Famous People from the Isle of Ely

Thomas Clarkson - 1760–1846

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Thomas Clarkson was born on 28 March 1760 in Wisbech. He was educated at St John’s College, Cambridge, receiving his B.A in 1783. In 1784 and 1785, he won the members' prizes for Latin essays at Cambridge, and his winning essay of 1785 was published the following year as An essay on the slavery and commerce of the human species, particularly the African (J. Phillips: London, 1786). His research for this essay changed his life, and, having been ordained deacon, he never sought to be ordained a priest, but instead dedicated his life to the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery itself. Working with a small group of other abolitionists, his greatest allies were Quakers whose writings and pioneer abolition efforts had inspired him, fearless and singleminded, he travelled all over the country, to all major seaports, especially Bristol and Liverpool, seeking first-hand evidence of the facts and horrors of the slave trade. In the course of locating a publisher for this essay, Clarkson formed working relationships with several of the most important emerging figures of the anti-slavery movements in Britain, including James Phillips, Granville Sharp, and William Dillwyn.

His writings included an essay by entitled: Account of efforts, 1807-24, to abolish slavery ; African Prince ; and paper ... to interfere for better treatment of Negroes in the West Indies. In addition he wrote letters and other documents. In one letter he wrote on the formation of a New Settlement at Sierra Leone, dated 13 October 1788 and in another report he wrote on "Sierra Leone, and its future Prospects ...". He corresponded with, among others, the Comte de Mirabeau, Lord Castlereagh, the Emperor of Russia, J G Whittier, John Cartwright, James Ramsay and John Jay, and wrote "A Letter to the clergy and Slave holders in the northern parts of the United States of America" which was in addition to his 13 page manuscript "To the Planters, Slave holders of the Southern Parts of the United States of America".

Among his close friends were the Romantic poets who admired his heroism and utter simplicity. Said Coleridge: ‘He, if ever human being did it, listened exclusively to his conscience, and obeyed its voice’. Together with William Wilberforce, M.P. and Granville Sharp he founded the Quaker-influenced British Anti-Slavery Society in 1787. The voluminous information that he gathered on the slave trade helped to influence Parliament. The continued efforts of the Committee to lobby Parliament and raise the consciousness of the British people to the cruelties of the slave trade resulted, in 1788, in the introduction of legislation before Parliament to curb the harshest forms of treatment, though it was not until 1807 that, with William Wilberforce, he shares the chief credit for the act of 1807 abolishing the British slave trade and of slavery throughout the British dominions in 1833. His best-known books are a history of Parliament’s abolition of the slave trade (1805) and a memoir of William Penn (1813). Clarkson was the first president of the world’s first human rights organization, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, now called Anti-Slavery International. Thomas Clarkson retired to Ipswich, Suffolk, where he died on 26th September, 1846 and was buried quietly as was his wish.

On 26 September 1996, the 150th anniversary of his death, a monument was unveiled to him and seven other abolitionists in Westminster Abbey.

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