Thomas Clarkson

1760–1846


The story of the slavery abolitionist and Cambridgeshire hero Thomas Clarkson and his contribution to English social history.

 

Thomas Clarkson was born in Wisbech on 28th March 1760, the son of an headmaster, and it would appear that he was destined for an academic or clerical career. He was educated at St John’s College, Cambridge, and whilst there he entered an essay competition entitled Is it lawful to enslave others against their will?.

His research for this essay changed his life. He decided to travel to London to get his work published. On his journey he stopped halfway down the hill approaching Wadesmill, a small village on Old North Road, now the A10 in Hertfordshire. There he had a spiritual experience which he described 'as a direct revelation from God ordering me to devote my life to abolishing the trade.' Having written the essay, he decided that if the contents of his essay were true 'it was time that some person should see these calamities to their end.'

That person was to be himself. Having been ordained deacon, he never sought to become a priest, but instead dedicated his life to the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery itself. Working with a small group of other abolitionists, including William Wilberforce, John Wesley and Josiah Wedgewood, he travelled all over the country, to all major seaports, especially Bristol and Liverpool, interviewing thousands of sailors and seeking first-hand evidence of the facts and horrors of the slave trade.

It was Clarkson’s detailed evidence, presented to Parliament over several years by his fellow-abolitionist Wilberforce, which eventually led to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, and of slavery throughout the British dominions in 1833.

Clarkson was the first president of the world’s first human rights organisation, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, now called Anti-Slavery International. He retired to Ipswich where he died on 26th September in 1846, and was buried quietly as was his wish.

The poet Coleridge paid a fitting tribute to him: 'He, if ever human being did it, listened exclusively to his conscience, and obeyed its voice.' In 1879 a stone was erected at the very place where Clarkson paused outside Wadesmill. It 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.' In 1996, the 150th anniversary of his death, a monument was unveiled to him and seven other abolitionists in Westminster Abbey.

Owen Spencer-Thomas 12 June 2009

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Thomas Clarkson 1760-1846

Thomas Clarkson's Memorial (outside Wadesmill)

Inscription on Monument