Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846)

William Wilberforce and John Newton are well known in the campaign against the slave trade in Britain. Once, I even preached a first-person sermon about Newton, taking on his role as he wrote Amazing Grace. But I didn’t know about Thomas Clarkson until I read Bury the Chains by Adam Hochschild. As Americans, we often arrogantly assume that we’ve invented everything, so it first was humbling to me—and then inspiring—to learn that many years ago Clarkson was using peacemaking tools and even inventing tools we use today.
Daniel Buttry

Spearheading the Abolitionist Movement in Great Britain

A portrait of Thomas Clarkson by Carl Frederik von Breda

A portrait of Thomas Clarkson by Carl Frederik von Breda
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

… and if I had sixty years more they should all be given to the same cause.
Thomas Clarkson

In just five years, an issue that was not even a topic of public discussion became a national cause that began to unravel the slave trade in the British Empire. It took more years to actually abolish slavery, but the movement in Great Britain started with twelve men who met in 1787 to bring down what they viewed as an iniquitous and unjust system. One of those twelve, Thomas Clarkson, was to be the only full-time organizer for the movement. He developed strategies and ideas that not only laid the basis for success against the slave trade but also became models for countless social and political movements that have followed.

First Step into Abolitionism

Clarkson was a young divinity student who won a prestigious scholarly prize for a Latin essay about the slave trade. As he rode his horse home from a reading of the essay, he stopped, overwhelmed by what he had written: …if the contents of the essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end. It didn’t take him long to realize that he was that person.

In the next two years he was introduced to a circle of abolitionist Quakers. Since Clarkson was an Anglican churchman, the group quickly realized that he would be more accepted by the British mainstream as a voice for the movement. His own inner passion and organizing genius launched him into the new role. He began by developing an information resource to notify the public about the issue. He translated his winning essay into English, and had it published, not by a scholarly publishing house with only a small circle of academic readers, but by a Quaker publisher with a broad audience. Titles in those days were verbose! It was called: An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, particularly the African, translated from a Latin Dissertation, which was honoured with the First Prize in the University of Cambridge for the year 1785, with Additions.

Gathering Evidence of the Atrocities of Slavery

Clarkson’s second step was to do more research. He read first-hand accounts of slavery and the slave trade. Then he went down to the docks in London to see the ships for himself. He wrote I found soon afterwards a fire of indignation kindling within me for the horrors were taking on tangible forms to him. Then he went to the ports of Bristol and Liverpool, which were the key centers for the slave trade. There he risked beatings to find people who would testify about the destruction of life that was commonplace. Besides the hideous and often deadly conditions for the African slaves, Clarkson discovered that 20 percent of sailing crews did not survive voyages due to disease and physical brutality, a point that would be of value in trying to persuade the British Parliament to outlaw the trade.

Formation of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade

Thomas Clarkson, from Heroes of the Slave Trade Abolition, by unknown artist

Thomas Clarkson, from Heroes of the Slave Trade Abolition, by unknown artist, given to the National Portrait Gallery, London in 1936.
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Then Clarkson began to develop a network of supporters for the cause. The original group of abolitionists formed the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade—an innovative idea in itself to establish an organization for social change. Then they recruited people to join them: nobles and members of Parliament; women and laborers who couldn’t vote but who could express their opinions; Quakers and other religious dissidents as well as Anglicans. Clarkson traveled tens of thousands of miles organizing countless local committees to facilitate organizing and spreading the message in each community.

Getting People to Care & Take Action

They had a huge challenge—the majority of the people in England viewed the slave trade as normal. Britain profited from it economically through countless jobs and the prosperity it brought to ports and London. Even the developing industrial sector benefited from the cotton grown by slave labor. So why should people bother with human rights for people they’d never seen, who were of a different race and an ocean away? Clarkson believed that if he could arouse basic human empathy in people they would see the gross injustice that needed to be halted.

