Thomas Clarkson (1760–1846)

Thomas Clarkson was one of the main architects of the anti-slavery movement. A strenuous protagonist, he co-founded The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and helped to achieve the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which was to end the British trade in slaves.   This article recounts his extraordinary campaign against slavery and special contribution to English social history. 

Early life

Thomas Clarkson by Carl Frederik von Breda

Thomas Clarkson was born at Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, on 28th March 1760, the son of a headmaster and clergyman.  His father died when he was only six and his mother raised him on her own. He attended his local grammar school and later went to St Paul’s School in London, before matriculating at St. John’s College, Cambridge, in 1779.

This red haired man stood over six feet tall. He seemed to be destined for a distinguished academic or clerical career; and so, predictably, he became an ordained deacon. 

Whilst Clarkson was at University, he entered an essay competition entitled Is it lawful to enslave others against their will?  Like many British people at this time, he knew very little about the horrors of the Slave Trade.

He spent the next two months reading up on the subject. As he studied, he soon discovered how badly enslaved Africans were being treated. He became outraged that slavery should be allowed to continue. The experience was to change his life completely.

He won first prize for his essay.  In the summer of 1785, Cambridge University invited him back to read it at the Senate House. After his presentation, he decided to travel to London to get his work published.

Moment of decision

The injustices of slavery troubled him considerably. On his journey from Cambridge, Clarkson began to turn over these thoughts in his mind.

He stopped to rest his horse halfway down a hill on the approach to the small Hertfordshire village of Wadesmill. As he rested, he continued to ponder the cruelty and injustice of slavery.  Here he decided to devote the rest of his time bringing about the abolition of the Slave Trade.

He described the moment as a spiritual experience and ‘a direct revelation from God ordering me to devote my life to abolishing the trade.’

‘A thought came into my mind,’ he wrote, ‘that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end’.

Career

Thomas Clarkson's Memorial (outside Wadesmill)
Thomas Clarkson’s Memorial (outside Wadesmill)

Despite being a deacon, Clarkson never sought to become a priest. Instead he devoted his life to the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery itself.   Nobody worked harder than he to overthrow slavery.

He had tireless energy and continued zealously to battle against the degradation and cruelty of slavery. With the support of Quakers, and other nonconformists, he co-founded the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in May 1787. 

Clarkson approached the young William Wilberforce, who had become a Member of Parliament, for his support. Moreover, as an Evangelical Christian, Wilberforce was one of very few MPs to have sympathised with an earlier Quaker petition on slavery. The two men began to work together, Clarkson as fact-gatherer and Wilberforce as advocate. 

Prominent researcher

Clarkson’s efforts were crucial to the anti-slavery movement.  Working with a small group of other abolitionists, including John Wesley and Josiah Wedgwood, he travelled all over the country. He visited many seaports, and spent much time in Bristol and Liverpool, major bases of slave trading syndicates. There he sought first-hand evidence of the facts and horrors of slavery.

Soon he became the group’s most prominent researcher, gathering vast amounts of data on the slave trade. He interviewed thousands of sailors and other people involved in the trade, sometimes at great personal risk. Even so, he was able to persuade some to give eye-witness accounts of the suffering the slaves endured.

Wilberforce then presented Clarkson’s detailed evidence to Parliament. As more horror stories emerged, Wilberforce was able to build up his case over several years. Eventually, the abolitionists’ tenacity led to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Nevertheless, it took another twenty-six years before Parliament abolished slavery throughout the British dominions.

Clarkson was the first president of the world’s first human rights organisation, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, now called Anti-Slavery International.

He retired to Playford, a small village on the outskirts of Ipswich. He died there on 26th September in 1846 and his funeral took place quietly at the local church, as was his wish.

Legacy

The poet Coleridge paid a fitting tribute to him: ‘He, if ever human being did it, listened exclusively to his conscience, and obeyed its voice.’

In 1879 a stone memorial, which still stands today, was erected at the exact spot along the Old North Road where Clarkson paused outside Wadesmill.

Inscription on Monument
Inscription on Wadesmill monument

It 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.’

Unfortunately, Clarkson’s considerable legacy was  all but removed from the history of the abolition movement.  Wilberforce’s sons wrote a glowing tribute to their father’s work in 1838, minimising Clarkson’s tireless work.  He later forgave them.  Wilberforce and several of the other leaders had monuments in Westminster Abbey, but Clarkson received no such honour until 1996. 

Local acclaim

Clarkson's memorial in Wisbech
Clarkson’s memorial in Wisbech

Despite Clarkson’s undeserved low national profile, the people of Wisbech honoured their town’s most famous son by building a memorial. They raised £2,035, a tidy sum in those days, and erected the Clarkson Memorial to commemorate his life and work.  Work started on his statue in October 1880 and its unveiling took place only a year later. 

The Memorial still stands today in a prominent position on Bridge Street at the South Brink of the River Nene.  The neo-Gothic memorial features a statue of Clarkson himself, holding a pair of manacles to symbolise the freed slaves. 

In 1996, on the 150th anniversary of his death, Clarkson received the national acclaim he had so richly deserved.  A memorial was ceremonially unveiled for him in Westminster Abbey. The monument stands between the statues of William Wilberforce and the founder of the port city of Singapore Stamford Raffles.  The inscription carved in green Cumbrian slate reads simply: ‘a friend to slaves THOMAS CLARKSON b.Wisbech 1760-1846 d.Playford’.

© Owen Spencer-Thomas

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