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William Wilberforce

The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner

by William Hague

Hardcover, 582 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $35 |


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William Wilberforce
The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner
William Hague

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Book Summary

In honor of the bicentennial of the 1807 abolition of the Atlantic slave trade by the British Parliament, a definitive biography of William Wilberforce documents the political career of this staunch conservative and ardent abolitionist who tirelessly campaigned for some twenty years to outlaw the practice.

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Excerpt: William Wilberforce


The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner


Copyright © 2007William Hague
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-15-101267-1


List of illustrations..............................ixAcknowledgements...................................xiiiPrologue...........................................xv1 One Boy, Two Paths...............................12 Ambition and Election............................203 The Devoted Acolyte..............................444 Agony and Purpose................................705 Diligence and New Causes.........................946 The Trade in Flesh and Blood.....................1147 Early Optimism...................................1428 Eloquence Without Victory........................1699 'An Overflowing Mind'............................19910 The Independent.................................22711 Consuming Passions..............................25812 Darkness Before Dawn............................29313 Abolition.......................................32714 High Respect; Low Politics......................35715 The Struggle Renewed............................39616 Under Attack....................................42817 Trials of Faith.................................45118 'An Increase of Enjoyments'.....................47819 His Feet on the Rock............................500Notes..............................................519Bibliography.......................................543Index..............................................557

Chapter One

One Boy, Two Paths

* * *

My Mother hearing I had become a Methodist, came up to London to ascertain the fact and finding it true took me down to Hull almost heartbroken. William Wilberforce, Autobiographical Notes

No pious parent ever laboured more to impress a beloved child with sentiments of piety, than they did to give me a taste of the world and its diversions. William Wilberforce, Recollections

THE PEDIGREE OF William Wilberforce was impeccably Yorkshire. His grandfather, another William Wilberforce, had come to Hull to make his fortune early in the eighteenth century, but he had not come far: for centuries the family known as Wilberfoss had lived and prospered around the Yorkshire Wolds. A William Wilberfoss had been Mayor of Beverley at the time of the Civil War. The family could trace its ancestral line with certainty back to the small town of Wilberloss near York in the reign of Henry II (1154-89), and with some imagination and a hint of legend to the great conflicts of 1066, in which a Wilberfoss was said to have fought at Hastings and to have slain the would-be king, Harold Hardrada, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

This was a family proud of its traditions: among them civic leadership, commercial acumen and the prominence of the names William and Robert, both of which had featured in most of their generations since the fourteenth century. When grandfather William Wilberforce came to Hull he was soon elected as Mayor, and his two sons were duly named William and Robert, products of a marriage with Sarah Thornton, daughter of another successful trading family. William Wilberforce the future politician was the third child of the second son, Robert, and he was to owe his great inheritance to the lack of competing male progeny in his generation: he was an only son, two of whose three sisters died at an early age, while his uncle William - who confusingly married his cousin Hannah Thornton - was childless. The Wilberforce family would thus provide in full to its most famous descendant one of the most powerful formative influences of his early years: wealth.

The source of the family wealth was the Baltic trade. As a port on the east coast of England, Hull was well positioned to take advantage of the eighteenth-century boom in trade with northern Europe. Acquired by King Edward I in the thirteenth century, it had long been 'a good trading town by means of the great river Humber that ebbs and flows like the sea'. Its population of 7,500 in 1700 would almost quadruple in the following hundred years, with the town bursting out from medieval fortifications which were then erased, and a mass of warehouses, offices and fine homes being erected by the prospering merchants. London excepted, Hull became by far the busiest port on the east coast of England, with customs receipts over four times those of Newcastle. It was outstripped only by the great west coast ports of Bristol and Liverpool, with their access to the rich transatlantic trade, which included the trade in slaves. In the absence of any general quay, each merchant family needed its own private staiths for the loading and unloading of ships on the river Hull, just before its confluence with the great estuary of the Humber. The result was that the merchants' houses nestled alongside each other on the High Street, which ran parallel to the river, with their gardens at the rear opening out directly onto the busy and sometimes chaotic scene of their private docks. Business and family life were thus conducted from a single site. An idea of the complexity of this arrangement was furnished in due course by Robert Wilberforce's will: 'My house in the High Street in Kingston upon Hull wherein I now dwell with all the Outhouses, Warehouses, Cellars, Staiths, Staith Chambers, Granaries, Scales, Scale beams, Scale weights, Gardens, Pumps, Pipes of Wood or Lead and other appurtenances thereto.'

