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John Clarkson (1764 -1828): The Navy Lieutenant

John Clarkson

John Clarkson, the younger brother of Thomas Clarkson, also played a significant part in the history of the anti-slavery movement. He was born in Wisbech in 1764 and joined the navy at 12 years of age as a midshipman. He rose to the rank of Navy Lieutenant.

He fought in the West Indies during the American War of Independence. Perhaps as a result of what he saw there, he joined his older brother in campaigning for the abolition of slavery at the end of the war.

When someone was needed to organise the migration of 1,192 ex-slaves to a new life in Africa, John Clarkson's background and experience made him the ideal candidate. The former slaves had gained their freedom in return for fighting for Britain during the American War of Independence and were initially resettled in Canada. The government, however, failed to honour its promises of land and, in order to survive, many were forced into a form of slavery.

John successfully gathered together the ex-slaves in Halifax, Nova Scotia and organized the cleaning and fitting out of fifteen ships for the voyage across the Atlantic to Sierra Leone. He was very thorough and ensured that the captains of all the ships had instructions to treat the passengers with respect.

The voyage began on 15 Jan 1792. There was a great amount of sickness during the voyage, which resulted in sixty-seven deaths. John himself almost died of fever and was left weak for many weeks. He served for ten months as the superintendent in charge of the colony before returning to England. He worked hard to meet the expectations of the settlers. However Sierra Leone was not the promised-land of freedom they expected. They were met with corruption and problems with land distribution.

John, with the support of the majority of the settlers, confronted these issues and the people involved. He encouraged the settlers to be patient and mediated in disputes. By the time he left he had obtained the good will of the people.

He returned to a quiet welcome. At a meeting of the directors he was offered a generous pension if he would resign the post of Governor. When he refused, he was dismissed and replaced. He continued to donate money to the colony and aided petitioners from the colony in obtaining a fair hearing when they travelled to England to seek a change in government. However, the experience had left its mark. In late 1793, he refused the command of a ship offered to him saying that he did not approve of the war.

Shortly afterwards, he married and with his new new wife, Susan, moved to Purfleet in Essex. John took charge of a large estate belong to Mr Whitbread, the brewer. The couple lived in Purfleet House, in the High Street and John managed the local Lime Works. In 1820, John left the company and became a partner in a bank in Woodbridge, Suffolk, a few miles away from his brother Thomas. Along with his brother he joined the Peace Movement. John died in 1828, aged 64. He is buried in St. Mary's churchyard. Despite having 10 children, only four of his daughters outlived him.


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