THOMAS CLARKSON: THE UNSUNG HERO
Thomas cantered into Wadesmill. He was tired after the long ride from Cambridge and longing for a good drink of ale. But most of all he needed to think. Ever since he had written his prize-winning essay, ‘Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?’ on abolishing the slave trade, his mind had been buzzing with questions. What can I do about it? Shall I visit the slaves in the Caribbean? What about finding out more about the conditions on the slave ships? Can I find an MP to put the case for abolition in Parliament? So many questions.
He dismounted at The Feathers, tied his horse to the post and went in. ‘Landlord, a pint of your very good ale and some bread and cheese please.’
‘Where have you ridden from today sir?’ asked the landlord.
‘That’s a fine town. I’ve got a niece who lives there. She is servant in one of the professor’s houses. Reckon she likes it fine. They have grand dinners in the house for the professor’s friends. Nelly serves it all from the roast beef to the syllabub and coffee where they often fall to talking about politics and such like. She hears some meaty comments sometimes.’
‘Have you ever thought about where the sugar we put in our coffee comes from, landlord?’ Thomas asked.
‘Out west somewhere, in the tropics where the weather is hot. Not Yorkshire, sir,’ he chuckled.
‘Yes – from the Caribbean islands. But do you realise the workers are slaves to their masters and have no freedom like we enjoy? Is that right, for us to hold them as our slaves so we can have cheap sugar?’
‘Well, I’ve never thought about it,’ answered the landlord as he mopped his brow, ‘but I wouldn’t mind having a slave in my kitchen. I guess it’s just the way things are. I don’t worry about it.’
‘But that’s just it, landlord, I do worry about it and I am going to do something about it!’
As he left the coaching inn, Thomas felt his cheeks burning with indignation and resolution. Maybe nobody cared about the slaves – but he did and he would take on the world to fight for the end of slavery. It would be a hard path persuading all the vested interests who were making a fortune out of this evil trade. He walked up the hill and came to a spot where he sat down on the turf. Holding his horse, Thomas reflected on the evils of slavery and the thought came to him that this had gone on long enough and that someone had to stop these calamities. Then he had the revelation, sent by God, that the someone was him!
Right, I resolve on this spot to dedicate my life to the abolition of the slave trade, he thought. A voice said to him: ‘This is your destiny Thomas, open the gates.’
Excited and inspired, Thomas mounted his horse and patting it on the neck whispered, ‘Let’s go to Ware and call on Joseph Aldridge – he will help.’
A few miles further on, Thomas stopped outside his friend’s house on Ware High Street. Thomas knew it was the old home of Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII. Thomas’s thoughts raced back three hundred years. If it hadn’t been for her, he mused, we would never have had Henry VIII or Elizabeth to rule us. How history depends on small events! Well if all the wrongs against slaves I have described in my essay are facts, then it’s high time something was done about it. I don’t want to depend on a small event to happen to free the slaves. No – I need to take action.
In this frame of mind Thomas greeted Joseph and poured out his passionate belief in the need to change the fate of the slaves. Joseph didn’t need persuading as he had long thought on the same lines. ‘Calm down my friend,’ said Joseph as he put a comforting arm around Thomas’s shoulder.
Joseph poured out a glass of red wine and sat down with his friend. Grasping his hand urgently he said, ‘I have met and talked to some slaves on a slave ship. They are not savages but men, good craftsman who miss their families.’ Joseph went to a cupboard and produced a beautiful carved object. ‘Wonderful work,’ marvelled Thomas. ‘You give me an idea to demonstrate to others their humanity and call them to our cause.’
Two years later in London, Thomas delivered his essay to the MP for Hull, William Wilberforce. Wilberforce wrote to him:
I congratulate you on your ideas and passion. We must join forces to campaign on this, the biggest issue of our time. If you could gather more evidence about how the slaves are treated I will make an impassioned plea in Parliament. Can you meet me tomorrow at the Cheshire Cheese?
The two men formed an alliance with a toast of claret. Thomas was to do the research and William to use his oratorical gifts to convince people of influence and get a bill passed in Parliament.
The result of their pact was a brilliant speech in Parliament in 1789. Clarkson supplied the information on the terrible conditions on the ship Brookes, which he had visited in his incredible journeys of hundreds of miles in search of the truth.
When surgeons tell you the slaves are stowed so close, that there is not room to tread among them; and when you have it in evidence from Sir George Yonge, that even in a ship which wanted 200 of her complement, the stench was intolerable, he wrote.
But Parliament resisted and the Bill failed by 163 votes to 88.
Clarkson became more of a threat to the slave merchants and on a visit to Liverpool, a headquarters of the slave trade, he was set upon by a group of sailors who tried to throw him in the water at the docks. Clarkson was no physical fighter but he outwitted his attackers and managed to escape. Mopping his brow afterwards over a reviving glass of ale he thought, ‘do I give up? Is this too dangerous?’
He resolved to continue and not be scared out of his mission. Instead he became energised and gathered more evidence of the cruelties and monstrousness of the slave trade. He started a boycott of West Indian sugar, created a box of African artefacts to demonstrate the humanity of the slaves, travelled to Paris to persuade the Revolutionary government and to Tsar Alexander of Russia. He had some success with the Tsar but met more abuse in France and returned to England disappointed.
Then came another blow when the sons of William Wilberforce held a public event praising their father and not even mentioning Thomas Clarkson’s vital contribution. So disappointment was followed by sadness that his thousands of miles of travelling and gathering the essential information that Wilberforce needed was not acknowledged.
The British slave trade was outlawed by Parliament in 1807 but the ownership of slaves continued. It took several more attempts and was not until July 1833 that Parliament finally banned slavery in all British Colonies. With Wilberforce ill, in the end it was Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton (whose family went on to buy Easneye mansion near Ware) who pushed through the Slavery Abolition Act. Slave merchants were paid huge compensation and the former slaves were forced to work as apprentices for six years. Only then was any chance of real freedom theirs.
Thomas Clarkson died in 1846, exhausted by his thousands of miles of travelling and staying up until 3am writing his research for Wilberforce to use. Shortly before the abolition, Thomas was prevailed upon by other abolitionists to return to Hertfordshire and point out the exact spot at Wadesmill where he had had his revelation and dedicated himself to the abolitionist cause.
You can visit this spot today and see the monument erected to Thomas Clarkson – and have a drink afterwards in The Feathers pub where Clarkson may have encountered a sceptical landlord in 1785.