One such property, no. 25 High Street, was inherited by Alderman Wilberforce on the death of his father-in-law in 1732. A smart and spacious red-brick house, built in the 1660s but substantially altered by the Wilberforce family, it was to be the headquarters for the management of further additions to the Wilberforce fortune in subsequent decades. It must have been a bustling and noisy place, with many powerful and lingering smells. The congestion caused by carts, wagons and carriages crowding into the narrow streets required the authorities to bring in new regulations in the 1750s to ensure 'THAT no cart, waggon, truck or other wheel carriage, with or without horses or other cattle, shall be permitted to remain in any of the public streets, squares, lanes or passages in the said town, longer than is or shall be necessary for loading or unloading the same ...' Such a scene outside the front door of the house was only a hint of what would be happening at the bottom of the garden to the rear: ships were moored to each other as they waited, sometimes for weeks, for customs officers to give permission to unload; when they did so the staiths would groan beneath the weight of imported goods - timber, iron ore, yarn, hemp, flax and animal hides from Scandinavia, manufactured goods and dyes from Germany and Holland, and, as the century wore on and a growing population took to importing its food, large quantities of wheat, rye, barley, beans, peas, beef, pork and butter, all to be washed down with thousands of gallons of Rheinish Hoch. While goods for export, such as lead, and in later years a growing weight of cotton, tools, and cutlery, piled up waiting to be loaded, the whole atmosphere would hang heavily with the stench of the whale blubber refineries, joining with the smells of oilseed mills and tar yards in a particularly foul combination.

It was into this crowded scene that William Wilberforce was born, in the family home on the High Street, on 24 August 1759. His father had taken over the house four years before, when old Alderman Wilberforce retired to the quieter atmosphere of a country home at Ferriby, seven miles upstream on the Humber. Robert Wilberforce had married Elizabeth Bird and had taken over the management of the family business in the absence of his elder brother, who had evidently decided to make the most of the family's prosperity and move to London. Robert and Elizabeth were to have four children. The first and the fourth, Elizabeth and Anne, would die at the ages of fourteen and eight respectively: even in a well-to-do household childhood mortality in the eighteenth century was high. The second daughter, Sarah, was eighteen months old when the baby William was born. He was a discouragingly small and fragile child, with weak eyesight to compound the gloom, and he is said to have expressed thankfulness in later life 'that I was not born in less civilised times, when it would have been thought impossible to rear so delicate a child', and such a frail little thing could have been abandoned. Very little is recorded of his earliest years, but it was soon obvious that despite his physical infirmities he was intelligent and personable. The Wilberforce family presumably hoped that if he lived he would become the latest in their line of successful merchants, part of the 'property, trade and profits' which were the 'dominant terms' of eighteenth-century England. Those looking for clues to his later choices in life will not find them in his infant years. While his great future friend William Pitt, born only twelve weeks before him, was already resolved at the age of seven to serve in the House of Commons, the young William Wilberforce spent his first eight years in a household dominated by the business world. His immediate family had no strong connection with national politics, and showed no special zeal for religion. For all the fact that their son was born in the great 'year of victories', in which Canada and India were falling under British dominion, and Horace Walpole was writing, 'One is forced to ask every morning what victory there is, for fear of missing one,' it seems that the horizons of Robert and Elizabeth Wilberforce were predominantly local and financial.

If family wealth was a first crucial ingredient in the later career of William Wilberforce, then the experience of learning from a teacher he liked and respected was a second. While the Wilberforces were rich, they did not adopt the practice of the nobility and landed gentry by sending their son to a private school such as Eton. It is fair to assume that the bustling nature of their household and the family's strong participation in local affairs turned them against the other educational option for the wealthy of the eighteenth century, educating a child at home. Consequently, William joined the sons of other Hull merchants in attending Hull Grammar School, a short walk from 25 High Street down the cobbled Bishop Lane, through the teeming marketplace and past the Holy Trinity church. He later recalled walking there 'with satchel on my shoulder' and having his meals at home.

Eighteenth-century grammar schools varied enormously in the quality of education they provided. Often dependent on a single teacher, their fortunes thereby fluctuated along with the standards of that teacher. The subjects taught could amount to anything from a strict classical curriculum to the inclusion of more 'practical' subjects such as arithmetic, navigation, science or French. William was lucky, because the departure of the incumbent headmaster within a few months of the new pupil's arrival brought onto the scene a new teacher, Joseph Milner, with whom he would enjoy a lifelong friendship.

Joseph Milner was brought up in Leeds, the son of a journeyman weaver who placed a high priority on his sons' education despite his poverty, and who recalled that 'Once, on a Saturday evening, I surprised my wife, by sending home a Greek book for my son Joseph, instead of a joint of meat for the succeeding Sunday's dinner. It was too true that I could not send home both.' Sent to Leeds Grammar School despite his father's lack of formal education, he rapidly emerged as a prodigy, with verses published in the local newspaper and his teacher declaring that 'Milner is more easily consulted than the dictionaries ... and he is quite as much to be relied on.' Having been dispatched to Cambridge with the financial support of 'several liberal gentlemen' of Leeds, he was twenty-three years old when he was interviewed for the job of headmaster at Hull, and duly appointed with the influential support of Alderman Wilberforce. With him he brought his younger brother Isaac, who had been taken out of school when he was twelve because of his father's death. Isaac too showed exceptional intelligence, and now briefly performed the role of school usher, helping to teach the younger boys.

