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Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846): A Tireless Campaigner

Thomas Clarkson, was described by poet Samuel Coleridge as a "moral steam engine". Nobody worked harder, took more personal risk or invested more of their life into abolishing slavery than Thomas Clarkson.

Thomas Clarkson's involvement with the movement to abolish the Slave Trade, and then slavery itself, began in 1785, when he entered in and won first prize for a Latin essay competition, entitled ‘Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their wills?' The research for his essay opened his eyes to the nature of the Slave Trade and he was horrified at the way enslaved Africans were treated.  

Hear an extract from the Essay
Hear an extract from his diary about the writing of the Essay

Returning on horseback to London after reading his prize essay in the Senate House at Cambridge University, Clarkson could not stop thinking about slavery. Upset and angry, he paused at Wadesmill, near Ware in Hertfordshire, and decided "it was time some person should see these calamities to their end". 

Hear an extract from his diary about this resolution

In London Clarkson met other people, particularly the Quakers, who wanted to stop the Slave Trade. His essay, published by Quaker publishers in 1786, was read by many people and Clarkson became well-known. In May 1787, Clarkson and 11 other men set up the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade and persuaded William Wilberforce, MP for Hull, to speak for them in Parliament. As a result, a Parliamentary investigation into the slave trade was set up. With his brilliant speeches in the House of Commons, it was Wilberforce who came to be most associated with the campaign for the abolition of slavery, but it was Clarkson who provided him with a continuous supply of evidence for the speeches.

His first task was to get as much evidence as possible, to prove how badly the slaves were treated. During his life, he was to travel 35,000 miles around Britain, observing, finding witnesses, interviewing, making notes and assembling evidence about the evils of the Slave Trade. He went to the major slave trade ports of Bristol, Liverpool and Plymouth in 1787 and 1788, realising as he did so that his task was not only enormous but also dangerous. In Liverpool he had a lucky escape when he was attacked by a gang of sailors who'd been paid to kill him. In Manchester he gave a powerful speech, using many examples from his research to show how cruel the Slave Trade was. In France, in 1789, he tried to persuade the new French government to abolish the trade and he received more threats and abuse. 

Despite the growing support around the country for the abolition cause, the first Bill introduced in 1791 was heavily defeated. Clarkson continued his travels, both collecting evidence and speaking out in public meetings, encouraging the setting up of local abolition groups and the boycotting of West Indian grown sugar. But the constant travelling, long hours and another defeat in Parliament, in 1792, exhausted Clarkson and he withdrew from the fight, married Catherine Buck from Bury St Edmunds in 1796 and moved to the Lake District where he took up farming.  

In 1803, Clarkson, Catherine and their son, Tom, moved back to Bury St Edmunds and, the following year, he again became active in the anti-slavery campaign. In 1807, the Slave Trade was finally abolished in the British Empire, although slavery was still legal and slaves were not freed. For the rest of his life, Thomas Clarkson continued to campaign against slavery. He travelled to France in 1814 and 1815 to persuade the French to abolish the trade and enlisted the support of Tsar Alexander 1, ruler of Russia, for abolition. He began to write to Henri Christophe, the ruler of the newly independent Haiti, following the successful resistance  movement led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, which defeated French and British forces.  

In 1816, Clarkson and Catherine moved into Playford Hall near Ipswich where he lived until his death in 1846. Henri Christophe's widow, Marie-Louise, and daughters visited him at Playford in 1821-22.  

In 1823, a new group was formed, supported by Clarkson and Wilberforce, that aimed to abolish slavery. Clarkson, aged 63, went on another national tour, covering 10,000 miles, in order to raise support for the cause. Finally, in 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, which gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom. £20,000,000 compensation was paid to the slave owners (the amount today would be about £1220 million) and existing slaves had to work for their former masters for six years, as ‘apprentices' with no pay.

Only children under six were given true freedom.  Clarkson and his wife Catherine continued their work against slavery, becoming involved in the American anti-slavery movement. Leading American abolitionists, William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, visited Clarkson at Playford Hall in 1833. Constant pressure on the British Parliament led to the ending of the apprenticeship system in 1838. In the same year, Wilberforce's sons published a biography of their father which downplayed Clarkson's contribution to the campaign to abolish slavery.  Clarkson was upset and was forced to defend his reputation.  

In June 1840, the 'British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society' held a general convention in London. Clarkson was voted President of the convention and accepted a standing tribute from 5000 delegates and observers from Britain, the United States, Canada, France, the West Indies, Switzerland and Spain. Clarkson was treated as a major celebrity. He continued to write letters and pamphlets and address public meetings locally, until his death at Playford Hall in 1846.


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