Suffolk man behind slavery abolition

HE'S commemorated in Westminster Abbey and his life's achievements were remarkable. But have you ever heard of Thomas Clarkson? Today JAMES MARSTON finds out more about one of Suffolk's lesser known heroes.

HE'S commemorated in Westminster Abbey and his life's achievements were remarkable.

But have you ever heard of Thomas Clarkson?

Today JAMES MARSTON finds out more about one of Suffolk's lesser known heroes.

TOMORROW it will be 200 years to the day that the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed.

Suffolk man Thomas Clarkson was one of the principal men involved in getting this important piece of legislation through Parliament.

But who was he? What inspired him and what was his contribution to the movement that ended the slave trade?

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Based at Suffolk Records Office in Gatacre Road, Ipswich, public services archivist Bridget Hanley is determined Clarkson's achievements are not overlooked.

She said: “Wilberforce is the name that everyone associates with the abolition of slavery but it was Clarkson that got Wilberforce involved with the movement.

“Clarkson is someone Suffolk should be proud of. He left no stone unturned and badgered people until the ambition of abolition was achieved.”

While at Cambridge, in 1785, Clarkson entered a Latin essay competition which was to set him on the course that he would take for most of the rest of his life.

The topic of the essay was, 'Is it lawful to enslave the unconsenting?'

Bridget said: “He won the competition and we have a copy of the essay here at the records office.

“It was this essay that inspired him to devote his life to the abolition of slavery. Clarkson had a deep faith and while traveling to London he had a vision or spiritual experience that made him determined to work to end the slave trade.”

Clarkson wrote at the time: “It is impossible to imagine the severe anguish which the composition of this essay cost me.

“All the pleasure I had promised myself from the contest was exchanged for pain, by the astounding facts that were now continually before me.........I was so overwhelmed with grief that I sometimes never closed my eyes during the whole night and I no longer regarded my essay as a mere trial for literary distinction.

“My great desire now was to produce a work that should redress the wrongs of injured Africa.”

Emcouraged by the publication of Clarkson's essay, an informal committee was set up between a small group from the petitioning Quakers, Clarkson and others, with the aim of lobbying MPs.

Bridget said: “The Quakers had been campaigning to end slavery since the 1600s and Clarkson was very friendly with a Quaker banker from Ipswich called Richard Dykes Alexander.

“It was Alexander that owned the land where Clarkson Street is today. In the same area there is also a Wilberforce street and Bezenet Street named after anti-slavery campaigners.”

In May 1787, to the foundation of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

The committee included the young William Wilberforce , who as an (Evangelical) Anglican and an MP could offer them a link into the British Parliament.

Clarkson took a leading part in the affairs of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade , and was given the responsibility for collecting information to support the abolition of the slave trade.

Bridget said: “He faced a lot of opposition in places like Bristol and Liverpool. He did a huge amount of research and gathered a huge amount of evidence. In two years he traveled 35,000 miles and interviewed 20,000 sailors.”

Clarkson also gathered equipment used on the slave-ships, such as iron handcuffs, leg-shackles, thumb screws, instruments for forcing open slave's jaws and branding irons, for use in publications and public meetings.

Bridget said: “Amongst the evidence was the iconic image of a slave ship. Many died in transit and the conditions were appalling.

“In 1794 he had a complete mental and physical breakdown as a result of the work he had thrown himself into.”

Clarkson had strong Suffolk links and in 1796 he married Catherine Buck.

Bridget said: “She was the daughter of William Buck who, with Benjamin Greene, owned the Greene King brewery in Bury St Edmunds.

“They married at St Mary's Church, a stone's throw from where they lived in St Mary's Square in Bury in the early 1800s. They also lived in the Lake District for a while and they were friendly with the Wordsworths.”

The abolition movement took time to achieve its aims.

Bridget said: “The campaign went in fits and starts. In 1803 there was a resurgence of interest and Clarkson once again toured the country gathering evidence while Wilberforce again introduced the Abolition Bill before Parliament.”

After failures in 1804 and 1805, the third Bill to abolish the Slave Trade was introduced in 1807 and finally became law on March 25 1807.

In 1816 he retired to Playford Hall, where he died on September 26 1846. He is buried in the churchyard at Playford.

Bridget added: “My favourite quote about him is by the poet Coleridge who referred to him as a "moral steam engine”. He had huge power in his convictions which I think drew people to him.”

Thomas was not the only notable member of his family; his brother, John, took a major part in helping move 1,200 ex-slaves from Nova Scotia, Canada to the new colony of Sierra Leone. He became the first governor there.

Clarkson was the son of Rev. John Clarkson (1710-1766), and attended Wisbech Grammar School where his father was headmaster, and went on to St Paul's School in London in 1775.

He went up to St John's College, Cambridge in 1779.

He graduated in 1783 and was to continue at Cambridge with the intention of following in his father's footsteps and entering the church. He was ordained deacon but never became a priest.

He researched the topic by meeting and interviewing those who had personal experience of the slave trade and slavery.

After his death, a monument to Clarkson was put up in 1879, at Wadesmill - where he experienced a vision - that reads: “On this spot where stands this monument in the month of June 1785 Thomas Clarkson resolved to devote his life to bringing about the abolition of the slave trade.”

Another monument, the Clarkson Memorial was erected to his memory in his birthplace at Wisbech to commemorate his life and work. The Clarkson School, Wisbech is named after him.

In 1996 a tablet was dedicated to his memory in Westminster Abbey, near the tomb of William Wilberforce.

Suffolk Record Office is marking the abolition of the slave trade by holding 200th Anniversary Clarkson lectures at Bury and Ipswich Record Offices from today, accompanied by small displays.

Tickets are £5 including coffee/tea and cake. To be sure of a place contact the relevant record office now:

Saturday, April 28: 2 - 4pm, Ipswich Record Office. Tel 01473 584541

Saturday, May 26: 10.30am - 12.30pm, Bury Record Office. Tel: 01284 352352

One of the most enduring images from Clarkson's huge body of evidence is the diagram of the Brookes slave ship, built in Liverpool in the 1780s and named after its owner and builder, James Brookes. On three voyages between 1781 and 1785 the ship carried over 600 enslaved Africans on the middle passage from West Africa to the Caribbean; many died as a result of the terrible conditions on board.

In the late 1780s, a Parliamentary committee was set up to look into overcrowding on slave ships. One of those called to give evidence was the ex-surgeon of the Brookes, Thomas Trotter.

In 1788, an Act of Parliament was passed which limited the number of slaves that could be carried on a ship according to its tonnage.

In the Brookes's case the maximum number allowed was 454. Thomas Clarkson paid the artist James Phillips to make a drawing of Brookes.

The print illustrates that even with 454 slaves packed on board, the overcrowding was still appalling.

This powerful image was one of only two officially approved by the abolitionist movement and it immediately helped to popularize the abolition campaign .

Even though the conditions on board were legally acceptable at the time, it shows they were still extremely cruel in practice.

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