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Clarkson, Thomas (DNB00)


CLARKSON, THOMAS (1760–1846), anti-slavery agitator, was the son of the Rev. John Clarkson, head-master from 1749 to 1766 of the free grammar school at Wisbeach, where he was born on 28 March 1760. At the age of fifteen he was admitted to St. Paul's School on 4 Oct. 1775, where he obtained one of the Pauline exhibitions in 1780, and, having gained the Gower exhibition in a previous year, went up to St. John's College, Cambridge, as a sizar. In 1783 he graduated B.A., having obtained the first place among the junior optimes in the mathematical tripos of that year. In 1784 and 1785 he won the members' prizes for Latin essays open to middle and senior bachelors respectively. The subject for the essay of 1785 was the question ‘anne liceat invitos in servitutem dare?’ and the contest for this prize determined the whole course of Clarkson's life. The study of the subject absorbed him day and night. The essay was read in the senate house in June 1785, and obtained much applause. The subject still continuing to engross his thoughts, he determined to translate his essay, and thus draw the attention of influential people to the horrors of the slave trade. Cadell the publisher, to whom he first offered the manuscript, did not give him much encouragement. On leaving the shop he met Joseph Hancock of Wisbeach, a quaker, and an old family friend, who thereupon introduced him to James Phillips, a bookseller in George Yard, Lombard Street, by whom the essay was published in June 1786. Through this introduction to Phillips, Clarkson came to know William Dillwyn, James Ramsay, Joseph Woods, Granville Sharp, and others who had already been labouring in the same cause. Soon after this he made the acquaintance of William Wilberforce, to whose advocacy in parliament its final success was greatly due. On 22 May 1787 a committee was formed for the suppression of the slave trade, consisting of Granville Sharp, William Dillwyn, Samuel Hoare, George Harrison, John Lloyd, Joseph Woods, Thomas Clarkson, Richard Phillips, John Barton, Joseph Hooper, James Phillips, and Philip Sansom, all of whom, it should be noticed, were quakers, with the exception of Sharp, Sansom, and Clarkson.

Shortly afterwards Clarkson went to Bristol, Liverpool, and other places for the double purpose of collecting further information with regard to the slave trade and of holding meetings in favour of its suppression. At Manchester he delivered one of the few sermons he ever preached; for though he had been ordained a deacon, he had abandoned all idea of exercising his profession. Through the personal exertions of Clarkson and his fellow-workers, and by the distribution of a number of anti-slavery tracts, the diabolical nature of the trade became generally known throughout the country. On 11 Feb. 1788 a committee of the privy council was ordered to inquire into ‘the present state of the African trade.’ On 9 May the abolition of the slave trade was first practically discussed in parliament. The subject was introduced by Pitt, in the absence of Wilberforce through illness. As a step towards curbing the cruelties of the trade, Sir William Dolben introduced a bill providing that the number of slaves brought in the ships should be in proportion to their tonnage. The mortality of the negroes during the voyage averaged, under the most favourable circumstances, 45 per cent., and in many cases over 80 per cent. After the parties interested in the traffic had been heard by counsel at the bar of both houses, the bill, in spite of violent opposition, passed into law.

