All Commentary
Monday, January 13, 2014

The Man Who Spent His Life Sinking Slave Ships

We need intellectual leaders who are willing to work for an ideal, however small may be the prospects of its early realization. They must be men who are willing to stick to principles and to fight for their full realization, however remote.

—F. A. Hayek

When you think of great men in history at the turn of nineteenth century you probably think of Napoleon, Washington, and Metternich. Hardly anyone thinks of William Wilberforce. Yet, he changed the course of history and contributed to the cause of freedom more than any of his contemporaries.

Born into a privileged Yorkshire family in 1759, Wilberforce was a charming, talented young man headed for a promising political career in the highest ranks. In his late 20s, however, he came into the company of quite a different sort of people than he had been used to. Wilberforce began to enjoy the company of some Quaker misfits. Not exactly the most promising allies, perhaps, but he thought they were people of conviction.

These Quakers would eventually plant ideas in Wilberforce’s mind that may seem rather quaint today. Wilberforce, for instance, would concern himself with laws against excessive drinking, pornography, and Sunday papers. But then, he also fought against capital punishment and founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. All of this, however, is trivial compared to the monumental change he brought to mankind: The abolition of slavery in the British Empire.

The slave trade was one of the issues his curious friends would return to time and again. In those days, the trade of people from the African continent—not to mention goods produced and manufactured by slaves—contributed a major share to the British foreign income. Up to 40,000 slaves were brought across the Atlantic every year. Wilberforce’s friends were appalled by the perverse fact that human beings were owned and sold, but the conditions on slave ships were also horrific beyond imagination. Those who survived the ordeal of the passage were exposed to horrible working conditions in the West Indies. Nonetheless, slavery was considered a completely normal practice throughout large parts of the world at the time. And only a pious lunatic fringe seemed to take offense.

Trying to end the slave trade seemed a hopeless and quixotic endeavor. Slavery was—or seemed to be—a mainstay of British prosperity.

From 1787 on, those people roamed the country rallying for the abolition of the slave trade. (Slavery, they were convinced, would subsequently fall, too. It just seemed more prudent to do first things first.) A grassroots movement swelled. Men and women of every rank gathered evidence of cruelties; they held public meetings and speeches; they covered the country with pamphlets and handbills; they flooded newspapers with letters; they organized boycotts; and over the years they gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures for their petitions to parliament.

On May 12, 1789, 29-year-old Wilberforce delivered to the House his first speech in support of the abolition of the slave trade. Two years later, he introduced his first parliamentary bill, which failed. Times were not in his favor. The French Revolution had given rise to conservatism in Britain. Reforms, many dreaded, would ultimately lead England the French way. Also, slave traders and the people who profited by slavery could rely on a powerful and affluent lobby that would help them avoid the ruin of their vicious profits.

In the following years, Wilberforce introduced bills over and over again. And over and over again he was defeated. He and his fellow campaigners were frequently tempted to resign. They ruined their health and had to endure public mocking. Those were bitter years after a rather promising start. But the cause was too important for them to lose faith. Sacrificing their health and well-being, they kept it up.

Finally on February 23, 1807, nearly 18 years after Wilberforce had spoken out against the slave trade for the first time, the House passed the bill abolishing the British slave trade. British ships—which were handling most of the global slave trade—were never again to cross the Atlantic carrying human beings as a merchandise.

Unfortunately, the end of the slave trade did not trigger the end of slavery, as many of the abolitionists had hoped. Efforts thus continued in order to eradicate slavery in Britain and its colonies altogether. With Wilberforce’s health gradually declining, younger men took over his efforts. He lay on his deathbed when in the summer of 1833, he heard that the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery would pass the House.

Changing the world had consumed nearly his whole life. Though history may largely have forgotten Wilberforce’s sacrifices (along with those of Thomas Clarkson and James Ramsay), he and his fellow misfits sounded the death knell for what might be mankind’s worst scourge. Their statues ought to stand in our city squares in place of those of warmongers and tyrants.

Today injustice prevails in various forms in every part of the world. The War on Drugs, for instance, costs the lives of tens of thousands in the poor parts of the world every year—and to what avail? Agricultural subsidies and other forms of protectionism prevent broad parts of the world population from escaping extreme poverty. In some countries, gay people are persecuted not only by their countrymen but also by state institutions. Perhaps the most pressing issue is the question of migration: Just as the slave trade was a world-shattering scandal to Wilberforce and his allies over two centuries ago, the bunker mentality of Western countries toward migrants might the 21st century’s foremost human indignity.

Once again the world needs some “Wilber-forces,” those willing to devote their lives to struggles for freedom. Many of our fellow human beings are in desperate need of people who will take a stand for them. This crusade, of course, requires the disposition to endure failure, hostility, and ridicule. It demands patience and perseverance. It requires the inner strength not to give in to those who would discourage you. The cause of freedom, justice and humanity still needs dreamers like William Wilberforce.