Thomas Clarkson

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Thomas Clarkson by Carl Frederik von Breda

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), 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, set by university vice-chancellor Peter Peckard, was Anne liceat invitos in servitutem dare (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, a Quaker abolitionist. 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, as he stopped, 'A thought came into my mind', he later wrote, '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 and sense of calling that ultimately led him to devote his life to abolishing the slave 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.[1]

The publication of the essay had an immediate impact, and Clarkson was introduced to many others who were sympathetic to the cause of abolishing slavery, some of whom had already published and campaigned against it. These included influential men like James Ramsay and Granville Sharp, the Quakers and other nonconformists. The movement had been gathering strength for some years, having been founded by Quakers in both Britain and the United States, with support from other Puritans or nonconformists on both sides of the Atlantic. The first parliamentary petition against the slave trade had been presented to the British Parliament in 1783 by 300 Quakers, chiefly from the London area.

Following this initial step, a small offshoot group from amongst the petitioning Quakers, sought to form the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, a small non-denominational group that could lobby more successfully by incorporating Anglican and Parliamentary support (Quakers were disbarred from Parliament until the early nineteenth century whereas the Anglican church was given seats in the House of Lords). The twelve founding members included nine Quakers, and three pioneering Anglicans - Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson, and William Wilberforce — all evangelical Christians sympathetic to the religious revival that had predominantly nonconformist origins, but which sought wider non-denominational support for a 'Great Awakening' amongst believers.

Slave ship

The anti-slavery campaign

Encouraged by publication of Clarkson’s essay, an informal committee was set up between small groups from the petitioning Quakers, Clarkson and others, with the aim of lobbying Members of Parliament (MPs). This was to lead, in May 1787, to the foundation of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The Committee included Granville Sharp as Chairman and Josiah Wedgwood as well as Clarkson himself. Clarkson also approached the young William Wilberforce, who as an (Evangelical) Anglican and an MP could offer them a link into the British Parliament. Wilberforce was one of very few parliamentarians to have had sympathy with the Quaker petition; he had already put a question about the slave trade before the House of Commons, marking himself out as one of the earliest Anglican abolitionists.

Clarkson took a leading part in the affairs of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and was given the responsibility for collecting information to support the abolition of the slave trade.

He 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 at that time a legitimate and lucrative business, responsible for the prosperity of the ports. On an early visit to Liverpool in 1787, the year the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded, 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 this year too, 1787, Clarkson published his pamphlet: A Summary View of the Slave Trade and of the Probable Consequences of Its Abolition.

Thomas Clarkson was very effective at giving the Committee a high public profile, spending the next two years riding around England, promoting the cause and gathering evidence. This included his 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) for use in publications and public meetings.

The Seven Stars in Bristol was visited by Clarkson in the course of his research.

Thomas Clarkson’s research took him to English ports such as Bristol, where he received a great deal of information from the landlord of the Seven Stars pub, still standing in Thomas Lane, as well as Liverpool and London and his collection of evidence was vital in supporting the arguments of the abolitionists.

One of the first African trading ships Clarkson visited was called the ‘Lively'. It was not a slave ship but its cargo had a powerful impact upon Clarkson. The ship was full of beautiful and exotic goods — carved ivory and woven cloth, along with produce such as beeswax, palm oil and peppers. Clarkson could see the craftsmanship and skill that would have been required to produce many of the items. The idea that their creators could be enslaved was horrifying to him. Clarkson bought samples from the ship and started a collection that he added to over the years. The collection included crops and spices and raw materials, along with the intricate goods produced with them, and was kept in a large box.

Thomas Clarkson noticed how pictures and artifacts were able to influence public opinion, more than mere words alone, and quickly realised that the contents of the chest might reinforce the message of his anti-slavery lectures. He used the contents to demonstrate the skill of Africans and the possibilities that existed for an alternative humane trading system. The 'box' became an important part his public meetings, providing an early example of a visual aid.

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.

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, 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. In the previous year he had published his Essay on the Impolicy of the African Slave Trade (1788), which was printed in large numbers. These works provided a firm 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.

The publication of a narrative by an African with direct experience of the slave trade and slavery, was also immensely influential at this date. In 1789 Clarkson wrote to the Rev. Mr. Jones at Trinity College, introducing Gustavus Vassa (Olaudah Equiano) the African anti-slavery author, who wished to visit Cambridge, and asking the Rev. Jones for help in selling Equiano's autobiography.

Wilberforce introduced the first Bill to abolish the slave trade in 1791, which 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 anti-slavery works.

