SECTION A: THE ESSAY THAT CHANGED A YOUNG MAN’S LIFE
1760 Thomas Clarkson was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire on 28th March. His father was the local headmaster. Clarkson was only six when his father died in 1766. Clarkson went to the local grammar school and later Cambridge University (St John’s College). He intended to join the church. Friends describe him as a kind, generous and shy man. Clarkson was over six feet tall and always tended to wear black.
1785 Clarkson entered an essay writing competition at Cambridge University. The subject was: ‘Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their wills?’ The essay was set by Dr Peckard who had been angered by reports of the slave ship Zong.
In 1783 Collingwood, the captain of the Zong had ordered that over 130 sick slaves be thrown overboard. The slave ship had left Africa in early September. By late November over 60 slaves had died and many others were seriously ill. Collingwood knew that when he reached Jamaica he would not be able to sell the sick slaves and that the ship’s owners would lose money. However, Collingwood thought that if they threw the sick slaves overboard the owners would be able to claim money back from the insurance company. Those slaves that put up a fight were chained before they were thrown overboard.
Granville Sharp tried to prosecute the ship’s captain for murder but failed. The owners claimed insurance money for the ‘lost’ slaves, trying to pretend that the ship had run out of water so some of the slaves had to be killed in order to save the crew and the ‘more healthy’ slaves. When the Zong finally arrived in Jamaica on 22 December it still had over 400 gallons of water left.
Clarkson, like many people in Britain at the time knew very little about the horrors of the slave trade. He spent the next two months reading up on the subject of slavery. As he read his feelings started to change. It was
“It was but one gloomy subject from morning to night. In the daytime I was uneasy. In the night I had little rest. I sometimes never closed my eye-lids for grief.”
His research made him realise how evil the slave trade was. He was shocked and deeply affected by what he discovered about the methods of the slavers in capturing or purchasing slaves in Africa and the conditions and treatment of the slaves on the voyage to the British West Indian Colonies.
Slave ships from Britain left ports like London, Liverpool and Bristol for West Africa carrying goods. These products were exchanged for captured Africans in a series of time-consuming negotiations with African slave traders at various points along the coast. This process could take many months. With profit in mind, the captain was always anxious to ensure that only the fittest Africans were boarded, which involved the painful separation of friends and families shown in the image above.
After completing his essay Clarkson left Cambridge for London. However, he soon learnt that his essay had won first prize and in the summer of 1785 he was invited back to the university to read it in the Senate House. On his way back to London he could not get the subject of slavery out of his thoughts. Clarkson became increasingly dismayed and angry at the thought that slavery would continue. As he reached Wadesmill in Hertfordshire, Clarkson stopped, sat down and reflected on his life,
I sat down disconsolate on the turf by the roadside and held my horse … if the contents of the essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to the end.
It was here at Wadesmill that Clarkson decided to devote his life to abolishing the slave trade.