Cambridge Historical Reader: Primary - Cambridge Press

How the Slaves Gained their Freedom,

or the Story Of William Wilberforce

All of you know that across the Atlantic ocean, lies the continent of America. In one part of it there are great fields where the cotton plant is grown; while in the West Indies, lying farther south, fields of sugar canes may be seen.

A hundred years ago, black slaves toiled in these plantations, as they were called; for white men could not, or would not, work under the burning sun of the tropics. In most cases, the lives of these poor slaves were very sad.

When quite young, they had been torn from their homes in Africa, marched in gangs over the burning sands to the sea coast, and there crowded into ships, called slavers. Here they were treated more like beasts than men; and it often happened that half of them died on the voyage.

When America was reached, they were sold in the market places, in the same way as we sell horses and cattle. Their new masters gave them food, but not wages; and, if they were lazy, or did not please their owners in any way, they were often cruelly whipped.

Now, you know that we often sing, "Britons never shall be slaves," yet, strange to say, most people in this country then thought it quite right and proper to make slaves of these poor negroes.

At last, in the reign of king George III, some good men began to think what a dreadful thing slavery was; and they gave up their lives to the grand work of freeing the slaves.

One of these good men was Granville Sharp. One day, he found a poor negro lying in a London street. He had been brought over from the West Indies by his master; but, as the poor slave was ill, and could not work, his cruel owner had turned him out to die.

Granville Sharp took the negro home with him, fed and clothed him, and very soon the poor fellow was quite well and strong. Soon afterwards, his old master saw him in the street, and claimed him as his slave.

Granville Sharp


When Granville Sharp heard of this, he went to the poor fellow's help, and his hard master was forced to let him go. Not long after, the judges made it quite clear that, as soon as a slave set foot on the shores of Britain, he at once became a free man.

Then another good man, Thomas Clarkson, wrote and spoke against the trade in slaves; but it was William Wilberforce who really brought this great evil to an end.

When quite a young man, he led rather a gay and pleasant life; but, at the age of twenty-five, he turned his thoughts to serious things. One day, he bought a book written by Thomas Clarkson, and, when he had read it, he resolved to devote his life to the work of freeing the slaves.

He now spent much time in seeing captains of ships who told him all they knew about the slave trade. Now, Whenever Wilberforce had a chance, he talked to Pitt and other great men, and very soon he had then on his side. Some of these gentlemen went down to the docks in London, and saw for themselves what a slave ship was like.

Now, a great many men in the House of Commons were rich merchants, who made large profits by trading in slaves. As you may suppose, they did not like Wilberforce, and tried to hinder his good work in every way.

In spite of all this, he kept bravely on, and, after 20 years of hard work, he had the joy of knowing that no more slaves were to be taken to any part of our empire. Of course, there were still slaves in the West Indies, and many good men could not rest, till they were freed. One of the greatest of these was Thomas Fowell Buxton.



He was a friend of Wilberforce, and when that noble man was too ill to do any more work for the good cause he asked Buxton to take his place. Buxton was a fine man, both in mind and body, just the one that was needed to carry out such a great task.

At last, in the year 1834, twenty million pounds were paid to the West Indian planters, so that, on a certain day, the slaves might become free men. The day agreed upon was 1 August.

The night before, all the churches and chapels in the West Indies were thrown open, and the slaves crowded into them. As midnight drew near, they fell on their knees in silent prayer.

When the hour of twelve had struck, amid the clash of the bells, a great shout went up from thousands of lips; for at last their chains were broken, and the slaves were free.