Thomas Clarkson

Thomas Clarkson

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia



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. He helped found Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and achieve passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which ended British trade in slaves.


Early life and education

Clarkson was the son of Rev. John Clarkson (1710–1766). He attended Wisbech Grammar School where his father was headmaster; then he went on to St Paul's School in London in 1775. He did his undergraduate work at St John's College, Cambridge, beginning in 1779.[1] 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 to follow in his father’s footsteps and enter the Anglican Church. He was ordained a deacon but never proceeded to priest's orders.


Revelation of the horrors of slavery

It was at Cambridge in 1785 that Clarkson entered a Latin essay competition that was to set him on the course for most of the remainder 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?).[2], and it led Clarkson to consider the question of the slave trade. He read everything he could on the subject, including the works of Anthony Benezet, a Quaker abolitionist. Appalled and challenged by what he discovered, Clarkson 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 had 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.[3]

The publication of the essay had an immediate impact, and Clarkson was introduced to many others who were sympathetic to abolition, some of whom had already published and campaigned against slavery. These included influential men such as 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. In 1783 three hundred Quakers, chiefly from the London area, presented the British Parliament with the first petition against the slave trade.

Following this step, a small offshoot group 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 to collect evidence to support the abolition of the slave trade. He faced much opposition from supporters of the trade in some of the cities he visited. The slave traders were an influential group because the trade was a legitimate and lucrative business, generating prosperity for many of the ports. On a visit to Liverpool in 1787, the year the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded, Clarkson was attacked and nearly killed by a gang of sailors paid to assassinate him. He just escaped with his life. That same year, Clarkson published the pamphlet: "A Summary View of the Slave Trade and of the Probable Consequences of Its Abolition".

Clarkson was very effective at giving the Committee a high public profile: he spent the next two years traveling around England, promoting the cause and gathering evidence. He interviewed 20,000 sailors during his research. He obtained equipment used on slave-ships, such as iron handcuffs, leg-shackles, and thumb screws; instruments for forcing open slave's jaws; and branding irons. He published engravings of the tools in pamphlets and displayed the instruments at public meetings.


Clarkson visited The Seven Stars in Bristol for research.

Clarkson’s research took him to English ports such as Bristol, where he received much data from the landlord of the Seven Stars pub. (The building still stands in Thomas Lane.) He also traveled to Liverpool and London, collecting vital evidence to support the abolitionist case.

One of the first African trading ships which Clarkson visited was The Lively. Although not a slave ship, it carried cargo of high quality that had a powerful impact upon Clarkson. The ship was loaded with beautiful African goods: carved ivory and woven cloth, along with produce such as beeswax, palm oil and peppers. Clarkson could see the craftsmanship and skill required to produce many of the items. The idea that their creators could be enslaved horrified him. Clarkson bought samples from the ship and started a collection to which he added over the years. It included crops, spices and raw materials, along with refined trade goods.

Clarkson noticed how pictures and artifacts were able to influence public opinion, more than words alone. He quickly realised that his collection of fine goods could reinforce the message of his anti-slavery lectures. He used the items to demonstrate the skill of Africans and possibilities for an alternative humane trading system. The "box" of his collection became an important part his public meetings, and was an early example of a visual aid.

He rode by horseback some 35,000 miles for evidence and checked in with local anti-slave trade societies founded across the country. He enlisted the help of Alexander Falconbridge and James Arnold, two ship’s surgeons whom he met in Liverpool. They had been on many voyages aboard slave ships, and were able to recount their experiences in detail for publication.

Clarkson also continued to write against the slave trade. He filled his works with vivid descriptions heard first hand from sailors, surgeons and others who had been involved in the slave traffic. Examples included "An Essay on the Slave Trade", the account of a sailor who had served aboard a slave-ship, which was published in 1789. In 1788 Clarkson 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 William Wilberforce's first abolitionist speech in the House of Commons on 12 May 1789, and its twelve propositions.

That same year an autobiographical narrative by an African with direct experience of the slave trade and slavery was published; it was highly influential. 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. Clarkson asked the Rev. Jones for help in selling Equiano's autobiography.

In 1791 Wilberforce introduced the first Bill to abolish the slave trade; it was easily defeated by 163 votes to 88. As Wilberforce continued to bring the issue of the slave trade before Parliament, Clarkson traveled and wrote anti-slavery works.

It was the beginning of their protracted parliamentary campaign, during which Wilberforce introduced a motion in favour of abolition almost every year. 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. The outbreak of War with France effectively prevented further debate for many years.

By 1794, Clarkson's health was failing, as he suffered 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; 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, Clarkson and his allies revived the anti-slave trade campaign in 1804. After ten years, he again got on his horse to travel all over Great Britain and canvass support for the measure. He appeared to have returned with all his old enthusiasm and vigour. He was especially active in persuading MPs to back the parliamentary campaign.

After the passage of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, Clarkson's efforts were directed toward ensuring enforcement of the act and furthering the campaign in the rest of Europe. He travelled to Paris in 1814 and Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818, trying to reach international agreement on a timetable for abolition of the trade.


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 again travelled around the country. He covered 10,000 miles, and activated the 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 adopted a policy of immediate emancipation, Clarkson 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 13 years. Although his eyesight was failing, he continued to campaign for abolition, focusing on the United States. He was the principal speaker at the opening of the World Anti-Slaver Society Conference in Freemasons' Hall, London in 1840, chaired by Thomas Binney. The conference was designed to build support for abolishing slavery worldwide and included delegates from France, the USA, Haiti and Jamaica.

The scene at Clarkson's opening address was painted in a commemorative work, now in the National Portrait Gallery, London. The emancipated slave, Henry Beckford (a Baptist deacon in Jamaica), appeared in the right foreground. Clarkson and the prominent abolitionist Quaker William Allen were to the left, the main axis of interest. In 1846 Clarkson received the American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a former slave who had escaped to freedom, on his first visit to England.[4]

Later life

Charkson is to the is the central figure in this painting which is of the 1840 Anti-Slavery Convention.[5] Move your cursor to identify his relatives and the great and good (or click icon to enlarge).

Throughout his life 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, it is now part of inner London. Here Clarkson wrote much 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 United States 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 was buried in St Mary's churchyard.

Thomas Clarkson died on 26 September 1846 in Playford, Suffolk[6], and was buried in the village on 2 October at St Mary’s Church. 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 at his birthplace of Wisbech to commemorate his life and work. The Clarkson School, Wisbech is named after him. A secondary school (The Queen's School) was closed. It reopened after renovation in September 2007 as the 'Thomas Clarkson Community College'.

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 was 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, named in his honour, established in St. Ann, Jamaica.


Wordsworth's sonnet

The poet William Wordsworth was so impressed with Clarkson's achievements that he wrote a 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

  • The Clapham Sect


1.         ^ Clarkson, Thomas in Venn, J. & J. A., Alumni Cantabrigienses, Cambridge University Press, 10 vols, 1922–1958.

2.         ^ The Papers of Thomas Clarkson

3.         ^ "An essay on the slavery and commerce of the human species, particularly the African, translated from a Latin Dissertation"

4.         ^ Simon Schama, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution, New York: HarperCollins, 2006 Pbk, p.420

5.         ^ The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840, Benjamin Robert Haydon, 1841, National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG599, Given by British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in 1880

6.         ^ Hugh Brogan's biography of Clarkson. (May require log in).


Further reading

  • Barker, G.F.R. "Thomas Clarkson", Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: University Press, 1887)
  • Brogan, Hugh. "Thomas Clarkson", 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)