Georgian Society for East Yorkshire

Hull and the Abolitionist Cause

William Wilberforce in 1790

William Wilberforce in 1790

Hull is often linked with the abolition of slavery in Britain and its empire. Usually this is through William Wilberforce. He was born in the city, and became its MP from 1780 to 1784. His was not the city's only voice in the war against the slave trade, however.

From 1774 to 1780, Hull's MP was David Hartley. Hailing from Bath, he was a friend of Hull merchant William Hammond, who had supported him as MP and in later diplomatic missions. It was in 1776 that Hartley, when MP for Hull, brought the matter of slavery to the House of Commons, saying that "the Slave Trade was contrary to the laws of God and the rights of men." He dramatically laid shackles on the table of the House during the debate to emphasise the point.

Hartley's motion failed. Many of his opponents were pandering to vested interests rather than necessarily prejudices of their own. They had been elected by merchants and others reliant on the slave trade for their wealth, particularly in the great slave ports like Liverpool and Bristol. Hull, in contrast, benefitted little from the transatlantic slave trade, most of its trade links being with the Baltic ports. So its MPs were more free to speak their minds on the matter.

Wilberforce's campaign postdates his time as Hull's MP. He converted to Evangelical Christianity in 1785, and as with David Hartley it was religious conviction that fuelled his efforts in the campaign. Not that Hull was indifferent to the cause. When campaigner and former slave Olaudah Equiano visited the town in 1793, he was well received and sold many copies of his autobiography. And in 1796, historian John Tickell was to dedicate his History of Hull to Wilberforce in recognition for his efforts against slavery.

It was to be many years after the departure from Hull of its two abolitionist MPs that the battle against the slave trade was won, and many years more before slavery itself was abolished in the colonies. But thanks to the efforts of campaigners in the Georgian period, Britain emerged into the Victorian era as a nation free of slaves.

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