img_1985.jpg 

“I walked frequently into the woods, that I might think on the subject in solitude, and find relief to my my mind there.  But there the questions still recurred, “Are these things true?”  Still the answered followed as instantaneously “They are”.  Still the result accompanied it, “Then surely some person should interfere”.

thomas-clarkson.jpg

Thomas Clarkson stood 6’2” tall, topped by red hair and apparently lacking any sense of humour.  His role in the movement to abolish the slave trade in the United Kingdom is largely unsung: William Wilberforce gets all the credit.  Yet it was Clarkson who travelled more than 35,000 miles around England in seven years, on rotten roads either on horseback or in uncomfortable carriages, gathering all the evidence that was necessary to convince the many wavering Members of Parliament that the slave trade should be abolished.

After graduating from Cambridge University in 1783 with a degree in Mathematics and becoming an Anglican Deacon, he decided to stay on at Cambridge to become a clergyman like his father.  Thomas Clarkson’s interest in the slave trade began when he chose to enter an essay competition in his second year of postgraduate studies at Cambridge in 1785.   He had to write an essay in Latin entitled Anne Liceat Invitos in Servitudinem Dare? – Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will? 

At first his only interest was to repeat his previous year’s success when he had won first prize.  In researching the essay, however, he began to uncover the true extent of the slave trade and was appalled.  He began by reading Anthony Benezet’s Some Historical Account of Guinea.  Benezet had been born in France a Huguenot and had experienced discrimination himself in Catholic France before emigrating to Philadelphia.  There he set up the first girls’ school in America and subsequently the Negro School in Philadelphia.  A Quaker, like so many of the abolitionists, Benezet published, at his own expense, pamplets which had a huge influence both sides of the Atlantic.  He died before the abolition of slavery in either Britain or America.

The prize, which Clarkson won, was after all neither here nor there.  He read the essay aloud at Cambridge and then rode to London, stopping to rest his horse on the way.  As he paused, 

“a thought came into my mind, that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamaties to their end”. 

This was his moment of conversion.  For the rest of his life he would work himself to blindness on occasions, driven on by the need to abolish the dreadful trade, first through an English Act of Parliament and then, subsequently, attacking the slave trade in America.  Coleridge described Thomas Clarkson as “the steam engine of the movement”, a movement that had William Wilberforce as its political face but which also counted the Lakeland poets, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey, and Mary and Charles Lamb as its advocates and firm supporters of Clarkson.  Wordsworth wrote a sonnet in Clarkson’s honour in recognition of the passing of the Abolition Act in 1807 and Coleridge later said of him:

“He, if ever human being did it, listened exclusively to his conscience and obeyed its voice.”

Of course, it was never enough for Clarkson that the trade in slaves should be abolished.  His goal was the abolition of slavery itself.  It was a long battle, lasting for the whole of the rest of his life.  Although the trade in slaves was outlawed in 1807, slavery was only abolished by the Emancipation Act of 1833.   Not content with trying to abolish the slave trade in England, he spent five revolutionary months in Paris between 1789-90 trying to persuade the National Assembly to abolish the trade also.  France seemed poised to follow England’s lead until internal politics overtook the National Assembly.  His health collapsed at this point and he retired from the fray, almost penniless. 

Wilberforce helped to raise funds for him and so he was able to buy a small estate on Ullswater in the English Lakes.  He married, and his charming intelligent wife soon captivated the Wordsworths and Coleridge.  She became one of Dorothy Wordsworth’s closest friends.  The Clarksons left the Lakes and settled in East Anglia with their children. 

From 1816 they lived outside Ipswich in Suffolk where Lord Bristol made available to them Playford Hall,  a mellow red brick Tudor mansion with leaded windows surrounded by a wide moat and beautiful gardens.  On his earlier travels Clarkson collected signatures to support the parliamentary bills seeking abolition of the slave trade. When Thomas Clarkson visited Manchester, at the start of the campaign in 1787, a petition was signed by nearly 11,000 persons, more than one fifth of the city’s total population. Later in 1792 Manchester’s petition carried 20,000 signatures. The people of Manchester wove the cotton produced from the slave-labour plantations, but their support was in stark contrast to the neighbouring slave trading port of Liverpool. On a visit to the latter, also in 1787, Clarkson was threatened with his life and almost thrown off the docks.

Brooke’ s Slave Ship

Methods were used by the abolitionists that set the pattern for political campaigns today.  Pamphlets were printed and distributed.  One particularly effective pamphlet showed how 482 slaves could be packed onto one ship – the Brookes of Liverpool – and shocked almost all who saw it.  Josiah Wedgwood manufactured unglazed stoneware cameos like the medallion below by the thousands and gave them away to supporters of the movement. People began to boycott goods produced using slave labour – sugar and rum.  Wedgwood slogan “Am I not a man and a brother” and the image of the manacled kneeling slave would be taken up by the abolitionists in America.

Clarkson died in 1846 at Playford and was buried in the churchyard there.  In 1996 a plaque to commemorate him was placed near Wilberforce’s tomb in Westminster Abbey.

One wet Friday night, a couple of weeks ago, we sat on makeshift seating in an old church to watch a play about Clarkson’s life by a young theatre company.  Wilberforce was played by an Afro-Caribbean actress who had grown up in Bangladesh.  The audience was the usual crowd of left-wing pensioners and charity workers.  Lola Button was the only child and got a bit fed up.  The Time Line below is from the centre of the play’s programme.

Read a much longer account of Clarkson’s life here.

img_1981.jpg

 

clarkson-time-line.jpg

 

Advertisements