28 March 1760|
Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, England
|Died||26 September 1846
Playford, Suffolk, England
Thomas Clarkson (28 March 1760 – 26 September 1846), was an English abolitionist, and a leading campaigner against the slave trade in the British Empire. He helped found The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (also known as the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade) and helped achieve passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which ended British trade in slaves. In his later years Clarkson campaigned for the abolition of slavery worldwide; it was then concentrated in the Americas. In 1840, he was the key speaker at the Anti-Slavery Society's (today known as Anti-Slavery International) first conference in London, which campaigned to end slavery in other countries.
Early life and education
Clarkson was the son of Rev. John Clarkson (1710–1766), an Anglican priest. His family included a younger brother, John Clarkson. Thomas 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. 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?), 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 of slavery.
After winning the prize, Clarkson had what he called a spiritual revelation from God as he traveled by horseback between Cambridge and London. He broke up his journey at Wadesmill, near Ware, Hertfordshire. He later wrote that, when he stopped, "A thought came into my mind... that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end.". This experience and sense of calling 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 pamphlet-form in 1786 as "An essay on the slavery and commerce of the human species, particularly the African, translated from a Latin Dissertation." It was honoured with the first prize in the University of Cambridge, for the year 1785.(It is available online at the Gutenberg Project.)
The essay was influential, resulting in Clarkson's being 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, many Quakers, and other Nonconformists. The movement had been gathering strength for some years, having been founded by Quakers both in Britain and in the United States, with support from other Nonconformists, primarily Methodists and Baptists, on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1783, 300 Quakers, chiefly from the London area, presented Parliament with their signatures on the first petition against the slave trade.
Following this step, a small offshoot group formed the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, a small non-denominational group that could lobby more successfully by incorporating Anglicans, who sat in Parliament. (Quakers were barred from Parliament until the early nineteenth century, whereas clergy of the Anglican Church had the right to 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. They were sympathetic to the religious revival that had predominantly Nonconformist origins, but which sought wider non-denominational support for a "Great Awakening" amongst believers.
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 goal of lobbying Members of Parliament (MPs). In May 1787, they formed the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The Committee included Granville Sharp as Chairman and Josiah Wedgwood, as well as Clarkson. Clarkson also approached the young William Wilberforce, who as an Anglican and an MP was connected within the British Parliament. Wilberforce was one of 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, and became known 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 tasked 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 highly lucrative business, generating prosperity for many of the ports. Liverpool was a major base of slave trading syndicates and home port for their ships. In 1787, Clarkson was attacked and nearly killed when visiting the city, as a gang of sailors was paid to assassinate him. He barely escaped with his life. Elsewhere, however, he gathered support. Clarkson's speech at the collegiate church in Manchester (now Manchester Cathedral) on 28 October 1787 galvanized the anti-slavery campaign in the city. 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 thumbscrews; instruments for forcing open slaves' jaws; and branding irons. He published engravings of the tools in pamphlets and displayed the instruments at public meetings.
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 repeatedly to Liverpool and London, collecting vital evidence to support the abolitionist case.
Clarkson visited The Lively, an African trading ship. Although not a slave ship, it carried cargo of high quality goods: carved ivory and woven textiles, beeswax, and produce such as palm oil and peppers. Impressed by the high quality of craftsmanship and skill expressed in these items, Clarkson was horrified to think that the people who could create such items were being enslaved. He 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 that pictures and artifacts could influence public opinion more than words alone. He began to display items from his collection of fine goods to reinforce his anti-slavery lectures. Demonstrating that Africans were highly skilled artisans, he argued for an alternative humane trading system based on goods rather than laborers. He carried a "box" featuring his collection, which became an important part his public meetings. It was an early example of a visual aid. (See virtual box at 
He rode by horseback some 35,000 miles for evidence and visited 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 firsthand descriptions from sailors, surgeons and others who had been involved in the slave traffic. In 1788 Clarkson published large numbers of his Essay on the Impolicy of the African Slave Trade (1788). Another example was his "An Essay on the Slave Trade" (1789), the account of a sailor who had served aboard a slave ship. These works provided a grounding for William Wilberforce's first abolitionist speech in the House of Commons on 12 May 1789, and his 12 propositions.
Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa) published his memoir, one of the genre of what became known as slave narratives - accounts by slaves who achieved freedom. As an African with direct experience of the slave trade and slavery, Equiano was pleased that his book became highly influential in the anti-slavery movement. Clarkson wrote to the Rev. Mr. Jones at Trinity College, to introduce Equiano to him and the community. He asked for aid from the Rev. Jones in selling copies of the memoir and arranging for Equiano to visit Cambridge to lecture.
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. Based on a plan of a slave ship he acquired in Portsmouth, he had an image drawn of slaves loaded on the slave ship Brookes; he published this in London in 1791, took the image with him on lectures, and provided it to Wilberforce with other anti-slave trade materials for use in parliament. (See image "Brookes' Diagram-Clarkson's Box", The Abolition Project, 2009)
This 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 that 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. There he 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. Next they lived at Playford Hall, located halfway between Ipswich and Woodbridge, Suffolk.
When the war with France appeared to be almost over, in 1804 Clarkson and his allies revived the anti-slave trade campaign. After his ten years' retreat, he mounted his horse to travel again 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.
Passage of the Slave Trade Act in 1807 ended the trade and provided for British naval support to enforce the law. Clarkson directed his efforts toward enforcement and extending the campaign to the rest of Europe, as Spain and France continued a trade in their American colonies. The United States also prohibited the international trade in 1807, and operated chiefly in the Caribbean to interdict illegal slave ships. In 1808 Clarkson published a book about the progress in abolition of the slave trade. He traveled to Paris in 1814 and Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818, trying to reach international agreement on a timetable for abolition of the trade. He contributed the article on the "Slave Trade" for Rees' Cyclopædia, Vol. 33, 1816.
