Who was Thomas Clarkson?

Thomas Clarkson
Thomas Clarkson

This project was inspired by the work of Thomas Clarkson. Thomas Clarkson was described by the poet Samuel Coleridge as ‘a moral steam engine'. He was a red haired man who stood over 6 feet tall, who spent his long adult life working to abolish the transatlantic slave trade and slavery itself. Born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire in 1760, the eldest of 3 children of the local headmaster and minister, he studied at the local grammar school and then St John's College, Cambridge.

Thomas Clarkson's involvement with the movement to abolish the slave trade and then slavery itself began in 1785 when he entered and won first prize in a Latin essay competition entitled ‘Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their wills?' The research for his essay opened his eyes to the nature of the slave trade and he was horrified at the way enslaved Africans were treated.

Returning on horseback to London after reading his prize essay in the Senate House at Cambridge University, Clarkson could not stop thinking about slavery. Upset and angry, he paused at Wadesmill near Ware in Hertfordshire and decided it was time some person should see these calamities to their end. This was the turning point in his life and he was to travel over 30,000 miles on horseback to collect evidence and rally support for the cause and, working with others, pioneered many of the methods used in modern campaigning.

You will be able to find more about Thomas Clarkson on the MLA/E2BN Abolition Site, http://www.abolition.e2bn.org/

The Clarkson Box

In an effort to gather hard facts about the slave trade, Thomas Clarkson visited many ports and went aboard the trading vessels. One of the first African trading ships Clarkson visited was called the ‘Lively'. It was not a slave ship but its cargo had a powerful impact upon Clarkson. The ship was full of beautiful and exotic goods; - carved ivory and woven cloth along with produce such as beeswax, palm oil and peppers. Clarkson could see the craftsmanship and skill that would have been required to produce many of the items. The idea that their creators could be made slaves was horrifying. Clarkson bought samples from the ship and started a collection that he added to over the years. The collection included crops and spices, raw materials along with the intricate goods produced with them. He kept this collection in a large box and used the contents to demonstrate the skill of Africans and the possibilities that existed for an alternative humane trading system, challenging the pro-slavery arguments.

To see a virtual version of the Clarkson Box
To see photographs of the Clarkson Box and Thomas Clarksons life story.
To find out more about the Abolition movement