William Wilberforce

For this article from our back catalogue about famous drug users, BP delved into the history books and uncovered the man who was instrumental in halting the slave trade within the British Empire. A passionate believer in justice, William Wilberforce was a keen opiate user for most of his life, well into his 80’s.

Here, Adam Wallace pays homage to the great man himself.


This issue our choice of historical figure that was also a drug user is William Wilberforce, well known as being largely responsible for abolishing slavery in the British Empire. Wilberforce’s name is often used when compiling lists of famous addicts, and he certainly was an opium addict, he took around twenty grains of opium a day for the majority of his life. A grain being an old Imperial measurement equivalent to 60 milligrams, his habit works out as being 1200mgs of opium per day; a habit by anybody’s reckoning. That Wilberforce took opium for both pain, and “non-medicinal” use is without doubt. He regularly took extra doses before giving speeches in the House of Commons, and is recorded as saying “To it [opium] I owe my success as a public speaker”. How many MP’s would be willing to admit that a couple of MST tablets before a major speech help calm their nerves?

What makes his opium use all the more interesting, and relevant to anyone who objects to the false morality imposed by drug-prohibition, is the story of Wilberforce’s life, for above all else, he was a moralist. Today would see Wilberforce siding with those we consider as having the most conservative viewpoints. The difference is that the Britain of Wilberforce’s time is markedly different to the Britain of today in many respects, one being that people  were judged on their words and actions, not upon what they chose to ingest. If somebody chose to swallow opium pills, that was their business. If, however they committed some crime after taking a drug they would be held accountable, and the fiction of “the drugs made me do it” would be seen as exactly that – a fiction.

William Wilberforce was born into a wealthy family of merchants in Kingston-upon-Hull, in 1759, his father died when he was nine, and he was sent to live with his uncle in Wimbledon, where he attended a school in Putney, which he said “taught him everything and nothing”, later his mother brought him back to Hull, and in 1776 he entered St John’s College Cambridge.

In 1780, as the result of a bet, Wilberforce entered the election as MP for Hull. He spent around £8000 pounds on the election, an enormous sum in it’s time, which, together with his fantastic powers of public speaking ensured his victory and he entered Parliament.

When he first arrived in London he lived the high life for some time, often gambling heavily, as was fashionable in those days, though he gave it up after winning £600 pounds from an opponent to whom the loss was serious. It is important to realise the difference between the politicians of then and today. At that time the rigid system of political parties we know today had not yet evolved, and most politicians were “amateurs” in the sense that they were more often than not wealthy men of independent means, who entered politics either for the good of the country, or to advance their own interests. [Little difference there, cash for questions being as popular then as now].

During the Parliamentary recesses of 1784/85 Wilberforce toured Europe, and was converted to evangelical Christianity. From then his life of high living and reckless spending was over, thereafter his whole approach to life was from a position of strict morality. He even founded The Proclamation Society, dedicated to the suppression of vice, and improvement of public manners.


This happened less than a few hundred years ago, and was defended for longer. ..We can never forget this tragic history.

Wilberforce’s biggest political campaign, and the one for which he is most famous was the campaign against slavery. Evidence amassed by Thomas Clarkson awoke Wilberforce’s revulsion at African slavery and, working closely with Clarkson, Wilberforce presented a dossier of evidence condemning the slave trade to the Privy Council during 1788.  Unfortunately this early attempt to influence government failed, due in part to the fact that some of the key witnesses,   bribed or intimidated, withdrew their testimony, and spoke in favour of the slavers.

At this point, Wilberforce probably became aware of just how powerfully entrenched were the interests he opposed. Wilberforce had picked a tough fight, but the slavers were about to find out that in Wilberforce, they had an even tougher opponent.


The House of Commons in Wilberforce’s day byAugustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson (1808–11)


The following year, Wilberforce introduced the Abolition Bill into Parliament, and prepared himself to give the most important speech of his political life so far. Considering that his consumption of opium is recorded as beginning the year before, and his statement of owing his prowess as an orator to opium, he must have taken a hefty swig on the laudanum bottle before standing up and speaking. The speech was received with high praise in the newspapers of the day. His opponents now began to use delaying tactics against the Bill, and it was referred to a Select Committee.