A Petition to Parliament

Besides organizing the small groups, Clarkson and his abolitionist partners developed methods now used in all kinds of social causes around the world. One was the petition, a form of expressing opinion that was recognized hundreds of years earlier in the Magna Carta. But Clarkson used it as an organizing tool, having each community group gather signatures that were added together and taken to Parliament. A mere year after starting the campaign they presented 103 petitions with up to 100,000 signatures, more than all the other petitions on all other issues received by Parliament combined.

Movement Logo

The official medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society

The official medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society.
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

They also developed a movement logo, thanks to Josiah Wedgwood. He drew a symbol of a kneeling African in chains with uplifted arms, encircled by the words, Am I not a Man and a Brother? The logo was used as a seal for letters, put on books, cufflinks for men and ornamental pins and broaches for women. Clarkson would carry hundreds with him to disperse in his travels.

Sugar Boycott

Women began to talk of a sugar boycott. Since all sugar was produced by slave labor, and they were the ones who prepared the food and tea, this gave ordinary people something substantive they could do. Clarkson pounced on the idea and added it to the actions taken by the campaign. In a few months, about 300,000 people stopped consuming sugar. Sugar sales dropped by more than a third. Clarkson and his colleagues even developed a version of free-trade labels for sugar produced in non-slave regions, including eventually liberated and independent Haiti. They read, Produced by the labour of FREEMEN.

Clarkson’s Slave Ship Sketch

Thomas Clarkson's sketch of how ships transport slaves.

Thomas Clarkson’s sketch of how ships transport slaves.
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

An image can be worth a thousand words, and Clarkson came up with the image that is iconic regarding the slave trade to this day: The sketch of how many people can be stacked into the hold of a slave ship. Clarkson took the first recorded measurements of a slave ship, where each person was chained into a bunk only 2 feet 8 inches high. He was careful not to exaggerate, showing how 482 slaves were crammed into the hold. Clarkson used this drawing in books, in his testimony to Parliament and in training small groups throughout the abolitionist movement.

Efforts in Parliament to Abolish the Slave Trade

The goal was to get Parliament to vote to abolish the slave trade. Besides the public pressure, they needed a member of Parliament to lead the cause. Clarkson helped to recruit William Wilberforce to be that leader. Wilberforce introduced bills against slavery every year. The petitions were presented. Clarkson hunted up witnesses for hearings, including doctors who had been on voyages to try to maximize profits by keeping the slaves alive. Pressure grew each year until victory seemed near in 1792. A bill was passed against the slave trade, but opponents inserted the word gradually, which destroyed its effect.

Abolition of the Slave Trade in the British Empire

War with France sidelined the movement. Then as the radicalism unleashed by the French Revolution took hold, the social radicals in Great Britain came under increased suspicion of being unpatriotic. Clarkson had to lie low for a few years, in large part due to fatigue from overworking. He took up farming. In 1803 Clarkson rejoined the abolitionist committee and helped re-ignite the cause. With the success of the revolt in Haiti and the return of British soldiers from the bloody wars in the Caribbean, the economics and politics had changed. The abolitionists re-introduced the issue to Parliament, and in 1807 the bill passed to abolish the slave trade throughout the British Empire. What Clarkson referred to as one mass of iniquity from the beginning to the end had been undone through a multi-faceted public movement that he had organized.

But the work was not finished. Although the trade in slaves was halted, several decades passed before the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 finally made slavery illegal throughout most of the British empire. Even then, some colonies related to the East India Company weren’t required to comply until 1838. A new abolitionist society was formed with a new generation of leaders. Clarkson was now the grand old man of the movement, the only one of the original 12 abolitionists to see full emancipation.

Passing the Torch

The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840 painting by Benjamin Robert Haydon

The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840, by Benjamin Robert Haydon, given to the National Portrait Gallery, London in 1880 by the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. The image depicts Thomas Clarkson addressing a meeting of over 500 delegates.
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Five weeks before Clarkson died, he was visited by two young American abolitionists: Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. They talked about the slavery that still existed in the United States. Douglass recorded what Clarkson told about struggling for sixty years for the cause and quoted Clarkson as saying, and if I had sixty years more they should all be given to the same cause. The torch was now passed to a new generation of activists, and the ideas and methods of organizing social movements that were originated or refined by Thomas Clarkson are staples in movements for change to this day.

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