Wilberforce and the Abolishment of Slavery in England

Wilberforce and the Abolishment of Slavery in England

This Monday’s history essay is also a review of a truly astounding movie that I sincerely cannot recommend high enough. I will interweave the two as I proceed in hopes that I can not only educate, as you all know I love to do; but also encourage each one of you to spend two hours of your time and a few dollars for a profoundly moving experience.

The movie Amazing Grace was released in theaters on March 23, 2007, and is available on DVD, Amazon instant video, Netflix, etc. The theatrical release was not an arbitrary date, but chosen specifically to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the day that the English Parliament voted to ban the transport of slaves.

Amazing Grace recounts the tale of Parliament member William Wilberforce (1759-1833) — acted brilliantly by Ioan Gruffudd — who fought tirelessly to abolish the slave trade and eventually free all British slaves. The movie deals with the thirty some years from when a young, self-indulgent Wilberforce experienced a radical conversion to Evangelical Christianity, embraced a number of idealistic social reforms in an effort to ‘make a better world,’ and eventually sacrificed his health and nearly his life for the fight against the heinous slave trade.

Over the years Wilberforce was aided and inspired by a diverse group of supporters–

  1. His dearest friend William Pitt (Benedict Cumberpatch), who later became the youngest man to ever serve as Prime Minister.
  2. The abolitionists Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell), Hannah Moore, and Rev. James Ramsey, among others.
  3. Fellow Members of Parliament Sir Charles Fox (Michael Gambon) and Lord Grenville.
  4. Former slave Olaudah Equiano (Youssou N’Dour) whose autobiographical account of his life as a slave was the first of its kind in all the world, and profoundly instrumental in the abolitionist movement.
  5. Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai) an activist in her own right, who supported Wilberforce both on a personal level and as inspiration not to forfeit his cause.
  6. John Newton (Albert Finney), a former slave ship captain turned Anglican minister and author of numerous hymns, including Amazing Grace. Newton’s deep remorse for his part in the traffic of human beings led him into the ministry, eventually as a priest within the Anglican Church. As a close friend of Wilberforce, Newton was a prime contributor to Wilberforce not joining the ministry as he wished, encouraging instead to ‘serve God where he was’ in Parliament.

Amazing Grace
How sweet the sound
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.


From 1789 to 1806 Wilberfoce presented bill after bill after bill, all of them shot down or delayed due to political tactics and other upheavals such as King George III’s illness and the Regent issue, as well as the war with France. He never gave up though. Finally, on February 23, 1807, Parliament passed Wilberforce’s Slave Trade Act that abolished the trafficking of slaves within the entire British Empire with a vote of 283 to 16 in the House of Commons, and 41 to 20 in the House of Lords.

The movie ends here with the emotional climax as the vote is read, Wilberforce nearly collapsing in relief as the entire assembly gives him a standing ovation, and Sir Fox delivers an impassioned tribute. (To be factual, I read that this tribute was delivered by Sir Samuel Romilly, Sir Fox having died the year prior, but I think for the sake of cinema continuity they chose to keep Gambon as Fox rather than introduce another character at the last moment.)

Wilberforce (right image) remained an activist until the end of his life. He led dozens of missionary projects, formed the Society for Suppression of Vice in an effort to restore morality, founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that still exists today, campaigned against corruption in the House of Commons, fought for education among poor children, and more. Above all, he tirelessly labored for the emancipation of ALL slaves in the British Empire. This was finally accomplished in 1833, the news reaching Wilberforce three days before he died.

He was regarded as ‘keeper of the nation’s conscience’ and was buried in Westminster Abbey alongside his lifelong friend, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. His funeral was lavish, attended by members of both Houses, and his pallbearers included the Duke of Gloucester and the Lord Chancellor. He has a monument in Kingston Upon Hull where he was born, and also at Westminster Abbey. The inscription on the latter is remarkably moving, a brief portion quoted here:

In an age and country fertile in great and good men, he was among the foremost of those who fixed the character of their times; because to high and various talents, to warm benevolence, and to universal candour, he added the abiding eloquence of a Christian life. Eminent as he was in every department of public labour, and a leader in every work of charity, whether to relieve the temporal or the spiritual wants of his fellow-men, his name will ever be specially identified with those exertions which, by the blessing of God, removed from England the guilt of the African slave trade.


Additional commentary by Sharon–

One of my biggest pet peeves are people who disagree or note an error, but rather than contacting privately or in the comment section of the blog post itself, they choose to speak their mind on a public site for all to see. This is bad form, IMO, even if they are correct in their facts. Case in point: as a response to this essay on Wilberforce and the slavery issue in England, the following was posted by an author as a rebuttal of sorts, on the Facebook page where I shared the link to this post.