When the debate finally resumed the Abolition Bill was defeated with a majority of 75 against.

Wilberforce returned to the task of drumming up public support, however the war with  France and the slave rebellion in Haiti hardened attitudes further. A year later Wilberforce again raised the Bill in Parliament, and on 2nd April 1792, an intense, emotional debate followed, which outraged public opinion against the trade in slaves. But it was not enough to defeat the powerful interests backing slave trading. When Henry Dundas suggested introducing the word “gradual” into the Bill, it was sufficient to convince a majority of MP’s to vote in it’s favour, and the Bill passed into law, with a final date for slave trading to remain legal in the British Empire fixed at 1796.


“Am I Not A Man And A Brother?” Medallion created as part of anti-slavery campaign by Josiah Wedgwood, 1787

This had the effect of allowing the “West India Interest”, [the slave traders’ lobby] room for endless manoeuvres. Once again Parliamentary delays were used, further evidence was demanded, and it became clear that gradual abolition meant no abolition. This was the lowest point of the campaign; and public enthusiasm for abolition collapsed. Wilberforce reintroduced the Abolition Bill into Parliament almost every year for the remainder of the 1790’s, though little progress was made.

The first years of the nineteenth century continued to be bleak for the abolitionists, though their fortunes began to reverse around 1804. Abolitionism was no longer seen as a suspect philosophy and many new Irish MP’s were increasingly abolition friendly.

In 1806 Wilberforce published an influential tract advocating abolition, and in June of that year, Parliamentary resolutions were passed in it’s favour. Public opinion favoured abolition, and in 1807 the Abolition Bill was re-introduced with considerable support. On 23 February 1807,almost fifteen years after Dundas had derailed abolition with his gradual approach, Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour to abolish the slave trade. The Solicitor-General made a speech against the slavers, which concluded with an emotional tribute to Wilberforce, who was so overcome that “[he] sat with his head on his hands, tears streaming down his face. As Romilly reached his final sentences the House….stood and cheered him”.

The Abolition Act became law on 25 March 1807, and the trade in slaves


Wilberforce was buried in Westminster Abbey next to Pitt. This memorial statue, by Samuel Joseph (1791-1850), was erected in 1840 in the north choir aisle.

became illegal in British registered ships. However, the institution of slavery remained legal inside British colonies. Wilberforce wished privately to see slavery entirely abolished, but understood that there was little political will for emancipation. With his efforts meeting increasing resistance, Wilberforce declared that he would not be bound by the government line, and campaigned openly for a complete end to slavery. His health was beginning to deteriorate, yet he continued to keep up his attack both at public meetings and in the House of Commons. In 1823 he founded the Anti-Slavery Society, which led the campaign for emancipation.

Wilberforce’s last public appearance was at a meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society in 1830, where, at Thomas Clarkson’s suggestion he took the chair. During this time the Emancipation Bill was gathering support in Parliament, and received it’s final reading on 26th of July 1833. Slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire, and a declaration was later made that any slave arriving from a territory where slavery was legal, to a British colony would not be returned, thus the growth in what became known as the “freedom train” smuggling slaves northwards from the slavery states of the USA to Canada.

On hearing that the Emancipation Bill had passed into law, Wilberforce said “Thank God, that I have lived to witness a day in which England is willing to give twenty millions sterling for the Abolition of Slavery’. Three days later, on 29 July 1833, he died. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Wilberforce’s life and work have been commemorated in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. In Westminster Abbey, a seated statue of Wilberforce by Samuel Joseph was erected in 1840, bearing an epitaph praising his Christian character and his long labour to abolish the slave trade and slavery itself.  Adam Wallace


Update: The United Nations estimates that roughly 27 to 30 million individuals are currently caught in the slave trade industry. The Global SlaveryIndex 2013 states that 10 nations account for 76 percent of the world’s enslaved. People are still trafficked into prostitution, begging, forced labour, military service, domestic service, forced illegal adoption and forced marriage. Today, it is estimated as many or more women are trafficked in Europe for sex as slaves were shipped across the Atlantic at the end of the eighteenth century.

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1 Comment

  1. Mary Burdis

     /  August 2, 2020

    Wilberforce cannot have remained an opium Addict into his 80s as he died when he was 73. Other than that, a very interesting and informative piece.


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