Clarkson and the slave trade
By Clive Paine
Thomas Clarkson was not the first person in Britain to raise moral questions over slavery and the slave trade, but he achieved many other firsts...
While at Cambridge in 1785, studying to become a clergyman, Clarkson entered a Latin essay competition ‘Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?’ He won first prize with his essay ‘On the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, particularly the African.’
The research changed his life, he was shocked and affected by what he had discovered about the methods of the slavers, the conditions and treatment of the slaves both in Africa and on the voyage to the British West Indian Colonies.
Returning to London in the summer of 1785, having read his essay to the members of the University, he experienced a sort of ‘conversion experience’ at Wades Mill in Hertfordshire. He felt God calling him to dedicate his life to the abolition of the trade.
Clarkson was 25 years old and was, until his death aged 86, to give his intellect, energy, health and whole life to the abolition of the slave trade.
Between 1786 and 1794 Clarkson travelled over 35,000 miles on horseback throughout the UK interviewing, collecting evidence and writing to over 400 people a month.
He was often threatened by slavers and sailors, and had to meet informants under cover of darkness. In Liverpool he was attacked by a gang of sailors paid to get rid of him. He was nearly thrown into the dock, but managed to struggle free and escape.
In 1787 the ‘Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ was set up by Clarkson. His role was to collect evidence, make speeches, write newspaper articles, encourage groups and towns to petition Parliament, counter the arguments of the slavers and slave owners and, above all, to publish his findings to influence public opinion by facts and statistics.
Clarkson's diagram of slaves on a ship
Following the publication of his essay (in English, not the original Latin) he wrote a new book virtually every year. The most famous illustration, known as ‘The Print’, of the plan section of a slave ship, showing the cramped and unsanitary conditions, comes from one of his books published in 1791.
Clarkson was the first great propagandist and single-issue campaigner. He enlisted the support of MPs, set up lobby groups to petition Parliament and change public opinion, used visual-aids to show the horrors of slavery, advocated fair-trade with Africa, encouraged women to wear Wedgwood cameo brooches with the slave in chains and advocated a boycott of West Indian sugar.
The Act abolishing the slave trade was passed in March 1807. Now the trade was ‘…utterly abolished, prohibited and declared to be unlawful after 1 May 1807.’
Clive Paine is a historian at the Bury St Edmunds Record Office which is part of the Suffolk Records Office run by Suffolk County Council.
last updated: 11/04/2008 at 14:12