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18 April 2014
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Abolition of the Slave Trade

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William Wilberforce

(1759 – 1833)

William Wilberforce

A very important person

William Wilberforce was a wealthy young man and at 21 became MP for Hull in the Tory government led by his good friend William Pitt. Wilberforce heard John Newton preach in London and became a regular visitor to Newton’s house. Wilberforce listened to Newton’s descriptions of the horrors of the slave trade. Abolitionists such as Clarkson and Sharp met Wilberforce and persuaded him to join the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

First Bill defeated

In 1789 Wilberforce made his first speech in Parliament on the subject of ending the slave trade. Two years later Wilberforce introduced a Bill (or draft law) in Parliament to abolish the slave trade. He had the support of Pitt, the Prime Minister, and he was an eloquent speaker with a mountain of evidence gathered by Clarkson to support the case against the evils of the trade in human cargo. However, the slave traders and slave owners had too many friends and allies in Parliament. Wilberforce’s proposal was defeated for the first, but not the last, time.

Long struggle

Every year, Wilberforce introduced a Bill to abolish the slave trade in the House of Commons. Each year, the majority against Wilberforce’s proposed new law got smaller until the House of Commons passed the Bill in 1805. But the Bill was rejected by the House of Lords. It took nearly twenty years for the number of MPs and Lords willing to end the slave trade to outnumber those determined to see it continue. In 1807 Wilberforce’s Bill was passed by both Houses of Parliament. 114 MPs had voted for the Bill and only 15 against. The Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade made the slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire.

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