this pressure and evidence, William Wilberforce led the long political campaign to outlaw the slave trade in Britain.
William Wilberforce (1759 – 1833) was born in Hull into a wealthy family. He entered Parliament at the young age of 21 and was encouraged by his university friend, the Prime Minster William Pitt (the younger) to fight for the abolition of slavery. The Transatlantic slave trade was a brutal system which lasted 300 years. It allowed African men, women and children to be stolen from their homelands, bought and sold as property, and used to produce sugar, coffee, cotton and other goods for huge profit in the European and North American markets.
An evangelical Christian, Wilberforce undertook the challenge with vision and commitment. He became close friends with Thomas Clarkson, using the information Clarkson gathered on his many abolition campaign trips to inform his work. Physically slight and often plagued by bouts of ill-health, he seemed an unlikely leader. But he was an impassioned and deeply affecting speaker, influencing those around him with enthralling and sometimes graphic accounts and arguments for why the government must introduce new laws to abolish the slave trade. His first speech, in 1789, was held to be one of the best speeches ever made in the Houses of Parliament.
Despite many setbacks, often on account of the powerful slave lobby defending its interests, Wilberforce’s bill to outlaw the trade in African people was finally passed on 25 March 1807. He was given a standing ovation by fellow MPs. Suffering from ill health, William Wilberforce died in July 1833. A month later the House of Lords passed the bill that would abolish British slavery once and for all.
This is a rare, animated image of Wilberforce, who is often depicted in passive and mild-mannered poses, capturing his passion and influence as a political speaker. It was created by Cecil Doughty, best known as a historical comic strip artist who used these techniques to bring Wilberforce and those around him to life with a great sense of energy and emotion.
Did you know..?
William Wilberforce was a founder member of the Royal Society for the prevention of cruelty to animals (RSPCA)
Sources & acknowledgements
This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above.