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Part 5: Papers of Thomas Clarkson from the British Library, London

Publisher's Note

“He was the true annihilator of the slave trade.” T N Talfourd

Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) was one of the world’s first human rights activists, playing a major role in the struggle for the abolition of slavery. While Granville Sharp (1735-1813) became the movement’s great legal advocate and William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was its greatest parliamentary exponent, Clarkson was an indefatigable campaign organiser. At one stage, when he was trying to persuade the French government to outlaw slavery, he wrote a 16-20 page letter to Lafayette every other day for a month to persuade him of the need for action. In 1787 the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed and Clarkson became one of its prime movers. He spoke to audiences all over Britain, he coerced and cajoled decision makers, and he dispensed advice to all who approached him. Tens of thousands of books and pamphlets were issued by the committee and hundreds of petitions were submitted to Parliament. Clarkson helped to garner the support of figures such as Wordsworth and Wedgwood, who produced anti-slavery souvenirs for the cause. Clarkson similarly dominated the Anti-Slavery Society, established in 1823, and presided over the first meeting of the Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840. As his DNB entry notes “it is almost impossible to overrate the effect of his unceasing perseverance in the cause”.

Clarkson’s life was transformed by a prize essay that he wrote at Cambridge in 1785. This was published by the Quaker, James Phillips, in 1786, and became a celebrated text “on the slavery and commerce of the human species, particularly the African”. Instead of following his original intention of becoming a deacon, Clarkson dedicated his life to exposing the diabolical nature of the trade, factually documenting the suffering that it caused, and fighting for its abolition. His work was largely fulfilled with the passing of the Emancipation Bill in 1833, by which stage he was in poor health and had cataracts in both eyes. However, he continued to fight for abolition throughout the world and had many long exchanges with William Lloyd Garrison and others.

The British Library holds a number of manuscripts crucial to understanding the abolition crusade and Clarkson’s central role in this. For instance:

Add Mss 21254-21256

Fair Minute Books of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 22 May 1787 - 9 July 1819;

Add Ms 12432

Report of the Committee of the Assembly of Jamaica on the Slave Trade, 1792;

Add Ms 12131

Papers relating to Sierra Leone, 1792-1798;

Add Mss 36997 and 41186

etters between the Clarksons and the Wordsworths, 1803-1838;

Add Mss 41262-41267

Correspondence and Papers of Thomas Clarkson, 1785-1853.

The latter series of papers features correspondence with Granville Sharp and William Wilberforce; medical cases concerning slaves; records of the movement of slaves from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone; exchanges with the Imam of Muscat, the Governor of Zanzibar and the King of Madagascar; material on Haiti including letters between Henry Christophe, King of Haiti, his son, Jacques Victor Henry, the Prince Royal, and Clarkson; papers on negro labour in Jamaica; material concerning the Jamaican estates of Matthew Gregory “Monk” Lewis; and correspondence and papers relating to the Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840.



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