In 1823 the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery (later known as the Anti-Slavery Society) was formed. Clarkson traveled the country to build support for its goal. 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 passed, with emancipation to be completed by 1838 in the British colonies.
Clarkson lived an additional 13 years. Although his eyesight was failing, he continued to campaign for abolition, focusing on the United States, where slavery had expanded in the Deep South and some states west of the Mississippi River. He was the principal speaker in 1840 at the opening of the first World's Anti-Slavery Convention in Freemasons' Hall, London, chaired by Thomas Binney. The conference was designed to build support for abolishing slavery worldwide and included delegates from France, the USA, Haiti (established in 1804 as the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere) 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), is shown in the right foreground. Clarkson and the prominent abolitionist Quaker William Allen were to the left, the main axis of interest. In 1846 Clarkson was host to Frederick Douglass, an American former slave who had escaped to freedom in the North and became a prominent abolitionist, on his first visit to England. Douglass spoke at numerous meetings and attracted considerable attention and support. At risk after passage in the US of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, Douglass was grateful when British friends raised the money and negotiated purchase of his freedom from his former master.
Throughout his life Clarkson was a frequent guest of 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 in the early 1790s he met his wife, a niece of Mrs Hardcastle. Here Clarkson wrote much of his History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1808).
Thomas was not the only notable member of his family. His younger brother John Clarkson, at age 28 took a major part in organising and coordinating the relocation of approximately 1200 Black Loyalists to Africa in 1792. They were among the 3000 United States ex-slaves given their freedom by the British and granted land in Nova Scotia, Canada after the American Revolutionary War. This group chose to go to the new colony of Sierra Leone founded by the British in West Africa. John Clarkson was appointed as its first Governor and helped the settlers survive terrible conditions in the first year. He also aided the settlers in their goal of political independence, which was 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.
- 1834, after the abolition of slavery in Jamaica, Free Villages were founded for the settlement of freedmen. The town of Clarksonville, named in his honour, was established in St. Ann, Jamaica.
- 1857, an obelisk commemorating Clarkson was erected in St. Mary's churchyard.
- 1879, a monument to Clarkson was erected in 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."
- The Clarkson Memorial was erected in his birthplace of Wisbech to commemorate his life and work. The Clarkson School, Wisbech is named after him, as is Thomas Clarkson Academy. A pub in Wisbech is named the Clarkson Arms and is opposite a tree-lined road named Clarkson Avenue in his honor.
- In 1996 a tablet was dedicated to Clarkson's memory in Westminster Abbey, located near the tomb of William Wilberforce.
- Several other roads in the United Kingdom are named after him, for example in Hull, Cambridge and Ipswich, Suffolk.
- A descendant, Canon John Clarkson, continues in his footsteps as one of the leaders of the Anti-Slavery Society.
- In July 2010 the Church of England Synod added Clarkson to the list of people to be honoured in a "lesser festival" in the church calendar of saints; they are recognized on July 30, the same day as William Wilberforce. An initial celebration was held in Playford Church on July 30, 2010.
Representation in other media
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
- In the 2006 film about the abolition of the slave trade, Amazing Grace, Clarkson was played by the British actor Rufus Sewell.
- "Clarkson, Thomas (CLRK779T2)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
- The Papers of Thomas Clarkson
- Clarkson, History, vol. 1
- "An essay on the slavery and commerce of the human species, particularly the African, translated from a Latin Dissertation"
- "Thomas Clarkson: Collecting Evidence", The Abolition Project website, accessed28 September 2014
- Home: "Thomas Clarkson", Abolition Project website, accessed 28 September 2014
- "Thomas Clarkson Museum Box", The Abolition Project website, accessed 28 September 2014
- "Brookes' Diagram-Clarkson's Box", The Abolition Project, 2009, accessed 28 September 2014
- Clarkson, Thomas (1808). The History Of The Rise, Progress And Accomplishment Of The Abolition Of The Slave – Trade by the British Parliament. Philadelphia: James P. Parke.
- 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
- Simon Schama, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution, New York: HarperCollins, 2006 Pbk, p.420
- Hugh Brogan's biography of Clarkson. (May require log in).
- Abolition of slave trade Anti Slavery Society.
- "Church honours anti-slavery campaigner Thomas Clarkson", BBC
- 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.
- Gifford, Zerbanoo, Thomas Clarkson and the Campaign Against the Slave Trade – used in events marking the bi-centenary in 2007 of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in the British Empire
- 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, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2007)
- Wilson, Ellen Gibson. Thomas Clarkson: A Biography (Macmillan, 1989)
- Thomas Clarkson website
- Brief Biography of Thomas Clarkson
- Biography of Thomas Clarkson, Ely Cathedral
- Thomas Clarkson: biography and bibliography by Brycchan Carey (Part of his British Abolitionists project)
- Teaching resources about Slavery and Abolition on blackhistory4schools.com
- Works by Thomas Clarkson at Project Gutenberg
- Works by Thomas Clarkson at the online library of liberty
- The Louverture Project: Thomas Clarkson – Thoughts on The Haitian Revolution Excerpt from an 1823 Clarkson book.
- Parliament & The British Slave Trade 1600–1807
- Clarkson Collection, Wisbech & Fenland Museum, whose collection includes the Clarkson Chest.
- Thomas Clarkson Community College
- The Thomas Clarkson section, The Abolition Project website
- An article about Thomas Clarkson's stay at The Seven Stars Pub in Bristol, Bristol Historical Society
- Archival material relating to Thomas Clarkson listed at the UK National Archives
- Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, study of relationship of university to the slave trade