Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Thomas Clarkson

1760 – 1846

He was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire into the family of the Reverend John Clarkson, headmaster of the free grammar school that Thomas was later to attend. He was a scholarship student at St John’s College Cambridge. After graduating with a degree in mathematics he remained at Cambridge to prepare himself to be a clergyman. In 1784 he won a university Latin essay prize and decided to try to repeat his achievement in the following year. The essay topic was ‘Anne liceat invitos in servitutem dare’ ‘Is it lawful to enslave the unconsenting?’ Researching for and writing this essay was to change his life. One of the books that he read was Anthony Benezet’s “Historical Account of Guinea”. He was deeply shocked by what he read. Although he won the essay prize it seemed to be of little value beside the plight of the slaves. He decided to relinquish his aspirations of a career in the church.

He was introduced to the anti-slavery movement by a Quaker. They had been working within this movement for a number of years both in Britain and in America. It was they who helped to publish a translation of his essay, which was brought out by the Quaker bookseller James Phillips in 1786. He and Clarkson worked closely together. The pamphlet was entitled “An Essay of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African”. Clarkson’s essay was a great success and led to the creation of an informal committee to lobby MPs. Through Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce was recruited to the cause and by 1787 had agreed to bring his concerns about slavery before the House of Commons. On 22 May 1787 the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formally established. Nine of the original twelve members were Quakers and five went on to play a central role. The committee voted that the slave trade was unjust and impolitic. Clarkson concentrated his efforts on these two themes.

He visited Bristol and Liverpool as they were the two main slaving ports, and also Manchester, Bath, Gloucester, Worcester, Chester, Lancaster and Birmingham. He received enthusiastic assistance from the Quakers, anti-slavery societies were started and most important of all, boroughs began to petition parliament for the abolition of the slave trade. Clarkson was given the task of collecting evidence to support the abolition of the slave trade. He faced considerable opposition from the supporters of the trade. Slave traders were a wealthy and influential group. Their trade produced prosperity and wealth and was legitimate at that time. In Liverpool he was set upon by a gang of sailors who had been paid to assassinate him and was fortunate to escape alive. In that year he published the pamphlet: "A Summary View of the Slave Trade and of the Probable Consequences of Its Abolition". Clarkson’s work with the Quakers affected his religion and by 1795 he had renounced his Anglican orders although he never became a Quaker. In 1815 he told Tsar Alexander the he was ‘nine parts in ten of their way of thinking’. He published a “Portraiture of Quakerism” which was very successful and in 1813 a biography of William Penn, which was less so.

He continued to work for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire which came in 1833 when the act was passed. He died on 26th September 1846. He was not immediately commemorated in Westminster Abbey, which as a leading abolitionist was surprising. It is said that this was out of consideration for the susceptibilities of his Quaker friends. A large memorial was erected in 1880 at Wisbech. In 1996 a tablet was placed in Westminster Abbey close to the Wilberforce monument.

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