Under Milner's leadership, it was not long before Hull Grammar School had become a popular and educational success. One of his pupils later recalled: 'He appeared as if he knew all the different authors by heart; entered at once into their meaning, genius, taste, history ... His mind shone every day with the utmost brightness and splendour ... His whole school loved, revered, adored him for his wonderful abilities, for his simplicity, and for his easiness and readiness in communicating knowledge.' Others recollected that 'he rarely latterly inflicted corporal punishment', and remembered 'the caustic yet temperate ridicule with which he remarked on the custom of getting by heart the Latin syntax before some progress was made in the language ... When some proficiency in the Latin language was obtained, he directed us simply to read a book, so as to be able to answer questions on the substance of it.' Milner thus brought an innovative touch to the teaching of the traditional curriculum, and his pupils also loved mathematics and algebra, and had the benefit of the town having spent seven guineas on a pair of globes, the first recorded in the school. A large and apparently ungainly man, Milner 'generally came in about nine in the morning: at eleven the school was dismissed: the scholars went to learn writing and arithmetic elsewhere. The afternoon school hours are from two til five in the summer, and until four in the winter months.' Within two years the schoolroom was 'crowded', with plentiful fees bringing Milner's income to 'upwards of two-hundred pounds per annum' rather than the salary of thirty guineas which had originally been envisaged.

While William might easily have been bullied or lacking in confidence on account of his fragility, his experiences at Hull Grammar School evidently fortified his natural abilities. He was bright, engaging and confident; Isaac Milner would later recall that William's elocution 'was so remarkable that we used to set him upon a table, and make him read aloud as an example to the other boys'. It must have been a happy time for a seven-year-old boy: a good teacher, many friends, a caring family, and a large house enjoying an endless procession of visitors, traders and activities. In the summer months he was able to go out to his grandfather's house at Ferriby and enjoy the sights and sounds of the English countryside. Then tragedy struck. In the late spring of 1768, when William was almost nine, his family was torn apart. Only months after celebrating the birth of his fourth child, Anne, and around the same time as the death of the eldest daughter, Elizabeth, Robert Wilberforce died at the age of thirty-nine. This tragic sequence was to bring about the first of two wrenching upheavals in William's early life.

Elizabeth Wilberforce struggled to cope after the death of her husband. Wilberforce would later write, 'Some months after [his father's death] my Mother had a most long and dangerous fever.' It was decided that he would be moved to London, into the care of his father's elder brother William and his wife Hannah. Arriving in London in the autumn of 1768 after a week's stay with his cousins in Nottingham, William made his first acquaintance with what would become very familiar territory: his aunt and uncle owned a spacious villa in Wimbledon, then a village of just under a thousand residents separated by several miles of countryside from the capital, as well as a house in St James's Place, yards from London's fashionable clubs. For all their resources, his aunt and uncle did not find for him a school to measure up to the education he had been used to at Hull. He was sent to a boarding school at Putney, which he later remembered as 'one of those little schools where a little of everything reading, writing, arithmetic etc is taught: a most wretched little place. I remember to this day the Scotch usher we had: a dirty disagreeable man.' Charity boys were crammed into the upstairs; William and other pupils from better-off families, including a number of sons of West Indian plantation-owners, lived downstairs. He considered it 'a very indifferent school', a rather generous judgement given the mediocre education it gave him and the necessity of coping with 'the things which we had for breakfast, which were so nasty, that I could not swallow them without sickening'.

The consolation was spending his vacations at Wimbledon, described by Jonathan Swift in 1713 as 'much the finest place' near London. He grew fond of his aunt and uncle, and settled in happily at their tranquil villa, Lauriston House. This would be an eight- or nine-bedroom house once its garrets were converted into bedrooms a few years later, with its own extensive grounds. Lauriston House was on the south side of Wimbledon Common, where the mansions were described in a guide book as 'an assemblage of gentleman's houses, most delightfully situated', with 'good gardens from whence is a pleasant prospect over the luxuriant vale beneath'. William must have felt at home here; years later this would be the place where he would entertain his closest friends, and what would in later life become an insatiable appetite for rural air may well have been fostered in the fields and woods around Wimbledon. Before long, the move to London had turned into a happy one after all. Despite the miseries of attending school, William had a new home he liked and a loving relationship with his relatives. And of far greater significance to his later beliefs, he was about to acquire something else; something which his mother had certainly not intended for him when she sent him away, but which would become another vital ingredient in the personality of the young William Wilberforce. That something was religion; and not merely religion, but religion with enthusiasm.