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Thomas Clarkson and the Abolition of the Slave Trade

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October 2008

The name of William Wilberforce is justly celebrated for his role in the abolition in the slave trade, but that of Thomas Clarkson is less well known, though his part in the Abolitionist movement was equally vital. On the 14th November the Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society welcomed Gordon Young and David Mitchell of the Bristol Film and Video Society, and were treated to a screening of their short film ‘Clarkson’. Those who had turned up in anticipation of high-octane lunacy presided over by a loud, middle-aged man in jeans may have been surprised, but not, I think, disappointed by this film, a drama-documentary made in Bristol by the Film and Video Society with assistance from local amateur dramatics groups.

Thomas Clarkson was an Anglican clergyman in deacon’s orders and a graduate of Cambridge University. He remained at Cambridge after receiving his BA, and in 1985 entered an essay competition on the morality of slavery. Clarkson won the prize for the essay and realised, as he later wrote, “that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end”; it was this that impelled him to devote his life to the abolition of the slave trade. A published translation of the essay from the original Latin brought him to the attention of the Committee for the Abolition of the African Trade, who sent him to gather evidence of the cruelty of the slave trade to put before Parliament.

In 1787 Clarkson arrived in Bristol, one of the primary ports for the slave ships, and it is upon this period of Clarkson’s life that the film focuses. Realising that the moral outrage of the Quaker abolitionists in Bristol was unlikely to sway Parliament, which – in the main – saw the slave trade as a highly lucrative business, Clarkson sallied forth to the taverns of the city to seek the first-hand testimony of those involved in the slave trade. This was not an easy task: the captains of the slaver ships forbade their crewmen from speaking to him. However, the landlord of the Severn Stars public house proved sympathetic to the cause, and assisted him in his quest for information. He was also put in touch with Alexander Falconbridge, a surgeon who had served on the slave ships, but had been disgusted by what he saw. Falconbridge initially refused to testify in public, out of fear of the powerful backers of the slave trade, but changed his mind after seeing Clarkson’s courage in the face of the hostility he encountered from the slave traders.

Clarkson’s researches, which ultimately included interviewing thousands of seamen, led him to realise that the best way to persuade Parliament to act was by reference to the deprivations faced by the British seamen who crewed the slaver vessels, and whose conditions were often little better than those of the slaves. They were often “crimped” (i.e. press-ganged) into signing on; they were frequently flogged in the hope that they would desert and not need to be paid; they were considered less valuable than the slave “cargo”, and on some voyages the death toll was higher among the crew than the slaves. Clarkson found concrete evidence of this in the crew records kept by the Society of Merchant Venturers.

There is no doubt that Clarkson’s research was invaluable to Wilberforce’s campaign. After the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, Clarkson continued to work towards the emancipation of all slaves within the British dominions, which was finally achieved in 1833, and subsequently towards international emancipation. The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society is immensely grateful to Messrs Young and Mitchell, and to the Bristol Film and Video Society, for showing us this powerful and enlightening film.

The next meeting of the Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society will be on 11th November, when Ian Mack will address the Society on the subject of employment in the 1830s.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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