The privy council report having been presented, Wilberforce brought the question before the House of Commons on 12 May 1789. Meanwhile Clarkson's labours had never slackened, and in August of this year he went over to Paris, where he stayed nearly six months, endeavouring to persuade the French government, then in the throes of revolution, to abolish the slave trade. He met with little success, though the Marquis de la Fayette and Mirabeau supported him. To the latter Clarkson wrote a letter, containing from sixteen to twenty pages, every other day for a month, to bring the entire facts of the case before him. Another instance of Clarkson's indefatigable perseverance occurred after his return from France in his search for a sailor whose evidence was considered of the greatest importance. Not knowing whether the man was dead or alive, and ignorant of his name as well as of his whereabouts, Clarkson boarded all the ships belonging to the navy at Deptford, Woolwich, Chatham, Sheerness, and Portsmouth. He at length discovered the man on board the fifty-seventh vessel which he had searched, in Plymouth harbour. During the autumn of 1790 Clarkson again travelled through the country for the purpose of securing further witnesses to give evidence in behalf of the abolition of the slave trade before the parliamentary committee, the hearing of which finally closed on 5 April 1791. On 19 April in the same year Wilberforce's motion for stopping the future importation of slaves from Africa, though supported by Pitt, Fox, and Burke, was lost after two nights' debate by 163 to 88. Though terribly disheartened, the efforts of the little band of philanthropists were not relaxed, and Clarkson again travelled through the country in order to keep up the agitation. In July 1794 his health completely gave way, and he was obliged to retire from his work. He had spent most of his little fortune, and, accordingly, Wilberforce started a subscription among his friends. In Wilberforce's ‘Life’ (1838, ii. 51–5) some correspondence is published on the subject which it would have been better to have left undisturbed. After an absence of nine years Clarkson returned to his duty on the committee, and in the latter part of 1805 once more made a journey through the country, which met with extraordinary success. At length the bill for the abolition of the slave trade was introduced by Lord Grenville in the House of Lords on 2 Jan. 1807, and received the royal assent on 25 March following. But the struggle was not quite finished. In 1818 Clarkson had an interview with the Emperor of Russia at Aix-la-Chapelle, to secure his influence with the allied sovereigns at the approaching congress in favour of the suppression of the slave trade throughout their dominions. In England the struggle had to be continued for the abolition of slavery in the West India islands, and in 1823 the Anti-slavery Society was formed, Clarkson and Wilberforce being made vice-presidents of the society. It was not until August 1833 that the Emancipation Bill was passed, which made freedmen of some 800,000 slaves and awarded 20,000,000l. as compensation to their owners. Clarkson was unable to take a very active share in the closing part of this movement, as his health was now worn out. Cataract formed in both his eyes, and for a short time he became totally blind, but in 1836 he regained his sight by means of a successful operation. On 15 April 1839 he was admitted to the freedom of the city of London. This ceremony took place at the Mansion House, out of regard to his age and infirmities, instead of at the Guildhall. His last appearance on a public platform was at the Anti-slavery Convention held at the Freemasons' Hall in June 1840, when he presided and made a short address. Haydon's picture of this scene is now in the National Portrait Gallery, where there is also a portrait of Clarkson by De Breda. His bust, by Behnes, is in the Guildhall. During the latter years of his life Clarkson resided at Playford Hall, near Ipswich, where he died on 26 Sept. 1846, in the eighty-seventh year of his age. He was buried at Playford on 2 Oct. following. Clarkson never joined the Society of Friends. His wife, Catherine, who survived him, was the daughter of William Buck of Bury St. Edmunds. Their only son, Thomas, one of the Thames police magistrates, was killed in a carriage accident on 9 March 1837, in his fortieth year.

Clarkson was not the first to call the attention of the country to the criminality of slavery, but it is almost impossible to overrate the effect of his unceasing perseverance in the cause. Before he entered on the crusade slaveholding was considered, except by a chosen few, as a necessary part of social economy; it was due largely to Clarkson's exertions that long before his death it had come to be regarded as a crime. Wordsworth addressed to him a sonnet, beginning ‘Clarkson, it was an obstinate hill to climb,’ ‘on the final passing of the Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, March 1807.’ A monument has been erected to his memory on the hill above Wade's Mill, on the Buntingford road.

