Thomas Clarkson

Thomas Clarkson was born in Wisbech in 1760 and was educated at St Johns College, Cambridge.

He received a BA from them in 1783. In 1784 he won the members prize for a Latin essay. His later essay of 1785 for which he won a prize was entitled ‘anne liceat invitas in servititu dare’ or ‘Is it lawful to make men slaves against their will’.

It was his intention to travel to London to get the essay published in English. On his journey he stopped at Wadesmill. This is a small village on the A10 between Hertford and Royston.

Whilst resting at Wadesmill, Clarkson experienced a spiritual experience which he described ‘as a direct revelation from God ordering me to devote my life to abolishing the trade.’ Having written an essay on the traffic in human life he decided that if the contents of his essay were true ‘it was time that some person should see these calamities to their end.’ That person was to be himself.

He continued on his journey to London where he found a publisher in James Phillips, a Quaker who arranged for publication in 1786. Philips was to introduce him to others, sympathetic to the cause of abolishing slavery.

In 1787 the same year that his pamphlet ‘A Summary View of the Slave Trade and of the Probable Consequences of its Abolition’ was published the Committee for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed; having amongst its members leading Quakers such as Wilberforce, John Wesley and Josiah Wedgewood.

Clarkson was given the task of collecting information to support their arguments and his research took him to ports such as Bristol, interviewing thousands of sailors and obtaining evidence of the inhumane instruments used to constrain the human cargo.

The Committee For Abolition had to wait until 1807 for the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act and it was not until 1833 that Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act giving all slaves in the British Empire their freedom.

Memorial stone ion Wadesmill Hill
Memorial stone on Wadesmill Hill

On that spot at Wadesmill a memorial stone to Thomas Clarkson was erected in 1879, surrounded by a small rail for protection. The stone reads: ‘On this spot where stands this monument in the month of June 1785 Thomas Clarkson resolved to devote his life to bringing about the abolition of the slave trade.’

It was to be many years later before American slaves were able to enjoy the same freedoms. John Brown was born in 1800 in Torrington Connecticut and lived as a child in Ohio. He had always hated slavery and was instrumental in helping fugitive slaves to escape to Canada.

Eventually he settled in Osawatomie and worked to keep Kansas from becoming a slave state. In May 1856 Brown led an expedition to Pottawatomie Creek where his men murdered five pro-slavery settlers. Fighting between slavery and anti -slavery factions continued and Brown became known as ‘Old Oswatomie.

Brown after defending the town against pro-slavery men in 1856. In 1859 he led a rebel army on a raid at the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia to encourage slaves to rebel. He captured the arsenal but failed to escape. Colonel Robert E Lee took Brown into custody; he was sent for trial, convicted of treason and hanged on December 2.

On the day of his execution he wrote : ‘I …am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.’

The connection between Clarkson and Brown as anti-slave campaigners might have ended there but for a mysterious event at Wadesmill, a few miles north of Hertford. The commemorative stone had gradually fallen into disrepair when overnight, sometime in 1956 it was noticed that the railings had been repaired and the stone cleaned. A local researcher was told by a villager that the work had been carried out by a group of coloured US Air Force men stationed close by. A letter describing the incident was printed in the Times and some thirteen years later the story resurfaced in the Daily Mail. It was the stuff of modern myth and fitting that the repairs were carried out by descendants of African slaves. The facts however, were more mundane.

The same researcher discovered only a few months after the original letter had been published that the stone monument had in fact been cleaned by a direct descendant of Thomas Clarkson. By then story of the negro cleaners had already entered into newspaper legend and is most probably still being told today, somewhere around the world.

Thomas Clarkson retired to Ipswich where he died on 26 September 1846. A fitting tribute to him was paid by the poet Coleridge: ‘He, if ever human being did it, listened exclusively to his conscience, and obeyed its voice.’

© John Barber – originally published in Hertfordshire Countryside June 2000

Note: The stone memorial was recently restored with the help of a £48000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Thomas Clarkson a distant cousin was on hand for the unveiling on Wednesday November 14 2007.

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