Yorkshire Day

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Yorkshire Day and William Wilberforce

Yorkshire Day has been marked on 1st August since 1974. Originally a protest against the abolition of the East Riding of Yorkshire in that year under local government reforms, since 1980 it has been aligned with the county’s links to the abolition of slavery. It was from this date in 1834 that the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, involving the Hull-born politician William Wilberforce, came into force. In this blog, Dr Nick Evans, Senior Lecturer in Diaspora at the University of Hull, recounts his recent interview with the Yorkshire Post on this subject.

Dr Nick Evans
Dr Nick Evans, Senior Lecturer in Diaspora History

How has William Wilberforce's contribution to the abolition of British slavery impacted our country today?

William Wilberforce's political leadership of the campaign to abolish the British slave trade remains of critical importance to Britain today. In the late eighteenth century, Britain was the foremost trafficker of enslaved Africans in the world. Securing sufficient political support, through the political machinations of Wilberforce, to halt this brutal trade in 1807, was a significant milestone in our national identity. It marked the beginning of a radical new tradition in which Britain sought to promote human rights both at home and abroad.

The abolition of the slave trade in Britain did not end slavery and so the plight of millions of enslaved Africans remained precarious. Nevertheless, it influenced attitudes towards slavery at home and encouraged other slaving societies to bring their slave trades to an end. It was also a crucial step in securing the abolition of slavery itself in 1833, a ban that came in to force on 1 August 1834. From that point the owning, buying, and selling of humans as property was banned throughout Britain's colonies.

Dr Nick Evans

How important was William Wilberforce's role in abolishing slavery in Britain?

Wilberforce would not have wanted to be singled out as "the" person who secured the end of the British slave trade in 1807, and certainly took no credit for the end of slavery in 1833. His major contribution was to lead the political process to outlaw slave trading in the House of Commons. But he joined a very effective and diverse group of people - former slaves, men, women, and people from different branches of Christianity - who founded the Campaign to Effect the Abolition of the British Slave Trade. Having ended slave trafficking in 1807, Wilberforce remained involved in the later campaign to end slavery in the British Empire in 1833. Throughout, Wilberforce used his political networks, excellent rhetoric, and deep knowledge of the Bible, as tools to mobilise political support for his cause. Ultimately, he was a skilled and morally driven politician in a time when many questioned politics. Overcoming powerful opponents, including senior members of the British Royal Family, his political career was dominated by this important work.

Why is it important that we know about him today?

Whilst Wilberforce is remembered for his role in ending Britain's involvement in the trafficking of millions of enslaved Africans, he also lent his support to other causes that remain important today. His championing of human rights, animal rights, and disability rights, for example, makes him worthy of our praise. As a son of Yorkshire who managed to champion human rights around the world, he is a key person to celebrate on Yorkshire Day at a time when trust in politicians is once again low. His memory is also a powerful tool to raise awareness of forms of slavery today, for once again the lives of millions of people are being blighted by human rights abuses, including here in Yorkshire.

How far do you think we have come since slavery was abolished with regards to equality and what should be done for better progress?

I don't think we have come nearly far enough. Recent cases, such as institutional racism at Yorkshire County Cricket, the refusal of Filey Town Council to allow a memorial to Caribbean service personnel who served at Filey during World War Two to be erected, and growing racism in our city centres, all reveal that race inequalities continue to pervade our region. We have thankfully made some important progress, but a fitting legacy to Wilberforce this Yorkshire Day would be to actively work in eradicating all forms of racism, and listening to concerns raised by communities blighted by racism would be a start. I've been working closely with members of The Black Heritage Collective here in Hull and learned so much about strategies for reducing everyday prejudice. They also provide first hand guidance about simple ways through which racism can be alleviated.


Dr Evans has spent most of his academic career working at the University of Hull's Queen's Anniversary Prize-winning Wilberforce Institute. He works closely with members of the African and Caribbean diasporas living in Yorkshire to raise awareness of the contribution both regions have played in shaping Britain. An exhibition he co-curated with the Hull Afro-Caribbean Association, Homelands: Wartime photography of Sierra Leone during the Second World War, will be on display in the Wilberforce Institute as part of Hull's Freedom Festival from 28 August – 15 September 2023

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