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Thomas Clarkson - Key Events

Thomas Clarkson, Playford Hall, Aug 31 1846
  • Thomas Clarkson was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire on 28th March, 1760. His father was the local headmaster. Clarkson was only six when his father died in 1766.

  • Clarkson went to the local grammar school and later Cambridge University (St John's College). In 1785, Clarkson entered an essay writing competition at Cambridge University. The title was: ‘Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their wills?'  Clarkson, like many people in Britain at the time, knew very little about the horrors of the Slave Trade. He spent the next two months reading up on the subject of slavery. As he read his feelings started to change. His research made him realise how evil the Slave Trade was.  He was shocked by what he discovered about how enslaved Africans were treated.

  • Clarkson won first prize for his essay and, in the summer of 1785, he was invited back to the university to read it in the Senate House. After the talk, Clarkson left for London. On his journey Clarkson thought a lot about slavery. He became more and more upset and angry at the thought that slavery would continue. As he reached Wadesmill in Hertfordshire, Clarkson stopped, sat down and reflected on his life. It was here that Clarkson decided to devote his life to abolishing the Slave Trade.

  • In London, Clarkson met other people who wanted to stop the Slave Trade. He added to his essay and, in June 1786, it was published. The essay was read by lots of people and Clarkson became a well-known figure.   In May 1787, Clarkson and 11 other men set up the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade.  The society was able to persuade William Wilberforce, the MP for Hull, to speak out for them in Parliament. Wilberforce was able to use his contacts to try and set up a Parliamentary investigation into the Slave Trade.

  • Clarkson worked hard to collect as much evidence as possible, that would prove how badly slaves were treated. His travels would take him 35,000 miles around the country and make him one of the best known men in the kingdom. In 1787, Clarkson visited Bristol. He met two surgeons who had worked on the slave ships, James Arnold and Alexander Falconbridge. They both gave him detailed descriptions of life on the slave ships.

  • Leaving Bristol, Clarkson pressed on to Liverpool, in search of more witnesses. Clarkson had a lucky escape from a gang of sailors that seem to have been paid to assassinate him. Clarkson was alone when he was attacked by eight or nine men, who attempted to shove him towards the end of the pier. Clarkson believed that the gang was determined to throw him into the sea and make it look like an accident. Fortunately, he was able to push one of the gang to the ground and, despite being hit by the others, he was able to break through and escape.

  • After Liverpool, Clarkson rode to Manchester. Here he delivered a powerful and moving speech, in which he gave many examples from his own research into the cruel way in which slaves were treated.

  • Clarkson returned to London towards the end of 1787. He had been away for more that five months and had persuaded many people around the country to support the abolition cause.

  • In 1788, Clarkson set about collecting more witnesses and evidence that he hoped would win the argument in Parliament for abolition. He set out on another tour, covering 1600 miles in two months. At Plymouth he uncovered a key piece of evidence, the plan and section of a loaded slave ship. Clarkson reworked the plan in London, applying the idea to the Brookes (a slave ship from Liverpool).

  • Towards the end of 1789, Clarkson went to France in order to try and persuade the new French government to abolish the Slave Trade.  Clarkson gave out copies of the Brookes diagram and his essay. Clarkson had powerful enemies working against him in France and he suffered from a lot of abuse. He received a threat that he would be stabbed to death and rumours were begun that he was a British government spy. France did not abandon the trade.

  • In 1790, Clarkson returned home to England in order to prepare evidence for Parliament's investigation into the Slave Trade. He travelled over 7000 miles, finding witnesses and persuading people to support the campaign to end slavery.

  • In 1791 William Wilberforce introduced his first Bill to abolish the Slave Trade. Despite the mountain of evidence that Clarkson had collected, Parliament did not vote in favour of the bill.  It was heavily defeated by 163 votes to 88 votes.

  • Wilberforce and Clarkson refused to be put off by this setback and their fight against slavery continued. Clarkson travelled throughout England, Wales and Scotland, covering 6000 miles. New abolition groups were set up in places such as Nottingham, Newcastle and Glasgow. Clarkson also encouraged people to join the boycott of West-Indian slave grown sugar. By the end of 1791, around 300,000 people were refusing to buy West Indian sugar.

