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.
Thomas Clarkson was born at Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, on 28th March 1760, the son of an headmaster and clergyman. His father died when he was six years old and he was raised by his mother. 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 standing over six feet tall, seemed to be destined for an academic or clerical career. Indeed, he was ordained deacon.
Whilst he was at University he entered an essay competition entitled Is it lawful to enslave others against their will? His research for this essay was to change his life completely.
Like many British people at this time, Clarkson 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 began to discover how badly enslaved Africans were treated.
Clarkson won first prize for his essay. In the summer of 1785, Cambridge University invited him back to read it at the Senate House. After the talk, he decided to travel to London to get his work published.
On his journey from Cambridge, Clarkson began to turn over in his mind his outrage that slavery should be allowed to continue. 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 these matters. And it was here that he decided to devote the rest of his time to abolishing 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’.
Having been ordained deacon, he never sought to become a priest, but instead devoted his life to the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery itself. Nobody worked harder than he to overthrow slavery.
Clarkson had tireless energy and hated injustice. With the support of Quakers, and other nonconformists, he co-founded the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in May 1787. He approached the young William Wilberforce for support who, as an Evangelical Christian, was one of very few parliamentarians to have had sympathy with an earlier Quaker petition.
Clarkson laboured tirelessly and his efforts were crucial to the anti-slavery campaign. Working with a small group of other abolitionists, including John Wesley and Josiah Wedgewood, he travelled all over the country, to major seaports especially Bristol and Liverpool, a major base of slave trading syndicates, to seek first-hand evidence of the facts and horrors of slavery.
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 that slaves endured.
It was Clarkson’s detailed evidence, presented to Parliament over several years by his fellow abolitionist Wilberforce, which eventually led to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, But it was not until 1833 that slavery was abolished throughout the British dominions in 1833.
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 was buried quietly at the local church, as was his wish.
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 place along Old North Road, formerly the A10, where Clarkson paused outside Wadesmill.
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 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 role. He later forgave them. Wilberforce and several of the other leaders had monuments in Westminster Abbey. but Clarkson received no such honour until 1996.
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. The Memorial still stands in a prominent position on Bridge Street on 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. Work started in October 1880 and his statue was unveiled a year later.
In 1996, on the 150th anniversary of his death, Clarkson received the national acclaim he so richly deserved. A memorial was ceremonially unveiled for him in Westminster Abbey. The monument stands between the statues of William Wilberforce and Stamford Raffles. The inscription carved in green Cumbrian slate reads: ‘a friend to slaves THOMAS CLARKSON b.Wisbech 1760-1846 d.Playford’.