If so, I’d like to share with you the amazing story of William Wilberforce whose compassion and perseverance overcame incredible odds to change the world, as he brought slavery to an end in the British Empire. His story may inspire you to pursue your dream.
To put what he accomplished in perspective, let’s turn the clock back to Wilberforce’s time, the late 18th century in England. Picture African slave ships being dispatched by the hundreds to North, Central and South America, to the Caribbean and to Europe.
Something history books seldom reveal is that over the centuries, this cheap enforced labor had become the financial foundation of the British Empire and of other powerful European nations as well. It was vital to them.
But to fully understand what Wilberforce accomplished, we need to take a brief look at slavery for the ugliness it was.
In Africa the slaves were seized, chained and then marched under whip and at gunpoint, often hundreds of miles to the coast. Never again would they see their families and friends. They were taken by the millions and they were treated so brutally, that roughly 2 out of every 5 of them died on the journey.
Once they reached the coast, they were stripped naked and examined thoroughly by the ships’ doctors. Those who were healthy and strong were purchased and branded on the chest with a red-hot iron to establish the name of the company that bought them.
To maximize profits, the ships carried as much human cargo as possible. The enslaved people were packed so tightly on board the lower decks of ships that they could hardly move. Chained together in the dark, they were forced to live in their own excrement and urine. And as the ships pitched back in forth in the seas, many got seasick and vomited on themselves.
The stench on the ship was horrific, matched only by its misery.
In good weather, the journey took three weeks, and in rough seas and foul weather, it took much longer. A third of the slaves might die during the journey and their bodies were thrown overboard.
Picture these frightened people chained to a space the size of a coffin, struggling to survive. And if they reach their destination, they’ll be washed down, examined and caged again and auctioned off to the highest bidder.
They are now the property of their owner. He can abuse them any way he chooses for they have no legal rights. To ensure they won’t run away, he may brutally break their spirit with whippings, torture or disfigurement. He might kill one as an example to other slaves thinking of running away.
And as future U.S. President George Washington did for a party he hosted, he may offer one as a door prize, abruptly separating that person from whatever family structure he or she had formed.
This was the wretched institution of slavery as practiced for centuries, until Wilberforce committed himself to try to end it.
Raised in a wealthy family, Wilberforce was well educated and a Member of Parliament. Religion held little interest to him until 1785, when what began as casual reading of religious treatises took him to what he called “the Great Change.”
As a matter of religious conviction and of conscience, Wilberforce became actively involved with the anti-slavery movement. And in Parliament he proposed making slavery illegal. But he faced powerful opposition from large plantation owners and from other wealthy people profiting from it.
He found very little support in Parliament; and for even proposing something so absurd, some of the other Members of Parliament branded him a nut and a fanatic.
And he received little support from the public which looked the other way. To get their attention, Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionists launched an ongoing campaign to get them to see slavery for the cruel, degrading [and anti-Christian] enterprise it was.
They’d bring people to the slave ships to smell the stench and see the grime. They brought them to the slave markets to witness the brutality inflicted on slaves, to see those slaves cry-out in pain and to see the sale of fellow human beings, who other than for the color of their skin were just like them.
For years, most of Parliament and the public ignored him. In deep frustration Wilberforce’s health suffered greatly as he tried time and again without success to appeal to people’s Christian beliefs, and to their sense of humanity and of justice.
But he and his fellow abolitionists never gave up the fight, speaking at public forums, publishing articles, and appealing to religious leaders who were not part of their movement. And Wilberforce introduced and publicized bills to end slavery he proposed in every session of Parliament.
Through perseverance and determination and despite the initial ridicule he received in 1789 when he first addressed the issue in Parliament, in 1807 his dream came true. Wilberforce with support of the abolitionists, much of the clergy and the public, successfully persuaded Parliament to pass the Slave Trade Act, ending the slave trade in the British Empire.
As the British Empire was the most powerful in the world, this was a great victory and for slavery, it was the beginning of the end. This victory was of such historic importance, most people would have been content to celebrate its achievement and end their activism.
Not Wilberforce. He and his fellow abolitionists now focused on freeing those who were already enslaved and he spent the rest of his life involved in this cause. Wilberforce passed away on July 29th, 1833 and one month later, in his honor, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed by Parliament, and all slaves in the British Empire were freed.
To show how profound this was, by contrast in the United States it would take a Civil War and the devastation of the nation for President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation 30-years later. And it came at a price paid in blood by millions of people ultimately costing Lincoln his life as well.
But for Wilberforce and the abolitionists in England, Emancipation was a peaceful action and one that was achieved with perseverance, dignity and humanity.