Today is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Clarkson, a major figure in the anti-slavery movement of the late 1700s and early 1800s. He rode tens of thousands of miles across Britain - not once, but several times in his life - to promote, first, the anti-slave trade cause, and then the complete emancipation of slaves. Occasionally on these travels, Clarkson kept diaries. None of these have been published, but one is available online thanks to the excellent Abolition Project Website.
Clarkson was born at Wisbech in Cambridgeshire on 28 March 1760, and attended the local grammar school where his father was headmaster. He was sent to St Paul’s School in London, and won a scholarship to St John’s College, Cambridge, where he was ordained a deacon. However, the course of his life was ordained in a different direction thanks to winning an essay competition about the legality of slavery. Famously, he was on his way to London, when he stopped at a small village called Wadesmill, and underwent a kind of spiritual conversion. He wrote later that it was at Wadesmill where he realised ‘if the contents of the essay were true . . . it was time some person should see the calamities to their end’.
Clarkson soon published the essay, which received much attention and drew him into abolitionist circles. In May 1787, he and others (mostly Quakers but including Granville Sharp as chairman) formed the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The young MP William Wilberforce provided a useful link to Parliament. Clarkson, himself, was asked to collect evidence to support the abolition of the slave trade, a task he undertook with much resolve. For two years, he rode around England (some 35,000 miles), interviewing sailors (20,000 of them), surgeons, and pub landlords, collecting equipment used on slave ships, and meeting with local anti-slave trade groups. As his evidence mounted, so he published more essays which were circulated widely.
And in 1791, Wilberforce put forward to Parliament a first draft law aimed at abolishing the slave trade. But, as a legitimate and lucrative business, generating prosperity for many ports, the trade had powerful supporters, and the bill was easily defeated. For the next few years, until the outbreak of war with France, Wilberforce continued to propose bills, and the Committee continued trying to mobilise public opinion in their support. However, the war only reinforced the opinion of many MPs that the slave trade provided important wealth for the nation as well as valuable training for the Navy. In 1794, an exhausted Clarkson retired from the campaign and bought an estate in the Lake District, where he became friends with William Wordsworth. After marrying Catherine Buck, from Bury St Edmunds, though, he set up home with her in Suffolk.
In 1804, the anti-slave trade campaign started up again in earnest and Clarkson again went travelling round Britain canvassing support, particularly from MPs. Three years later, in 1807, a bill for the abolition of the trade was finally passed. Thereafter, Clarkson published his History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade in two volumes; he also travelled abroad to try and secure international agreements on abolition. By the early 1820s, Clarkson was once more riding through Britain, this time for the newly-formed Anti-Slavery Society (for which he had been appointed vice-president) trying to secure support for the total emancipation of slaves. A law to that effect was passed in 1833. For the rest of his life - he died in 1846 - Clarkson continued to campaign internationally, and was the principal speaker at the opening of the World Anti-Slavery Society Conference in London in 1840.
There is no shortage of biographical material about Clarkson on the internet - see Wikipedia, Thomas Clarkson website, or Brycchan Carey’s website for example; and the full text of his two volume history of the slave trade can be read at The Online Library of Liberty (and other sites).
Although there are no published versions of any diary by Clarkson, the National Archives website refers to three locations which have either diary or journal material: Howard University Library in Washington DC, Atlanta University Center Archives, and the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. The Howard University Library website, however, only lists correspondence among its Clarkson papers. The Robert W Woodruff Library at Atlanta University Center lists a journal, dated August 1789, which ‘recounts Clarkson’s trip to France and his observations in Paris of French Revolutionary activity’. The National Library of Wales is supposed to hold, what the National Archives says, is ‘1823-24: diary of a tour through Britain’ but I can find no trace of it on their website.