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, Wilberforce and the other members of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and their supporters, 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, Clarkson's health was failing and he was suffering from exhaustion. He 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 1796. 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 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 career

The Clarkson Memorial, Wisbech

After 1823, when the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery (later the Anti-Slavery Society) was formed, 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, focusing on abolition in the United States. He was the principal speaker at the opening of the anti-slavery convention in Freemasons' Hall, London in 1840, chaired by Thomas Binney. It sought to extend slavery abolition worldwide and included delegates from France, the USA, Haiti and Jamaica. The scene at Clarkson's opening address was painted on a huge canvass, now in the National Portrait Gallery, London, with the emancipated slave, Henry Beckford (a Baptist Deacon in Jamaica) in the right foreground, with Clarkson and the prominent abolitionist Quaker William Allen to the left, the main axis of interest in the picture. In 1846 Clarkson received the American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave, on his first visit to England.[2]

Later life

Throughout his life Thomas Clarkson was a frequent guest of Mr Joseph Hardcastle (the first treasurer of the London Missionary Society) at Hatcham House in Deptford, then a rural Surrey village but now in inner London. It was here that Clarkson wrote a great part of his History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1808). Here too, in the early 1790s he had met his wife, a niece of Mrs Hardcastle.

Thomas was not the only notable member of his family. His remarkable younger brother, John Clarkson at age 28, took a major part in organizing and coordinating the relocation of approximately 1200 American ex-slaves from Nova Scotia, Canada to the new colony of Sierra Leone. There he became the first Governor and helped the settlers survive terrible conditions in the first year. John Clarkson helped the settlers move to independence, more than the Sierra Leone commercial company wanted, and they forced him to resign. John Clarkson died in 1828 in Woodbridge, Suffolk and is buried in St Mary's churchyard.

Thomas Clarkson died on 26 September 1846 at Ipswich, and was buried on 2 October at St Mary’s Church, Playford, Suffolk. An obelisk to his memory was erected in the churchyard in 1857.

Clarkson's grave


After his death, a monument to Clarkson was erected in 1879, at Wadesmill, 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. The Clarkson School, Wisbech is named after him. A secondary school (The Queen's School) was closed and reopened as the 'Thomas Clarkson Community College' in September 2007.

In 1996 a tablet was dedicated to his memory in Westminster Abbey, near the tomb of William Wilberforce.

Several roads in the United Kingdom are named after him, for example in Hull, the home town of William Wilberforce, and Ipswich, Suffolk. Clarkson Avenue in Wisbech is opposite The Clarkson Arms public house.

One of his descendants, Canon John Clarkson, continues in his footsteps as one of the leaders of the Anti-Slavery Society. [1]

Clarkson's Memorial in Playford churchyard

In the 2006 film Amazing Grace Clarkson is played by the British actor Rufus Sewell.

After the abolition of slavery in Jamaica in 1834 and subsequent establishment of Free Villages for the settlement of newly freed slaves, the town of Clarksonville was established in St. Ann, Jamaica and named in honour of Thomas Clarkson.


Wordsworth's sonnet

The poet William Wordsworth was so impressed with Clarkson's achievements that he wrote this sonnet to him.

Sonnet, To Thomas Clarkson, On the final passing of the Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, March, 1807.

Clarkson! it was an obstinate Hill to climb:
How toilsome, nay how dire it was, by Thee
Is known,—by none, perhaps, so feelingly;
But Thou, who, starting in thy fervent prime,
Didst first lead forth this pilgrimage sublime,
Hast heard the constant Voice its charge repeat,
Which, out of thy young heart’s oracular seat,
First roused thee.—O true yoke-fellow of Time
With unabating effort, see, the palm
Is won, and by all Nations shall be worn!
The bloody Writing is for ever torn,
And Thou henceforth wilt have a good Man’s calm,
A great Man’s happiness; thy zeal shall find
Repose at length, firm Friend of human kind!
William Wordsworth

See also


  1. ^ "An essay on the slavery and commerce of the human species, particularly the African, translated from a Latin Dissertation"
  2. ^ Simon Schama, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution, New York: HarperCollins, 2006 Pbk, p.420

Further reading

  • 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)
  • Meier, Helmut. Thomas Clarkson: 'Moral Steam Engine' or False Prophet? A Critical Approach to Three of his Antislavery Essays. (Stuttgart: Ibidem, 2007).
  • Rodriguez, Junius P., ed. Encyclopedia of Emancipation and Abolition in the Transatlantic World. (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2007)

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