William Wilberforce came of an old Yorkshire family, and vas born at Hull in 1759. His health was
delicate, and early in life his body was so slight and puny that he afterwards used
to say that if he had been born among the ancient Romans he would would have been left to die in infancy. His mind, however,
was soon found to be keen and intelligent; and when he was sent to the Hull Grammar Schoool he could
read so well that his master used to set him on a table to read aloud, to show the other boys how to read.
Not only was he quick at learning, but he was kind of heart; and when he was was only fouteen years
of age he declared his hatred of the slave-trade, and of all slavery. This noble hatred of all that was
mean and base also kept him from the evil which he might have got from some bad companions at the
University of Cambridge, and later on in London. He shook off their evil influence, and began to show
himself a power for good.
When he entered Parliament he soon became a very good speaker, and he enjoyed the close friendship of
the great statesman William Pitt. He was pained by the wickedness which he saw all around him, and in
1786 he determined to give his life completely to the service of God and of his fellowmen. He said,
"God had set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave-trade and the improvement
of manners". For this last he did much; but his work for putting down the slave-trade was even more
In time past negro slaves had actually been sold in a slave-market at Bristol and other English ports.
That was no longer allowed, but the slave-trade was then carried on mostly by English ships. Negroes
from the west coast of Africa were captured by our sailors. Often their villages were burnt and much
blood was shed, before a sufficient number of negroes were captured to make a ship's cargo. Then they
were driven to the shore, were forced on board the boats, then on the ship and had their arms and feet
fastened by chains. They were packed as close as they could lie, and all the exercise they had was to
get up and jump in their chains. This they were compelled to do, as it was thought to be a means of
preserving, their lives. But, as the voyage often lasted more than two months, a very large number of
the poor prisoners generally died on the voyage, and their bodies were thrown overboard. Then, when the
ship reached America or the West Indian Islands, the miserable survivors were sold as slaves to the
planters, and were sent to work in the sugar plantations.
This dreadful trade in human flesh brought in large gains to the ship-owners, and also to the planters
who got more work done by the negro slaves than could be done by white men under that burning sun. So,
when Wilberforce and another good man named Clarkson began to urge our people to put a stop to this
trade, there was a great outcry raised by shipowners and sugar merchants.
Time after time Wilberforce brought into Parliament a Bill for putting a stop to these evils; but
the Bill was thrown out, sometimes by the House of Commons, sometimes by the House of Lords. The great
war with France broke out, and William Pitt, who had begun to do something for the freeing, of the
slaves, was quite taken up by the war. But after Pitt's death another great statesman, Charles James
Fox, came into power. In 1806 he proposed to Parliament a Bill for preventing British subjects seizing
and selling slaves, and it was carried by. a very large majority. Since this time no British ships have
been allowed to seize slaves, and every slave who sets foot on a British ship is a free man.
Though slaves might not be seized and sold, yet they were still allowed to be kept in our colonies.
For twenty-seven years Wilberforce and his friends struggled hard to get them freed. At last, just at
the time when Wilberforce was lying on his deathbed, Parliament voted that GBP 20,000,000 should be
given to the slave-owners in our colonies if they would free their slaves; and ever since Queen
Victoria came to the throne there have been no slaves in any part of the British Empire.
1. What does the text tell you about Wilberforce's character?
2. Describe the transportation of slaves on British ships.
3. How did Wilberforce eventually succeed in stopping the slave-trade?