There is, though, a further diary held by St John’s College, Cambridge, (and not identified on the National Archives website), dating from 25 June to 25 July 1787 and described by the College’s library as follows: ‘Diary of travels in the West Country and Wales. Gives description of travels and scenery, especially Bristol and surrounding area. Gives detailed account of visits to docks, investigation into shipping in Bristol and meeting with local luminaries to gather support for the abolition cause’.
Thanks to the Abolition Project Website, which has substantial information on Clarkson, for providing photographs of the pages of the 1787 diary, and a transcript. Here are some extracts:
3 July 1787
‘In crossing the ferry from Mr Feast’s Yard, I saw a Boat painted Africa on her Stern coming to the same Landing Place. On inquiring of the Crew Whether they belonged to the Africa, a Vessel in the Slave Trade, they answered, yes - I told one of them that I wondered how any seamen would go to Africa, and if he was not afraid - To this he answered in the following Words - If it is my Lot to die in Africa, why I must, and if it is not, why then I shall not die though I go there. And if it is my Lot to live, why I may as well live there as anywhere else. The Same Person told me that the Brothers, Capt. Howlett, then lying in King Road?, could not get Men - that he was cruel Rascal - that a Party of Men had shipped themselves on board him, but that they had all left him on Sunday Morning - I cannot describe my feeling in seeing these poor Fellows belonging to the Africa. They were seven in Number - all of them young, about 22 or 23, and very robust - They were all Seamen; and I think the finest Fellows I ever beheld - I am sure no one can describe my feelings when I considered that some of these were devoted, and whatever might be their spirits now, would never see their native Home more. I considered also, how much the Glory of the British Flag was diminished by the Destruction of such noble fellows, who appeared so strong, robust, & hardy, and at the same Time so spirited as to enable us to bid Defiance to the marine of our Enemies the French’
5 July 1787
‘rode to Mr Bonvilles in Company with John Lury & Robert Lawson - The Downs were beautiful & .... ... went on board the Prince. The People were then busy - The Mate conducted us into their Cabin and invited us to dine: having dined we declined it - but drank some Grogg - The People on board were poor, palefaced, meagre looking Wretches - we were told that the Ship was not half manned - We left her, and went on board the Africa - The Crew of this Vessel, which was fully manned, consisted of as fine Seamen, as could possibly be collected - We drank some Grogg on board this Vessel -. Mr Sheriff, a very humane, good sort of man, was one of the Mates of the Ship, but, though he had been to Sea all his Life, had never yet been a voyage to the Coast - This Mr Sheriff, on account of some misrepresentation of him to Captain Wright was then preparing to leave the Ship. - He sent his Chest to Bristol by the Africa’s Boat, but took his Passage with Us in ours - This man was so beloved by the Seamen on board, that they all came to the Ship’s Side, when he left it, pulled off their Hats, and wished him his Health - We then proceeded again to the Prince, where we drank Tea, after which, we sailed with a fine Wind into the River - I had some Conversation with Mr Sheriff - He informed me that the Men on board the Africa had signed their Articles, but that they had never seen what they signed - He says that he himself also had signed without seeing them, though he did not like it, but as an Officer, did not object, thinking it might be a bad Example in him to set . . .’
18 July 1787
‘9 o’Clock at night - On hearing that Mr Thomas, Surgeon Mate of the Alfred, had been most cruelly treated by Capt Robe, and was then ill in Bed - I went to see him in Company with a Seaman of the Same Ship - I found him ill in Bed. He said that he had been most excessively ill-treated by Capt Robe & the 1st Mate, but that he forgave them. His Thighs were wrapped up in Flannel - The Poor Man was delirious. He asked me if I was a Gentleman - if I was a Lawyer, etc - He seemed much agitated & frightened and repeatedly asked me if I was come with an Intent to take Captain Robe’s Part. I answered no, that I was come to take his & punish Captain Robe - However he did not comprehend me, and was manifestly in a disordered State. This young man leaped three times overboard to drown himself, in consequence of the Cruelty committed, and to avoid it for the future, but was taken up - The last time he leaped overboard, a Shark was within a yard of him, when he was taken up’