Okay, I don’t care what a movie says, slaves were never legal in the UK. a court case in 1792 proved this with the ruling by Chief Justice of the Court of the King’s Bench, had to judge whether the abduction was legal or not under English Common Law as there was no legislation for slavery in England. In his judgement declared: “Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.” What Wilberforce abolished, was the slave trade. British ships would visit Africa, pick up slaves, travel to America, trade those slaves and buy goods, then return to England to sell the goods, before returning to Africa and continuing the cycle. It is wrong to believe that it was ever legal to own or trade a slave in the UK, it wasn’t.

Now, there is a LOT I could have said to this, but I stuck to the facts, my intent not to convince this person (never gonna happen!) but to clear the now-perceived impression that I gave false information, and apparently so did the movie Amazing Grace. This is my reply in total, emphasis added for clarity–

The case you refer to is the 1772 Somerset vs. Stewart. Ironically, the Chief Justice was Lord Mansfield, who also has a movie touching on this issue: “Belle” which just came out! There are many misconceptions about the Mansfield ruling. The case involved ONE particular slave who escaped from his owner (who was legally keeping him IN ENGLAND at the time). The particulars of the Somerset situation were unique.

The quote you give (part of a much longer statement) is Mansfield clarifying that his decision for Somerset’s freedom was NOT a law regarding the slavery issue itself. In fact, he pointed out that there were some 14,000 slaves in Britain, none of whom were affected by this case. Who WAS affected were free blacks living in England, the ruling stating that “Africans could not be exported from the UK to the West Indies as slaves.”

In the decades before and after, many anti-slavery acts were passed, primarily aimed at the trafficking aspect. Enforcement was practically non-existent. In 1807 Wilberforce’s bill abolished the slave trade through most (not all) of the Empire. The subsequent fight was to abolish slavery as a whole and emancipate those black slaves still legally owned. This happened in 1833, although the law (like all the others) was not well enforced with Britons throughout the Empire (including the UK) keeping slaves well into the late 1800s.

I then added three links for more information. The first from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation was a detailed study of the 1772 Somerset case, but is no longer available on the page.

The second from a History Today article, written by Stephen Usherwood, a historian and author:

Lastly, a link to an extensive article on British slavery by Dr. Marika Sherwood, senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London, and author of some 100 articles and books on the subject: http://www.history.ac.uk/ihr/Focus/Slavery/articles/sherwood.html


Naturally this person had more to say, including a shameful, IMO, personal slam: “Thank you for teaching me the history of my country, using American links and a wikipedia like British site. I can see the error of doing in depth research now and in the future, I will stick to the opinions of other countries and simplified, wiki-like resources.”

I did try to be polite in my reply:

My apologies. I am not an expert, but I have done my research as well. I didn’t write my blog post willy-nilly or give information erroneously. There are always varied sides to an issue. Americans still hotly debate all the variable causes of the Civil War! I do know some facts, however, and do not agree that being an American means I am ineligible to comment on another country. Nor that quotes from historical research websites, and an article written by Dr. Marika Sherwood, senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London and author of some 100 articles and books on the subject was considered a “simplified” resource. Maybe they all have the year wrong too, it being 1792 (as she claimed) rather than 1772.


And then, shockingly, this person gave more “evidence” insisting that slaves of any kind were NEVER legal in England and thus slaves were NEVER on English soil. Well, as I admit, I am not an expert on slavery (UK, US, or anywhere) or on technicalities of the law. However, I DO know that reference after reference refers to slaves and indentured servants (black and other races) held in Britain itself, as well as the various outlying portions of the Empire. Somerset himself was a slave, IN England! Their precise status may not have been delineated by law, but they were present in the UK since the far, far past.

Furthermore, if the keeping of slaves was always illegal and never done in England (as this person maintains) then Wilberforce et al were wasting their time. And, Section 71 of the 2009 Coroners and Justice Act — READ HERE — was a pointless addition!

I like this simple conclusion, as posted on The Fortean Times–

Holding a person in slavery became illegal in the UK on 6 April 2010. Nineteenth-century legislation made slavery illegal, in stages, throughout the British Empire, but the status of a slave had never existed under English common law. Therefore, since slaves did not legally exist in this country, holding a slave was never made specifically illegal – until now. Section 71 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 makes it an offence in the UK to hold a person in slavery or servitude, or require a person to perform forced or compulsory labour. The maximum penalties are seven and 14 years imprisonment respectively. Modern anti-slavery campaigners say that there are currently 27 million slaves worldwide, in various categories, and that the use of undocumented migrants as forced labour is common in Britain. They argue that it’s only in countries where slavery has been criminalised, as opposed to merely “abolished”, that the prosecution of slaveholders becomes practical.

