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Thomas Clarkson - Wisbech

This article appeared in The Fenland Citizen on 24 June 2020, it was written by Kat Wakefield and Iliffe Media own the copyright


A Wisbech born hero’s campaign to bring an end to slavery is a story which many are unaware of.

Thomas Clarkson fought to abolish slavery and his story still has resonance today in light of the Black Lives Matter protest.
The Wisbech Society is keen to ensure that Thomas is remembered.
Treasurer David Crouch said: “Thomas Clarkson was probably the most important person involved in the abolition of slavery, but William Wilberforce tends to get more coverage.
“It is very important that we remember him, and also his brother, John.”

Thomas Clarkson, the eldest of three, was born in Wisbech in 1760 and attended Wisbech Grammar School, where his father, John, was headmaster.
He later became a student of St. John’s College Cambridge, where his eyes were opened to the slave trade. As part of a competition, he wrote a Latin essay entitled ‘Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their wills?’ and the research he carried out unveiled the treatment of slaves which left him horrified.
On moving to London, Thomas met several other people who felt similarly to him. He became a minor celebrity after his essay was translated into English and published in 1786, with the help of his brother John and Quaker publishers, who shared his passion for bringing and end to the slave trade.

The following year, along with 11 other men, nine of which were Quakers, Thomas set up the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The main focus of this group was to teach the public, while also lobbying MPs, in the hope that they would force Parliament to change the laws surrounding slaves.
As part of his work within the society, Thomas persuaded William Wilberforce, the MP for Hull, to speak for them in Parliament, and a parliamentary investigation into the slave trade was set up following his speech.
Thomas was tasked with gathering information to prove how poorly slaves were treated and, in doing so, rode 35,000 miles on horseback to spread the word and set up branches of abolitionists.

He also interviewed around 20,000 sailors, boldly stepping on board slave ships to carry out his research and collecting items which would add to his evidence in support of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.
On one trip to Liverpool, Thomas discovered a shop supplying items for ships and was shocked to find a display of handcuffs, leg shackles and thumbscrews, amongst other grizzly items. He bought samples of all of the items and kept them.
He also kept other items he collected from ships which would help him to show the importance of trading goods, rather than slaves, such as dried fruits, exotic spices, beeswax and woven cloth. The items were safely stored in a chest, similar to a travelling salesman’s sample case which can now be found in the Wisbech and Fenland Museum.
He carried the chest with him and used this collection of items as part of his lectures and public meetings as he realised that the artifacts were a useful tool in influencing public opinion.

Another important visual aid which became synonymous with the abolitionist movement was a diagram produced by Thomas. With the help of fellow society member James Phillips, it showed a fully loaded slave ship which was discovered by the chairman of a Plymouth branch of abolitionists. The ship was named the Brookes, after a Liverpool family which owned it, and carried slaves from the Gold Coast to Jamaica.

The diagram gave measurements while also showing 482 slaves closely lined up in rows on the ship to highlight the cramped conditions in which they were forced to lie flat against the ship’s hull.
It was widely shared and appeared in newspapers, magazines and books.

The society realised the importance of this image and began to print posters which went on to be hung up in homes and pubs across Britain - the society printed more than 7,000 copies of the now iconic image.
In 1789, Thomas even traveled to France in the hope of encouraging the French Government to abolish the slave trade but, despite meeting abolitionists in Paris, it became clear that Thomas was playing with fire.

France had an estimated 675,000 slaves on its Caribbean islands and he soon began to receive letters containing death threats after newspapers published his Paris address. They also accusing him of being a British spy so Thomas left Paris six months later as it became apparent that the country was not ready to end the slave trade.

On his return, he began gathering more research and, after travelling across Britain, returned to London with six witnesses.
The abolitionists set about editing research to provide information for MPs to read before the parliamentary hearings.

When William Wilberforce introduced his first abolition bill, Parliament did not vote in favour of the bill, in fact it was heavily defeated by 163 votes to 88 votes.
Despite this, it is said that by 1792, five years after Thomas and the society began their campaign, around 300,000 Britons were boycotting slave grown sugar and that anti slavery groups had sprung up in every major town in the country.
Despite the wave of public support, MPs voted against a further abolition bill in 1792 and in the following year Thomas suffered a breakdown caused by physical exhaustion.

He went on to marry Catherine Buck, with whom he had a son, Thomas, and in 1803 they moved to Bury St Edmunds.

In 1804, Thomas decided to revive the abolition committee and the following year he embarked on another tour of the country to encourage public support.
Finally, in 1807, the slave trade was abolished, but the law did not go as far as the society had hoped - it did not outlaw slavery completely or make any arrangements for slaves to be set free.

It was not until 1833 that slavery was completely abolished, finally giving slaves their freedom. Thomas went on to spend his later years focusing on the rest of the world’s slave trade and on 26 September, 1846, Thomas died aged 86, after having dedicated his life to the abolition movement.

Copyright and acknowledgement.
This article appeared in The Fenland Citizen on 24 June 2020, it was written by Kat Wakefield and Iliffe Media own the copyright
by Richard Humphrey

Created: Fri, 26 Jun 2020, Updated: Fri, 26 Jun 2020

3 images use this description:

TF4609 : The Clarkson Memorial in Wisbech by Richard Humphrey
TF4609 : Thomas Clarkson, Wisbech by Richard Humphrey
TF4609 : The Clarkson Memorial in Wisbech by Richard Humphrey

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