It’s amazing how few people have actually heard of William Wilberforce, even though he was one of the most important figures in bringing about an end to slavery in Britain.
Born in Kingston Upon Hull in 1759, the son of a wealthy merchant, he became MP for Yorkshire in 1784. When he converted to Evangelical Christianity a year later his new faith led to philanthropy, in particular the plight of African slaves. His stance made him a target for many people and he often faced criticism for failing to concentrate on the plight of the poor at home.
He was one of the main driving forces behind the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which banned slavery on British soil but did nothing about ending it in the rest of the British Empire. Wilberforce continued to campaign until 1833 when the Slavery Abolition Act was passed. He lived just long enough to see his dreams achieved. He died just three days after the Act passed through Parliament.
His former home in Hull is now a museum that tells his life story and illustrates the slavery that still exists in the world today. It tells horrific tales of the tortures slaves endured; how they were seen as less than human and defined as property in law. Readings taken from contemporary sources such as slave ship captains, and the slaves themselves, describe life on plantations, and during the long sea voyages that carried them from Africa to the West Indies.
Examples of chains and shackles, whips and other instruments of torture used against slaves are on show. But there are also examples of positive actions of the time such as potter Josiah Wedgwood’s medallion produced for the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787. It shows a chained, kneeling man and has the caption “Am I not a man and a brother?” The museum also points out that Wilberforce was a founder member of the organisation that eventually became the RSPCA.
Hull’s pride in its son is hard to miss. As well as the museum there’s a Wilberforce pub, and a Wilberforce Drive. Some local schools have named one of their houses after him, and there’s a huge column outside Hull College with a statue of him on top.