William Wilberforce

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Who's who

For brief biographical sketches of those who opposed the slave trade, read on below. The list includes MPs, church leaders, a lawyer, a poet, a playwright and a former slave. Together they worked tirelessly, and often a great personal cost, to see slavery and the slave trade abolished.


Anthony Benezet – was a Pennsylvania Quaker who turned his whole church against slavery. He founded the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and produced a constant stream of influential free tracts. They sent the first anti-slavery petition to the British parliament, and persuaded London Quakers to form the first abolition society there.


Thomas Fowell Buxton – was the brother-in-law of the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry. As a little-known backbench MP, he worked for reform of penal law and poor relief. Visiting a meeting of the African Institute in 1821 (founded to help enforce the 1807 abolition act), he made an outspoken attack on their slowness and inefficiency. Wilberforce was so impressed that he asked him to take over the campaign to abolish slavery. He succeeded after a 10-year campaign.


Thomas Clarkson – won the prestigious Latin essay prize in Cambridge University in 1785, when the subject was slavery. Horrified by what his research turned up, he helped found the London Abolition Committee and made several vast tours, investigating slave ships in the ports, and publicizing the cause. He was the “moral steam engine” behind the campaign, but when it seemed to be failing in 1794, he had a nervous breakdown and became a Lakeland farmer. He rejoined for the last push in 1807, and continued to campaign for emancipation.


William Cowper – was one of the best-known poets of his day, and Newton’s hymn-writing partner, though he suffered debilitating depression. His poem, “The Negro’s Complaint”, was set to music and became the smash-hit anthem of the abolition movement.


Olaudah Equiano – was about 10 when he was kidnapped from his home in Ebo, now in Nigeria. The personal slave of a naval captain, he became a Christian, and after 20 years saved the £40 needed to buy his freedom. He worked with Granville Sharp, joined the London Abolition Committee, and had a bestseller with his memoirs of slavery, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. He was one of the very few slaves of the period to leave any record of the experience.


Hannah More – was a celebrated playwright who quit the theatre for religious reasons, opting for a quiet country life. She joined the Abolition Society and wrote influential poems, songs and tracts against the slave trade. She was a close friend and adviser to Wilberforce and spent a lot of time founding and running free schools, out of his funds.


John Newton – was a slave ship captain who converted to evangelical Christianity in 1748. He continued slaving for six years till bad health grounded him, and he became the hymn-writing vicar of “Amazing Grace” fame. He helped William Wilberforce through his own conversion – he had taught him as a child – and when Wilberforce started campaigning against the trade, he published his own experiences as evidence of its evils.


William Pitt – was prime minister from the age of 24, with a brief break, until he died 22 years later. It was he who first suggested an abolition campaign to Wilberforce, and he spoke as brilliantly about it as did Wilberforce. In later years he became lukewarm towards the abolitionist cause, because he was leading a war for national survival against Napoleon, and the campaign seemed to be achieving nothing but dividing his government.


Beilby Porteus – was the Bishop of Chester and chaplain to the king. When appointed to preached the anniversary sermon to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, he used the occasion to condemn the society’s slaveholdings in Barbados. Pitt promoted him to Bishop of London, and he supported Wilberforce’s abolition bills in the House of Lords – the hardest obstacle they had to pass.


James Ramsay – was a slave ship’s doctor who then became an evangelical minister on the island of St Kitts. Unlike other ministers, he enraged plantation managers by teaching and preaching to the slaves. Returning to England, he published what he had seen of slave mistreatment in two books. For six years the plantation managers published libels about him and tried to bankrupt him by posting him rocks (in those days, the recipient had to pay postage). His health worsened until one slave-owner could report, “Ramsay is dead – I have killed him.”


Granville Sharp – a clerk and self-taught amateur lawyer and academic, was the father of the abolition movement. He wrote against slavery as early as 1769, helped escaped slaves in London, and astoundingly forced the Lord Chief Justice to rule that slavery was illegal on the British mainland in 1772. He was the president of the London Abolition Committee, and of the Sierra Leone Company that established a settlement for freed slaves. He was 72 when the abolition act was finally passed.

James Stephen – was the lawyer of the abolition movement. Going to Barbados as a young man, he was turned against slavery as soon as he arrived by attending a trial where two slaves were convicted of rape on trumped up charges and burnt to death. He sent intelligence to Wilberforce for the abolition campaign. When he was able to return to Britain, he became a top barrister, married Wilberforce’s sister, and used his legal and colonial knowledge to draft laws to enforce and reinforce abolition. No other abolitionist could get quite so angry about slavery as he could. He said, “I would rather be on friendly terms with a man who had strangled my infant son than support an admission guilty of slackness in suppressing the slave trade.”


Josiah Wedgwood – the celebrated ceramic designer, was a member of the Abolition Society. He produced a ceramic seal depicting a slave saying: “Am I not a man and a brother?” It became the must-have fashion accessory of 1789, appearing on medallions, snuff boxes, brooches and cuff-links, and printed on posters and in magazines.


John Wesley – the founder of the Methodist church, was vehemently opposed to slavery. His 1774 Thoughts Upon Slavery was hard-hitting and popular, but somewhat controversial for ripping off a book by Anthony Benezet. At the age of 88, after reading Equiano’s autobiography, Wesley’s last piece of writing was a letter to Wilberforce to encourage him in the 1791 abolition debate.

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About this module

Read about the life and work of William Wilberforce, who played a key role in the struggle to abolish the slave trade, 200 years ago. 2007 saw the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade, which was achieved through the work of Wilberforce and other abolitionists of the time.

These pages were written by Stephen Tomkins.

Categories: Lives, Biographical,


Module contents

arrow Introduction

arrow Telling the story

arrow The slave trade

arrow Who's who

arrow Slavery today

arrow Quotes

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