Thomas Clarkson was a British abolitionist who was responsible for gathering information and support that led to the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807. He was also a leading campaigner against the end of slavery worldwide, devoting his entire life to the cause. He wrote many pamphlets and books on the subject of abolition, and he was part of an elite group of British abolitionists that created a grassroots movement to end the slave trade.
Clarkson was well-known globally for his efforts, maintaining transnational contacts for his entire life on the subject of abolition. He spent his whole life dedicated to anti-slavery and is revered to this day as one of the leaders of the British abolitionist movement.
Born on March 28, 1760, Thomas Clarkson was the son of an Anglican priest. He was an extremely bright boy, attending his father’s school at Wisbech Grammar School and later moving on to St. Paul’s School in London. In 1779, Clarkson began his undergraduate studies at St. John’s College at Cambridge. He greatly enjoyed his time at Cambridge, where he was an excellent student, even though he had a reputation for being an earnest and devout man.
In 1783, Clarkson received his bachelor’s degree. He had planned on following his father into the church, becoming ordained as a deacon, but never taking any orders. He continued his studies at Cambridge, where he entered a Latin essay contest in 1785. The competition, which he won, was titled, “Is it lawful to enslave the unconsenting?” In his research, Clarkson consulted the works of Quaker abolitionist Anthony Benezet and first-hand accounts of people who worked or survived the slave trade.
Winning the essay contest changed Clarkson’s life. He contemplated what he had learned and decided to devote his entire life to ending the slave trade and slavery. He published his award-winning essay in English in 1786. An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African, Translated from a Latin Dissertation brought him to the attention to other abolitionists, many of whom were already established in the movement and had published anti-slavery works. Together they sought a wider audience for their campaign by introducing it into the House of Parliament.
Clarkson and his abolitionist friends knew that for their movement to be successful, they needed to gain the support of Members of Parliament who could help them legalize the abolition of the slave trade, and eventually the abolition of slavery. Many abolitionists were Quakers, who were forbidden from sitting in Parliament, but there were a few Members of Parliament who were Anglicans, another religious group that was involved in the movement. If the abolitionists could gain the support of these Anglican Members of Parliament, they would have a way to get abolition legalized.
In May 1787, Clarkson and his colleagues founded the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, a group of abolitionists whose goal was to convince MPs to support abolition bills in Parliament. During this time, Clarkson met William Wilberforce, an Anglican MP with whom Clarkson would work closely with for the rest of his life.
Clarkson became the leading researcher of the Committee, gathering evidence to support abolition bills in Parliament and gain followers for the movement. This role was often a dangerous one, as many slave traders and captains of slave ships didn’t like Clarkson hanging around the slave ports and asking too many questions. The slave trade made a lot of men a lot of money, and abolitionists weren’t liked in these places. On one occasion, on a visit to Liverpool, one of the busiest centers of business for the slave trade, he was attacked and nearly killed by a group of sailors.
Clarkson was often influential on his travels. On a visit to Manchester in October 1787, he gave a rousing speech on abolition, and that influenced the growth of the movement in that city. Clarkson traveled around England, visiting the major ports of the country for the next two years. He interviewed thousands of sailors and doctors who worked on slave ships, who were more than willing to share the horrible conditions that existed aboard slave ships. Two doctors, in particular, James Arnold and Alexander Falconbridge, worked closely with Clarkson, detailing their experiences as ship surgeons and allowing him to publish their experiences.
Clarkson was particularly famous for his “box” of evidence. Over the course of his travels, he kept the visual evidence he collected in a box and would pull it out at meetings and speeches. The box included materials and instruments used to torture slaves on the ships and examples of African goods. He used this box to prove how brutal the trade was and how detailed and sophisticated the African goods were. He realized that this had more of an effect on convincing people to support abolition than his speeches did, and he used it to move people to support his cause.
Clarkson’s working partnership with William Wilberforce in the abolitionist movement was legendary. The two men worked together for their entire lives to eradicate the slave trade and slavery. Clarkson was the hands and feet of the movement, constantly traveling and collecting evidence. Wilberforce was the public face, using Clarkson’s work and research as ammunition for his yearly abolition bills that he brought before Parliament.
Clarkson’s writings and publications became influential and provided much of the support for the abolition bills in Parliament, one of which was the famous Brookes’ Diagram, which was a diagram showing how many slaves were packed on a slave ship.
Clarkson and Wilberforce worked with the members of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade to create a movement from the ground up, convincing the public to support the abolition movement through speeches and visits around the country. Despite the public support, Parliament wouldn’t pass the abolition bill. After all of his hard work, Clarkson suffered from exhaustion and retired to the country. England went to war with France, which halted the abolition campaign. Clarkson retired from the campaign for ten years, during which he married and settled in southern England.
By 1804, the war with France was ending, so Clarkson, Wilberforce, and their fellow abolitionists renewed their cause. After his long sabbatical, Clarkson got back on his horse and began traveling again, going from city to city, collecting more evidence and testimony. This time, they couldn’t fail. In 1807, the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act finally passed through Parliament. It eliminated the slave trade throughout the British Empire. Clarkson had spent most of his adult life campaigning for the end of the British slave trade, and now it was over.
Now that the slave trade was abolished, he turned his attention to eliminating the slave trade in other countries and ending slavery once and for all. The French and Spanish continued to trade in slaves, and Clarkson became an active campaigner abroad to end the trade, traveling to France on more than one occasion to support the end of the trade and the end of slavery.
Clarkson was an active letter writer to many active abolitionists and heads of state across the world on matters to do with abolition. He developed a lengthy correspondence in particular with Henri Christophe, king of Haiti, in which the two men corresponded at length on educational, political, and agricultural matters. After the Haitian Revolution, Haiti became the first independent black state that was controlled completely by former slaves.
The success of Haiti was extremely important to Clarkson because it proved that slavery wasn’t necessary. After Christophe’s death in 1820, Clarkson wrote to the new ruler of Haiti, President Jean-Pierre Boyer, inquiring on the safety of Christophe’s family. Boyer exiled Christophe’s wife and daughters from Haiti, and Clarkson and his wife temporarily gave them shelter in their home in England.
Clarkson helped create the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery in 1823, and traveled around England again to help bring support to the cause. His travels brought local antislavery societies into the fold, and they flooded Parliament with petitions to end slavery. Even though the Society initially supported gradual emancipation, its mission changed, and it grew to support the immediate freedom of all slaves. Wilberforce and Clarkson appeared together for the last time, supporting the Society’s change in strategy.
William Wilberforce died in 1833, just one day after Parliament guaranteed the passage of the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery. One month after the death of Clarkson’s longtime friend and colleague, Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act that outlawed slavery in the British Empire and guaranteed complete abolition by 1838.
Even though his eyesight was failing and his health was decreasing, Clarkson continued to campaign for the abolition of slavery in other countries, particularly the United States. He was the featured speaker at the first World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, which was organized to abolish slavery across the world and had delegates from around the world. He died at his home in Suffolk on September 26, 1846.
Clarkson has been honored for his work in the abolitionist movement. In 1834, after slavery was abolished in Jamaica, freedmen settled in the new town of Clarksville. A memorial was dedicated to him in his birthplace in honor of his work in 1881. In 1996, 150 years after his death, a tablet was placed in Westminster Abbey, near the tomb of his friend William Wilberforce. One of his descendants, the Reverend Canon John Clarkson, continues his work. He sits on the Board of Governors of the Anti-Slavery Society.