After graduating Thomas Clarkson stayed at Cambridge to follow in his father’s footsteps and enter the Anglican Church. He was ordained as a deacon in 1783 but he never proceeded to priest’s orders.
In 1785, Cambridge University’s Vice-Chancellor Peter Peckard organized a Latin essay competition on the topic ‘Anne liceat invitos in servitutem dare’ (Is it lawful to enslave the unconsenting?).
Not quite versed about the topic, Thomas Clarkson began researching and got his hands on Anthony Benezet’s book on the same topic. With more research he came to understand the horrifying realities of slave trade and slavery.
Still not content with his research, he began interviewing people who had any experience of slavery. After including these experiences in his essay, he presented it to the university and won the prize.
While travelling back to London on horse-back he stopped at Wadesmill and experienced a spiritual revelation from God. He believed that someone should put an end to this evil and from this point onwards he dedicated his life to this cause.
In 1786, he translated his essay into a pamphlet in English for a wider audience and named it ‘An essay on the slavery and commerce of the human species, particularly the Africa, translated from a Latin Dissertation’.
The essay gained claim and importance and he soon met other leading campaigners against slave trade including James Ramsay, Granville Sharp and other Nonconformists.
From his new acquaintances he came to know that a movement, initiated by the Quakers, against slavery had been gathering strength for years—in 1783, a group of 300 Quakers had signed the first petition against slave trade and presented it to the Parliament.
In 1787, 12 men, including Thomas Clarkson, founded the Committee for Abolition of the African Slave Trade. Of the 12 members, nine were Quakers and the rest were Anglicans—Clarkson being one of the three. Granville Sharp was elected as the Chairman.
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Clarkson’s main role in the committee was gathering evidence against the trade, but as it was legal and highly-profiting, he faced stern opposition when he tried to educate people about this evil practice.
He found out that Liverpool was a major base of slave trading syndicates and he travelled there to gather evidence and generate awareness. He narrowly escaped with his life when a group of sailors tried to assassinate him.
His next campaign was at a Manchester Church where his speech was so successful that it acted as a catalyst for the city’s anti-slavery campaign. In1787, he published the pamphlet ‘A Summary View of the Slave Trade and of the Probable Consequences of it Abolition’.
His mission led him to the port at Bristol where the landlord of the Seven Stars Pub provided him with all the information he might need. On travelling further, he met two surgeons who had been on many voyages aboard slave ships. They recounted their experiences and this information too was used in the campaign.
In his two years of evidence-gathering he travelled over 35,000 miles on horseback and interviewed around 20,000 sailors. He also took numerous equipments (iron handcuffs, leg-shackles, branding irons, thumbscrews), that were used to capture and torture the slaves, as evidence.
William Wilberforce was an Anglican and an MP who openly spoke against slavery in the parliament using Clarkson’s evidence. William introduced a Bill to abolish the slave trade in 1791 but it wasn’t passed. Their campaign suffered another setback when the war with France erupted.
Thomas Clarkson retired from the campaign in 1794 due to his failing health, but returned with full vigor and optimism in 1804 after the war ended. However, this time his major emphasis lay in lobbying MPs to support the parliamentary campaign.
His efforts finally bore fruit with the passing of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. The Act also called on the British Navy to enforce and uphold this law. With this success he took his campaigning to the rest of Europe.
In 1823, he helped in the establishment of the Society for Mitigation and Gradual Abolishment of Slavery. He travelled for over 10,000 miles and created linkages between the countless newly formed anti-slavery societies.
His efforts didn’t go in vain as the parliament received 777 petitions for total emancipation of the slaves. Owing to the public pressure, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in 1833; it ordered for complete emancipation in the British colonies by 1838.