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Why Wilberforce's Fight Is Just As Relevant Today As It Was 210 Years Ago


If you asked most people who they consider to be the most influential or important person ever to come out of the city of Hull, the chances are that William Wilberforce's name wouldn't come up very often - certainly not outside of Hull.

And yet there can be few Hullensians who have done more to shape and influence the society we live in today, thanks primarily to his pioneering work to abolish slavery. Born in Hull in 1759, he became an MP aged just 21 and dedicated most of his life [nearly 50 years] to the movement to abolish slavery.

The story behind his fight to eradicate slavery is an important one - and one that is just as relevant today as it was some 210 years ago.

He displayed courage, tenacity and perseverance in abundance to speak out against slavery at a time when most people were unwilling to do so, preferring to look away rather than confront the wretched business that was going on in front of them. He was completely unaccepting of such ignorance, saying 'you may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know'.

Without his tireless efforts, it's extremely doubtful we would have seen the passing of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, ending Britain's involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. And if it wasn't for this Act, coupled with the society he founded in 1823 to abolish slavery entirely, it's very unlikely we would have seen the introduction of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. Indeed, history and modern society might have looked very different if it wasn't for Wilberforce. And it wasn't just humans that he cared deeply about either - he also helped to found the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

His is a story that deserves to be told time and time again. And now it will be.

To mark the 210th anniversary of the passing of the Slave Trade Act, and to celebrate Hull's legacy of freedom in its City of Culture year, I and my colleagues at the University of Hull have been working in collaboration with the Digital Design Studio at Glasgow College of Art to bring Wilberforce back to life through 3D wizardry.

Our Virtual Wilberforce features in a series of four short animated videos, talking about his powerful life story and fight for freedom in his own words, from his first speech against the African slave trade in the House of Commons in 1789 through to his death in 1833.

Played by Adan Osborne, one of our own drama students, Virtual Wilberforce provides insight into his inspirational fight against slavery, the obstacles he faced during his campaign, and the great fortitude he displayed, often against great odds. Over the course of the City of Culture year, Virtual William will appear at Paragon Station and in Wilberforce House, where he grew up as a boy, with the aim that as many people as possible will watch the videos and recognise the lessons from the past.

The work of the abolitionists, led by Wilberforce, was the first grassroots human rights campaign in which men and women from different social classes and backgrounds volunteered to end the injustices done to others. His fight then is now our fight today.

And we currently have a real battle on our hands. In the UK, an estimated 13,000 people are working as slaves in hospitality, domestic servitude, agriculture, retail, organ harvesting and the sex industry. It touches on all aspects of all lives from the clothes we wear through to the food on our tables. And if there is any doubt as to the magnitude of the problem globally, the UN says modern slavery and trafficking is now the second-largest criminal industry in the world, with the International Labour Organisation putting annual profits from forced labour at $150bn.

My hope, and that of all of my colleagues at the University of Hull is that by bringing Wilberforce back into our hearts and minds, we will inspire a new generation of people to learn from his determination, commitment and ambition and continue his fight to tackle a problem that is still the scourge of our society. And that, we believe, is surely the most fitting way to honour his memory.

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