Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Britain's Forgotten Hero: How Has It Happened That the Man Who Did More Than Any Other to Bring about the Abolition of Slavery Is Today without Honour in His Own Country?

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Britain's Forgotten Hero: How Has It Happened That the Man Who Did More Than Any Other to Bring about the Abolition of Slavery Is Today without Honour in His Own Country?

Article excerpt

"How do you spell his surname?" asked the woman at my local bookshop, when I asked if they had a biography of William Wilberforce. The bloke in Foyles had heard of him, but didn't have any books about him. Nor did Borders or Waterstone's. I was amazed. Wilberforce was once a familiar national figure, like Elizabeth Fry or Florence Nightingale. Now I couldn't buy a book about him. How had the man who saw off the slave trade become so obscure? He is still famous in West Africa and the Caribbean. In the United States there's a university named after him, so why isn't he a national hero in Britain, like Nelson or Wellington? I went to Wilber-force's birthplace to see if the people of Hull had also forgotten how to spell his name.

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There I found a shop that actually stocked a few books about Wilberforce and, as I mugged up on his early years, I realised why he has become anonymous. He doesn't have the credentials that make someone newsworthy nowadays. He wasn't a rebel. He wasn't remotely rock'n'roll. He was straight, white, wealthy and conservative. His crusade against the slave trade was driven by his devout Christianity. Today he would probably be written off as a religious crank. Yet here was one place in Britain that remained devoted to his memory: his similarly unfashionable and idiosyncratic home town. Next year is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, and Hull is doing its utmost to put Wilberforce back on the map.

Wilberforce was born in Hull in 1759 in a handsome brick house on the high street. Somehow it survived the Blitz, and it is still in remarkably good condition. When I visited, it was closed for refurbishment in preparation for next year's bicentennial (it will be reopened in March by the prime minister of Barbados), but the curators gave me a private tour.

Most historic houses give no biographical insights at all (Shakespeare's birthplace, for instance, tells you nothing about his personality, or his plays), but Wilberforce's home tells you a good deal about the familial influences that shaped him. It is the house of a hard-working businessman, not an idle aristocrat. From William's nursery window, you can see the wharves that provided his father with a livelihood. Wilberforce was no pampered member of the landed gentry. His roots were urban. His family was well off, but lived over the shop.

From the age of seven, William went to the local grammar school (now also a museum), walking to school through the streets of Hull. Eighteenth-century Hull was a bustling seaport ("extraordinarily populous", wrote Daniel Defoe), with 12,000 inhabitants crammed into its medieval alleys. The narrow street outside the Wilberforce front door thronged with sailors, press-gangs and prostitutes.

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It is not surprising that Hull's most famous son should have rocked the establishment of his day. Hull has always been nonconformist and anti-establishment. Its white phone boxes are a modern symbol of this individuality, but the roots of its rebellious spirit go far back. The city famously shut its gates on Charles I in 1642, igniting the English civil war, and when Charles II became king, Hull responded by electing the poet Andrew Marvell, a staunch republican, as its MP. A century later, its electorate made a similarly contrary choice, electing the callow 21-year-old Wilberforce, who devoted his parliamentary career to demolishing one of the cornerstones of British commerce. It was the equivalent of a modern backbencher attempting to dismantle the arms trade.

But it was not just Hull's historic quirks that made it such a solid platform for Wilberforce's campaign against the slave trade. Even more important was its position on the map. Unlike the thriving slave ports of Bristol and Liverpool, Hull was on the wrong side of the country to reap the benefit from this lucrative business. Facing east, its trading links were with the Baltic ports, rather than the imperial colonies of West Africa and the West Indies. …

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