Clarkson published the following works: 1. ‘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,’ London, 1786, 8vo; 2nd edition, enlarged, London, 1788, 8vo. 2. ‘An Essay on the Impolicy of the African Slave Trade.’ In two parts. London, 1788, 8vo; 2nd ed., London, 1788, 8vo. 3. ‘An Essay on the Comparative Efficiency of Regulation or Abolition, as applied to the Slave Trade …,’ London, 1789, 8vo. 4. ‘Letters on the Slave Trade and the State of the Natives in those parts of Africa which are contiguous to Fort St. Louis and Goree, written at Paris in Dec. 1789 and Jan. 1790,’ London, 1791. 4to. 5. ‘A Portraiture of Quakerism …,’ London, 1806, 3 vols. 8vo; 2nd ed., London, 1807, 8vo; 3rd ed., London, 1807, 8vo. Of the first edition of this work 2,500 copies were sold without any public advertisement being issued by the publisher. Lord Jeffrey reviewed it in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ for April 1807. 6. ‘Three Letters (one of which has appeared before) to the Planters and Slave-merchants, principally on the subject of Compensation,’ London, 1807, 8vo. 7. ‘History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament,’ London, 1808, 2 vols. 8vo; new ed., with prefatory remarks on the subsequent abolition of slavery, London, 1839, 8vo. Clarkson in this ‘History’ of the anti-slavery agitation gives ‘a quaint chart showing how the impulse spread till it converged upon a single area.’ A controversy subsequently raged between the followers of Clarkson and the followers of Wilberforce, as to the share taken by the respective leaders in the bringing about of the abolition of the slave trade, and Wilberforce's sons, who stoutly supported the cause of their father's predominant influence, saw much ground for offence in Clarkson's chart, which gave, in their opinion, far too little prominence to the stimulus of the ‘Evangelical’ party, which was generally known as the Clapham sect, and of which Wilberforce was a leading spirit. Sir James Stephen, in his ‘Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography’ (art. ‘William Wilberforce’), notices in judicial language the unbecoming rivalry between the friends of Clarkson and the friends of Wilberforce. But Sir James Stephen is somewhat severe on Sergeant Talfourd, who in his life of Charles Lamb, when describing a meeting between Charles Lamb and Clarkson, designates the latter ‘the true annihilator of the slave trade,’ and adds these words: ‘Lamb had no taste for oratorical philanthropy, but he felt the grandeur and simplicity of Clarkson's character.’ Stephen detected here an unjust reflection on Wilberforce, which he sought to confute with much energy, without in any way detracting from Clarkson's services to the cause with which the two men were identified. There is perhaps a slight touch of irony in Stephen's remark, ‘Thomas Clarkson is his own biographer,’ when alluding to Clarkson's ‘History’ of the movement. 8. The preface to ‘Zachary Clark's Account of the different Charities belonging to the Poor of the County of Norfolk, abridged from the returns, under Gilbert's Act, to the House of Commons in 1786; and from the Terriers in the office of the Lord Bishop of Norwich,’ Bury St. Edmunds and London, 1811, 8vo. 9. ‘Memoirs of the Private and Public Life of William Penn,’ London, 1813, 2 vols.; new ed., with a preface—in reply to the charges against his character made by Lord Macaulay in his ‘History of England’—by William Edward Forster, the well-known statesman [q. v.], London, 1849, 8vo. Clarkson's biography of Penn was the subject of an elaborate notice by Lord Jeffrey in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ for July 1813. Forster's defence of Clarkson's view of Penn's character, which forms the preface to the 1849 edition of Clarkson's ‘Life,’ was twice issued separately, in 1849 and 1850 respectively, under the title of ‘William Penn and Thomas Babington Macaulay.’ Macaulay in the last edition of his ‘History of England’ made an elaborate attempt to justify his original statement which he declined to retract. But there is no question that he was in error. See Mr. C. E. Doble's letter in ‘Academy,’ 1886, vol. i. p. 365. 10. ‘An Essay on the Doctrine and Practice of the Early Christians, as they relate to War,’ 2nd edition, London, 1817, 8vo. This was tract No. 3 of the Society for the Promotion of Permanent and Universal Peace, and passed through a number of editions. 11. ‘Thoughts on the Necessity of improving the Condition of the Slaves in the British Colonies, with a view to their ultimate Emancipation …,’ London, 1823, 8vo; 2nd ed., corrected, London, 1823, 8vo; another ed., London, 1823, 8vo, in the preface to which it is stated that it first appeared in the ‘Inquirer;’ 4th ed., corrected, London, 1824, 8vo. 12. ‘The Cries of Africa to the Inhabitants of Europe; or a Survey of that Bloody Commerce called the Slave Trade,’ London (1822?), 8vo. This was translated into French and Spanish. 13. ‘Researches Antediluvian, Patriarchal, and Historical, concerning the way in which Men first acquired their Knowledge of God and Religion,’ &c., London and Ipswich, 1836, 8vo. 14. ‘Strictures on a Life of William Wilberforce by the Rev. W. Wilberforce and the Rev. S. Wilberforce,’ London, 1838, 8vo. 15. ‘A Letter to the Clergy of various Denominations and to the Slaveholding Planters in the Southern Parts of the United States of America,’ London, 1841, 8vo. 16. ‘Not a Labourer wanted for Jamaica; to which is added an Account of the newly erected Villages by the Peasantry there and their beneficial Results,’ London, 1842, 8vo. 17. ‘Essay on Baptism, with some Remarks on the Doctrine of the Nicene Church, on which Puseyism is built,’ London and Ipswich, 1843, 8vo. 18. ‘Review of the Rev. Thomas B. Freeman's “Journal of Visits to Ashanti,” &c., with Remarks on the Present Situation of Africa and its Spiritual Prospects,’ London, 1845, 4to. 19. ‘The Grievances of our Mercantile Seamen, a National and Crying Evil,’ London and Ipswich, 1845, 12mo.

[Taylor's Biographical Sketch of Thomas Clarkson (1839) (a 2nd ed. of this sketch, edited by Dr. Henry Stebbing [q. v.], came out in 1847); A Sketch of the Life of Thomas Clarkson (1876); Elmes's Thomas Clarkson, a monograph (1854); Gent. Mag. 1846, new ser., xxvi. 542–6; Ann. Reg., 1846, App. to Chron. pp. 287–9; Daily News, 30 Sept. 1846; Clarkson's Hist. of the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1839); Hist. of Wisbeach (1833); Gardiner's Regs. of St. Paul's School (1884), pp. 161, 403, 416; Notes and Queries, 1st ser. xi. 46, 6th ser. xii. 228, 314; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

G. F. R. B.