Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846)
BiographyThomas Clarkson was among the foremost British campaigners against both slavery and the slave trade. He was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, on 28 March 1760 and educated at the grammar school there where his father, the Rev. John Clarkson, was headmaster. In 1775, he went to St. Paul's School in London where he excelled. He went up to Cambridge in 1780 where he was an outstanding student. His awareness of slavery originated in an essay, originally written in Latin, as an entry in a Cambridge University prize competition, which it won. (In fact, Clarkson had already won a BA competition, and he wanted and became the first person to win the MA competition as well.) The question - and there was only one - was "is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?" (Anne Liceat Invitos in Servitutem Dare?) The question was set by the vice-chancellor, Peter Peckard, a man of liberal views who later wrote two abolitionist pamphlets himself. Although Clarkson knew nothing about this subject, it engaged his curiosity and he soon discovered the works of Anthony Benezet, which became at that stage his principal source. He also asked around, and found both students and others with personal experience of slavery and the slave trade. His research paid off and, after having written the essay (and collected the prize) he translated it into English, rather hurriedly he apologetically informs us, so that it could gain a wider audience. In 1786, the essay was published 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.
Clarkson's Essay was immediately influential, and it soon brought him into contact with others who had published or campaigned against the slave trade, including James Ramsay and Granville Sharp. In May 1787, Clarkson was one of the twelve men who formed the Committee for Abolition of the African Slave Trade. Clarkson took on the role of fact-finder, and for the next two years rode around the country gathering evidence against the trade. In some places, notably the major slave-trading ports of Bristol and Liverpool, this was a dangerous activity, not least because Clarkson tried openly to gather support for the abolition campaign. On his periodic returns to London, Clarkson passed his evidence to the Abolition Committee, who arranged for the campaign to be taken to parliament where William Wilberforce was leading the effort to outlaw the trade. In February 1788, a committee of the privy council started to take evidence on 'the present state of the African trade'. While Wilberforce steered the campaign through parliament, Clarkson continued to produce new evidence, evidence which Wilberforce put to good use in his famous speech of 12 May 1789. Meanwhile, Clarkson made much of his evidence available to the wider public as well as to parliament: between 1787 and 1794, he wrote several books or pamphlets opposing the slave trade. His energies were not just confined to Britain. In the autumn of 1789, he went to Paris where he attempted (with little success) to persuade the new government of France to abolish the slave trade. As he pointed out in the many letters he wrote to Mirabeau on the subject, and which were later published, the revolutionary ideals of liberté, fraternité, and égalité meant little if they were not extended to the slaves. Clarkson's energy was unabated on his return to London early in 1790. He contined to work hard in London and, later that year, resumed his travels throughout Britain, travels which he kept up for several years. In the meantime, the parliamentary campaign was not going well. [See the Wilberforce page for more details] Public interest in abolition declined as well. Clarkson threw himself into the task with increased vigour, but it could not last. In July 1794, he suffered a physical breakdown brought on by overwork. Completely burned-out, and having spent most of his money, he was forced to retire from the campaign. A subscription was raised on his behalf by Wilberforce. Unfortunately, this act of charity was later to be the source of some unpleasantness.
The abolition campaign lay dormant until the early years of the nineteenth century. In 1803, Clarkson returned to the committee and, in the following year, its efforts were renewed with a new campaign. Clarkson once again toured the country gathering evidence while Wilberforce again introduced the Abolition Bill before parliament. The Bill fell in 1804 and 1805, but gave the abolitionists an opportunity to sound out support. A public campaign once again promoted the cause, and the new Whig government was in favour as well. In January 1807, the Abolition Bill was again introduced, this time attracting very considerable support, and, on 23 February 1807, parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of abolition of the slave trade. Clarkson was celebrated as a national figure and a model of philanthropy. In 1808, on the crest of this wave, he wrote the comprehensive History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade. This book provides the historian with much of the detail of the abolition campaign, and is an important record of the movement. However, some felt that Clarkson overplayed his own contribution (he had, after all, been absent between 1794 and 1803). Modern historians have also noted the rather self-congratulatory tone of the work, which did much to foster the myth of virtuous philanthropy of the anti-slavery 'saints'. Nonetheless, Clarkson's dedication to the cause is undoubted.
With the abolition of the slave trade, public interest in the issue waned temporarily. Clarkson remained committed, not only to abolition of the trade around the world, but to the complete emancipation of the slaves in British colonies. He remained active on both fronts, including travelling to France in 1818 to press the Czar of Russia, Alexander I, to suppress the slave trade. In 1823, the Anti-Slavery Society was formed to press for emancipation. Clarkson and Wilberforce were vice-presidents, although much of the work was done by younger members, in particular, by Thomas Fowell Buxton. Clarkson contributed a new essay, Thoughts on the Necessity for improving the Condition of the Slaves in the British Colonies, with a view to their ultimate emancipation, and acted in the role of the elder statesman. His health, however, was not good and so he was unable to participate fully in the early 1830s, when the Emancipation Bill was finally passed. Indeed, he was almost blind from cataracts, but these were cured after a successful (if dangerous) operation in 1836. This cure allowed him once more to read and write with ease. Unfortunately, some of his reading was the recently published Life of William Wilberforce in which some embarrassing correspondence from the 1790s was revealed. Clarkson was not seen at his best in these letters, nor in the Strictures on a Life of William Wilberforce which he published as a result in 1838. Clarkson continued to write anti-slavery pamphlets into the 1840s, despite having retired to Playford Hall, an Elizabethan manor in Suffolk, after his last appearance at the Anti-Slavery Society in 1840. He died on 26 September 1846, at the age of 86, and is buried in Playford church.
© Brycchan Carey 2002-2011
Selected Works in Facsimile
Secondary Works: Biography and Special Studies