William Wilberforce was born in 1759 in Hull, East Yorkshire. After he graduated from Cambridge University he wanted to become a politician. At just 21 Wilberforce became Member of Parliament (MP) for Hull, then MP for Yorkshire in 1784. Wilberforce devoted most of his life to campaigning for the abolition (legal end) of the British slave trade.
He was a lifelong friend of William Pitt, who later became Prime Minister. With the support of Pitt, Wilberforce became leader of The Society for the Abolition of Slavery. The Society campaigned for almost twenty years to end British involvement in the Transatlantic slave trade.
The slave trade involved capturing, kidnapping or buying African people and enslaving them. They were then transported to White British owned plantations in the Carribean and present-day America. Enslaved people were treated brutally. The abolition campaign made the Society many enemies, especially among those who had made huge profits from the slave trade.
Wilberforce was the first MP to raise the issue of the slave trade in the House of Commons.
His Abolition of the Slave Trade Bill was finally passed by parliament in 1807, after several attempts.
Although the slave trade was officially ended, Wilberforce knew that many people were still held in slavery in the British colonies. He carried on his campaign until another bill outlawing slavery in all British colonies was passed in 1833 - just days before he died.
A lifetime of campaigning:
Wilberforce was passionate about many different causes, from policing to education, healthcare, gambling, and animal rights. During his life he worked for around 70 separate causes, including:
- Reducing the hours children worked: at the time thousands of children worked for more than 12 hours a day.
- Improving prisons: then overcrowded and full of disease.
- Animal rights: he was a founding member of the RSPCA (the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals).
- Supporting poor people: helping the poor to get financial support or improve workhouses where the poorest lived.
- 'Promoting virtue': Wilberforce helped form the Proclamation Society, which was dedicated to making humanitarianism (helping other people)more popular.
Abolition - stopping something, making it illegal
Dedicated - determined to do something
Humanitarianism - helping people
Promote - to tell people about something
Virtue - being good
Workhouse - a place where the poorest people could live if they were not able to support themselves, paid for by other local people