Semantics and minutia of ancient laws aside, why do some people (in this case an author) feel the urge to criticize, embarrass, and rudely deride another author? And why demean the contribution of great men such as Wilberforce, and an astounding movie that serves to enlighten the past?








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Collins Hemingway

Sharon, great post and follow-up. The technical legal question of slavery was indeed indefinite, as early invaders had freed British slaves and the issue hadn’t come up again till Mansfield. But this is a distinction w/o a difference. People w blacks in country treated them as slaves–even as late as 1824. Mansfield was careful to limit ruling to one person but probably knew it would be taken broadly.

Wilberforce was a great man but not the saint of the movie. He and Pitt passed bills that felonized ordinary dissent, suspended habeas corpus, and executed political dissidents. He was vehemently opposed to “republicanism” and couldn’t distinguish between reform and revolution. He opposed slavery but sent the poor to Australia as convict labor–slaves.

This isn’t to tear him down or demean his legacy. It is to show him as a complex human being. Having given tens of thousands of pounds to charitable causes, he died impoverished… and cheerful as ever.


I loved the movie and the song. It is one of the few movies I have on DVD as I generally am not much of a movie fan. I hate all the inaccuracies of the Austen movies. I have to close my eyes to the errors in this movie.I found the sequence confusing at times but overall the story and the people are very inspiring. Wilberforce died just before abolition of slavery went into law. He spent his political life fighting for that end despite ill health. Jane Austen doesn’t mention Wilberforce or even Lord Mansfield but wrote about reading books by Clarkston and generally was supportive of the efforts of Clarkston and Wilberforce. The efforts of the Clarkston brothers need more exposure. People of Sierra Leone ( founded as a place for people freed from slavery as Liberia was founded by Americans) still study the people of the abolition movement in schools. A co worker was from Sierra Leone and was amazed to hear that anyone had heard of Clarkston and Wilberforce. As for the song Amazing Grace- it was written as a poem, of course, but somehow was matched up with the perfect tune.
Some who have made an extensive study of William Pitt the younger say that Cumberbatch had him dead on.

Janis Hudson

Truly a courageous man. I still can’t believe it took so long to realize what a drain slavery was on society.

Tracey Devlyn

Sharon, great essay. I saw Amazing Grace and loved it. Had no idea about the other areas he fought to improve. Great stuff.

MaryAnn Nagy

Thanks for educating us and all this is important for us to learn the history besides the romance. I greatly appreciate all I can learn in my life, good along with the bad! We can not change the past but we sure can try to do a better job for future generations by our actions.

Joy Dawn King

I can only imagine the fervor that this man had when confronted with the injustices of the slave trade. Thank you, Sharon, for this research. It is a sad time in mankind’s history, isn’t it? When I am embroiled in the world of Regency romance, it is easy to have my mind skip over the unsavory elements of that society. Yet, it was there, lurking with its evil. Today, you broadened my scope. I appreciate it very much.

PS: How are you feeling today? Less pain? I hope!!!

Regan Walker

I do agree with you Sharon. We forget all that was going on behind the scenes in Regency England. It wasn’t all balls and soirees.

Regan Walker

Thanks for the post on this great man. For an article I wrote on God in Regency England, I did a fair amount of research on the group of wealthy Anglican Evangelicals, including William Wilberforce, who came together in the village of Clapham, southwest of London, to campaign for an end to slavery. You might find their membership interesting. Dubbed “the saints,” in addition to Wilberforce, they included: Henry and John Venn, rectors; the financier Henry Thornton; Charles Simeon, rector at Cambridge; Granville Sharp, a lawyer and founder of the St. George’s Bay Company, a forerunner of the Sierra Leone Company; Zachary Macaulay, estate manager and Governor of Sierra Leone (established as a homeland for emancipated slaves); John Shore, Lord Teignmouth, formerly Governor-General of India; James Stephen, a lawyer, Wilberforce’s brother-in-law and author of the Slave Trade Act of 1807; Charles Grant, Chairman of the East India Company; and Hannah More, poet and playwright, who produced tracts for the group. I would have love to be able to hear their discussions, wouldn’t you?



I always teach Jane Austen, William Wilberforce, and Horatio Hornblower together. I usually use Persuasion or Mansfield Park because of their strong Naval themes. They actually go very well together. Sometimes I throw in Equiano’s autobiography as well. It makes such a difference to the understanding of Jane’s books to look at them along with other things from the same time period. I totally understand why the 1999 Mansfield Park movie brought so much of the slavery idea into the movie. It made sense, even if it wasn’t exactly canon. Jane Austen, as an upper-middle class female, might or might not have been aware of what was going on beyond the parlor and garden conversations of polite society, but reading her works side by side with Amazing Grace is an eye opener and gives her novels a whole new light.

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