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