  • In April, 1792, Parliament once again debated abolishing the Slave Trade. Once again, they refused to ban the trade straight away. By 1793, Britain was at war with France. Both public and Parliament lost interest in the debate to abolish the Slave Trade. Clarkson was beginning to suffer from ill health as a result of his work. He was physically and mentally exhausted. Constant travelling, often by horseback, and sitting up writing until two or three in the morning, had left him seriously ill.

  • In January, 1796 Clarkson married Catherine Buck from Bury St Edmunds. They moved to the Lake District and bought a 35 acre farm. 

  • In 1803, Clarkson and his family moved to Bury St Edmunds. Here they lived in a house belonging to Catherine's father in St Mary's Square.

  • In 1804 Clarkson became active in the anti-slavery campaign again and, in 1805, be began another tour of England gathering support for the anti-slavery movement.

  • In 1807, the Slave Trade was finally abolished in the British Empire. The new law stated that any British captain caught with slaves on board would be fined £10 for every slave on the ship. This was a significant achievement for the anti-slavery movement but the law did not go far enough. It did not outlaw slavery completely or make any arrangements for slaves to be set free.

  • In 1814, Clarkson travelled to France again, hoping to persuade the French to abolish the trade. He returned to Paris in September, 1815 where he met the ruler of Russia (Tsar Alexander I). Clarkson hoped that the Russian Tsar could persuade other leaders to support the abolition of the Slave Trade across Europe. The Russian Tsar invited Clarkson to write to him, with suggestions as to how the Slave Trade could be ended.

  • In 1815 Clarkson also began to write to Henry Christophe, the ruler of Haiti. A resistance movement led by Toussaint L'Ouverture had defeated both French and British forces and Haiti was now an independent country, without slavery. Henry hoped for trade and the support of other European countries. Clarkson became Haiti's European advisor.

  • In 1816 Clarkson moved to Playford Hall near Ipswich.

  • Henry Christophe shot himself after his army rebelled against him in October, 1820. His two sons were also killed but the Queen and her two daughters survived. For a few months (1821-22) Madame Marie-Louise and her two daughters lived with the Clarkson's at Playford Hall, near Ipswich. 

  • At the Congress of Verona in 1822, Wilberforce and Clarkson once again tried to persuade the European powers to ban the Slave Trade but their efforts failed.

  • In 1823, a new group was formed that aimed to abolish slavery (The Society for Mitigating and Gradually Abolishing the State of Slavery throughout the British Dominions). Younger men led the campaign but Wilberforce and Clarkson supported the group. Clarkson, aged 63, went on another national tour, covering 10,000 miles, in order to raise support for the cause.
  • In 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed. The new law meant that all slaves in the British Empire were given their freedom. However, the new Act was not everything campaigners such as Clarkson would have wanted. Firstly, £20,000,000 compensation was paid to the slave owners (the amount today would be about £1220 million). Secondly, slaves had to work as ‘apprentices'. (As apprentices, slaves had to work for their former masters for six years, with no pay). Only children under six were given true freedom.

  • During the 1830s and early 40s Clarkson became involved in the American antislavery movement. In 1833, William Lloyd Garrison, the leader of an American Anti-Slavery Society visited Clarkson at Playford.

  • In 1837, Clarkson's only child (Tom, aged 40) was killed in an accident.

  • In 1838, a petition was presented to Parliament, protesting about the apprenticeship system and signed by 449,000 people. Parliament finally ended the apprenticeship system on 1 August 1838. However, also in 1838, Wilberforce's sons published a biography of their father. It downplayed Clarkson's contribution to the campaign to abolish slavery.  Clarkson was upset and was forced to defend his reputation.

  • By 1840, the 'British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society' had set its sights on abolishing slavery throughout the world. In June, they set up 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 and there were many requests for his autograph.

  • At 4 o' clock in the morning of 26 September, 1846, Thomas Clarkson died at Playford Hall, aged 86. He was buried at the local church (St Mary's, Playford).

Hear extract 1 from a speech given by Clarkson  in 1840 at Ipswich
Hear extract 2 from a speech given by Clarkson  in 1840 at Ipswich



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