On the evening of March 15, 1796, the streets adjacent to the Opera House of London thronged with carriages carrying the wealthy and powerful. Excited conversation buzzed beneath wrought-iron streetlamps. It was the premiere of the opera season. Vignoni, the noted Italian singer, was the lead in a new comic opera, I Dui Gobi—his first London performance since France had declared war on Britain in 1793. There was every reason to think that the night would be a triumph—and it was. True Briton reported that the premiere had been attended by "a large and splendid audience."

But March 15 also marked a triumph of a more insidious kind—a triumph that nearly ended the parliamentary career of the man who has been called "the greatest reformer in history": William Wilberforce.

On the very night of the I Dui Gobi premiere, a crucial vote took place in the House of Commons on Wilberforce's bill to abolish the British slave trade. The debate would decide the fate of this bill—whether countless sons and daughters of Africa would continue to be enslaved, or whether the British traffic in human flesh would end. For several weeks leading up to the March 15 debate, there were promising signs for a successful conclusion to what had been Wilberforce's consuming passion for nine years.

His opponents, however, hit upon a subtle tactic to shipwreck the bill. Capitalizing on the popularity of the opera premiere, they made sure free tickets were provided for Wilberforce's more lukewarm supporters. The sabotage attempt worked. In a terse diary entry, Wilberforce described his devastating defeat: "My Slave Bill was thrown out by 74 to 70. … Ten or twelve of those who had supported me [were] absent in the country, or [away] on pleasure. Enough [were] ...

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