Thomas Clarkson (28 March 1760 – 26 September 1846), abolitionist, was born at Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, England, and became a leading campaigner against the slave trade in the British Empire.
Early life and education
Clarkson was the son of Rev. John Clarkson (1710 – 1766), and attended Wisbech Grammar School where his father was headmaster, and went on to St Paul's School in London in 1775, after which he went up to St John's College, Cambridge in 1779, where he was an excellent student. He appears to have enjoyed his time at university, although he was also a serious, devout man. He received his B.A. degree in 1783 and was set to continue at Cambridge with the intention of following in his father’s footsteps and entering the church. He was, in fact, ordained deacon but never proceeded to priest's orders.
Revelation of the horrors of slavery
It was while he was in Cambridge, in 1785, that he entered a Latin essay competition which was to set him on the course that he would take for most of the rest of his life. The topic of the essay was Is it lawful to enslave the unconsenting? and it led Clarkson to consider the question of the slave trade, reading everything he could on the subject, including the works of Anthony Benezet. He was appalled and challenged by what he discovered – and it changed his life. He also researched the topic by meeting and interviewing those who had personal experience of the slave trade and slavery.
After winning the prize, Clarkson experienced what he called a spiritual revelation from God as he travelled on horseback between Cambridge and London, having broken his journey at Wadesmill, near Ware, Hertfordshire. "A thought came into my mind, that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end'" (Clarkson, History, vol. 1). It was this experience that ordered him to devote his life to abolishing the trade.
Having translated the essay into English so that it could gain a wider audience, Clarkson published it in 1786 as An essay on the slavery and commerce of the human species, particularly the African, translated from a Latin Dissertation, which was honoured with the first prize in the University of Cambridge, for the year 1785.
The publication of the essay had an immediate impact, and he was introduced to many others were sympathetic to the cause of abolishing slavery, some of whom had already published and campaigned against the slave trade. These included influential men like James Ramsay and Granville Sharp. The movement had been gathering strength for some years amongst Quakers in both Britain and the United States.
The campaign against the trade
Partly due to the publication of Clarkson’s essay, an informal committee was set up with the aim of lobbying Members of Parliament (MPs). This was to lead, in May 1787, to the foundation of the Committee for Abolition of the African Slave Trade. The Committee was partly responsible for persuading William Wilberforce to lend his support – he was already known as an abolitionist, and had put a question about the slave trade before the House of Commons.
Clarkson was one of those who took a leading part in the affairs of the Committee and was given the responsibility for collecting information to support the abolition of the slave trade, and he spent the next two years riding around England gathering evidence by interviewing 20,000 sailors and obtaining equipment used on the slave-ships, such as iron handcuffs, leg-shackles, thumb screws, instruments for forcing open slave's jaws and branding irons.
Thomas Clarkson’s research took him to English ports such as Bristol, Liverpool and London and his collection of evidence was vital in supporting the arguments of the abolitionists. In the next year he rode some 35,000 miles in search of evidence, seeing local anti-slave trade societies founded in the cities he visited. He enlisted the help of two ship’s surgeons whom he met in Liverpool, Alexander Falconbridge and James Arnold who, between them, had been on many voyages aboard slave ships, and were able to recount and publish their experiences in detail.
Clarkson faced much opposition from supporters of the trade in some of the cities he visited, as the slave traders were an influential group and the trade itself was seen as a legitimate and lucrative business, responsible for the prosperity of these ports. On a visit to Liverpool in 1787 he was attacked and nearly killed by a gang of sailors who had been paid to assassinate him. He only just escaped with his life.
In 1787 Clarkson published his pamphlet, A Summary View of the Slave Trade and of the Probable Consequences of Its Abolition. He continued to write against the slave trade, filling his works with the descriptions he had heard first hand from sailors, surgeons and others who had been themselves involved in the traffic. In 1788 he published his Essay on the Impolicy of the African Slave Trade, which was printed in large numbers. It was this work which was the basis for the first abolitionist speech of William Wilberforce in the House of Commons on 12 May 1789, and the twelve propositions which it contained.
Wilberforce introduced the first Bill to abolish the slave trade in 1791, whch was easily defeated by 163 votes to 88. As Wilberforce continued to bring the issue of the slave trade before parliament, Clarkson continued to travel and to write works such as the account of a sailor who had served aboard a slave-ship, which was published in 1789 as An Essay on the Slave Trade.
This was the beginning of a protracted parliamentary campaign, during which Wilberforce introduced a motion in favour of abolition almost every year. Between them, Clarkson and Wilberforce were responsible for generating and sustaining a national movement which mobilised public opinion as never before. Parliament, however, refused to pass the bill, and the outbreak of War with France effectively prevented further debate for many years.
By 1794, his health failing and suffering from exhaustion, Clarkson retired from the campaign and spent some time in the Lake District, where he bought an estate at Ullswater, and became a friend of the poet William Wordsworth.
In 1796 he married Catherine Buck of Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, and their only child Thomas was born in 1806. They moved back to the south of England for the sake of Catherine’s health, and settled at Bury St Edmunds from 1806 to 1816, after which they lived at Playford Hall, halfway between Ipswich and Woodbridge, Suffolk.
When the war with France appeared to be almost over, the slave trade campaign revived again in 1804. After ten years Clarkson’s temporary retirement was also over, and he once again got on his horse to travel all over the Great Britain to canvass support for the measure. He appeared to have returned with all his old enthusiasm and vigour, and was especially active in persuading MPs to back the parliamentary campaign.
After the passage of the Slave Trade Act in 1807 his efforts were mainly directed towards ensuring the enforcement of the act and seeking to further the campaign in the rest of Europe. He travelled to Paris in 1814 and Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818, with the aim of arriving at an internationally-agreed timetable for abolition.
Later life and work
After the formation of the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery (later the Anti-Slavery Society) in 1823, Clarkson once again travelled the length of the country, covering 10,000 miles, activating the vast network of sympathetic anti-slavery societies which had been formed. This resulted in 777 petitions being delivered to parliament demanding the total emancipation of slaves. When the society finally adopted a policy of immediate emancipation, he and Wilberforce appeared together for the last time to lend their support.
In 1833 the Slavery Abolition Act was finally passed. Clarkson lived for a further thirteen years, although with his eyesight failing. He continued to campaign for the abolition of slavery in the United States, and was the principal speaker at the opening of the anti-slavery convention in Freemasons' Hall, London in 1840.
Thomas Clarkson died on 26 September, 1846 at Ipswich, and was buried on 2 October at St Mary’s Church, Playford, Suffolk.
On that spot at Wadesmill a monument to Clarkson was erected in 1879 that reads: 'On this spot where stands this monument in the month of June 1785 Thomas Clarkson resolved to devote his life to bringing about the abolition of the slave trade.' Another monument, the Clarkson Memorial was erected to his memory in his birthplace at Wisbech to commemorate his life and work.
In 1996 a tablet was dedicated to his memory in Westminster Abbey, near the tomb of William Wilberforce.
- The Clapham Sect
- Barker, G.F.R. Thomas Clarkson in Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: University Press, 1887)
- Brogan, Hugh. Thomas Clarkson in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: University Press, 2005)
- Carey, Brycchan. British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility: Writing, Sentiment,and Slavery, 1760-1807 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). 131-37.
- Hochschild, Adam. Bury the Chains, The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan, 2005)
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