William Wilberforce

English politician and philanthropist William Wilberforce (1759 -1833) is best known as the leader of the campaign to end slave trade in the British Empire. However, he also co-founded the first animal welfare organisation in the world and supported various efforts to relieve social problems. As the leader of the parliamentary campaign against slavery, he played the key role in both abolishment of slavery trade and abolishment of slavery altogether.

Early Life

Wilberforce was born in Hull to Robert Wilberforce and his wife Elizabeth in 1759. His namesake grandfather was a wealthy tradesman and served twice as the mayor of Hull. He spent his early years in Hull but after his father’s death in 1768, he was sent to his aunt and uncle in London. But after three years, his mother who disliked evangelical influence of his aunt and uncle took him back to Hull. In 1776, Wilberforce began attending the St John’s College in Cambridge but the wealth he inherited from his grandfather who died in 1776 and uncle who died one year later, allowed him to lead a comfortable and somehow troubled lifestyle as he was more interested in gambling and drinking than studying. Nevertheless, he managed to pass all tests and in 1781, he was awarded Bachelor of Arts and in 1788, Masters of Art.

Political Career and Conversion to Evangelicalism

Wilberforce entered politics very young. During his student years, he became friends with the future Prime Minister, William Pitt who encouraged him to run for a seat in the parliament. In 1780, aged only 21, Wilberforce was elected Member of Parliament, while financial independence enabled him political independence. He refused to join to any party and voted according to his conscience.

In 1774, he went on a travel across Europe which would prove to have a major influence on both his later political career and philanthropic activities. While the travelling across Europe, he also began a spiritual journey which led to his conversion to Evangelical Christianity. He was considering to withdraw from public life but he was persuaded to remain politically active by his political colleagues including William Pitt.

Campaign for Abolition of Slavery and Other Philanthropic Activities

After his conversion, Wilberforce became increasingly interested in humanitarian questions and in the late 1780s became the leader of the parliamentary movement to end British slave trade. It took more than 25 years but eventually, the parliament passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807 which abolished slave trade in the British Empire which encouraged Wilberforce to began campaigning for abolition of slavery altogether.

He withdraw from active politics in the mid-1820s due to health problems. But he continued to support the efforts for abolition of slavery in the British Empire which finally happened with the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 which was passed only three days before his death. Although criticised by some for not doing anything to improve the living conditions of the workers, he did call for legislation to improve the working conditions for textile workers and chimney-sweeps but he also morally and financially supported other philanthropic activities such as Sunday schools for the poor and co-founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the world’s first organisation for animal welfare.