If anyone was to be remembered for leading the campaign to abolish the slave trade it would have to be the parliamentarian William Wilberforce. Yet in their day the names Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce were inseparable in the public mind. Clarkson and Wilberforce were dissimilar in most aspects and perhaps that is why they formed such an inspired partnership.
Although not a Quaker himself Clarkson's greatest allies were Quakers whose writings and pioneer abolition efforts had inspired him. He respected Quakers and their beliefs, unlike Wilberforce who once said to William Allen, Quaker philanthropist and fellow abolitionist, that he wished " your religious principles and my own were more entirely accordant". To which another Quaker after hearing the remark, said that after all the Quakers had done Wilberforce and his colleagues should be convinced "that we are, as we are willing to admit they may be, real genuine Christians".
It is conceivable that another parliamentarian could have been found to carry out the work of Wilberforce. But the idea that someone else could have replaced Clarkson is unimaginable. He dedicated his whole life to relieving the suffering of slaves and indeed almost lost his life at the hands of the slave traders when he visited Liverpool at the start of the campaign in 1787.
Thomas Clarkson was born, son of a headmaster, in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, on 28 March 1760. At nineteen he was admitted to St. John's college at Cambridge, also attended by his future acquaintances William Wilberforce and the poet William Wordsworth, although he did not meet either at the college. While reading towards his master of arts degree Thomas took the fateful step of entering the competition for senior bachelors on a question set by the vice-chancellor Dr Peter Peckard: Anne liceat invitos in servitutem dare? 'Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?'
When Clarkson took up the fight against slavery Dr Peckard was one of the first persons he drew into the movement. Dr Peckard had been inflamed by reports in 1783 of the slave ship Zong whose captain, in a scheme to collect insurance for what seemed the inevitable loss of a sickly cargo of slaves, had 132 of them thrown overboard alive. Granville Sharp, the eccentric genius whose solitary legal battles to prevent West Indian owners from taking their slaves out of England by force, had, since 1772, effectively made slaveholding illegal in England, lost his attempt to have the captain prosecuted for murder.
In researching for the competition Clarkson became obsessed with the subject of slavery: '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. It became now not so much a trial for academical reputation, as for the production of a work, which might be useful to injured Africa.' On completion of his work, he left Cambridge for London and in June 1785 he was summoned back as the winner of first place to read his essay to generous applause in the Senate House.
As he rode back to London he was still agitated by the subject. He would dismount and walk a while, then climb back into the saddle. Above Wadesmill in Hertfordshire, '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. Agitated in this manner I reached home.' He did not fully recognise himself as that person for nearly a year, but from that point on he devoted his life to the cause.
After its launch in 1787, Thomas Clarkson became the backbone of the abolition campaign. Fearless and singleminded, he travelled thousands of lonely miles on horseback to rouse the country, organised local committees and wrote tirelessly. He had always been a sympathiser for the French Revolution's fight for 'freedom and equality', so with the outbreak of the war with France in 1793, Clarkson's popularity waned and the campaign was overshadowed. A year later, suffering from exhaustion and ill health, he took temporary retirement from the cause at the farm of his Quaker friend Thomas Wilkinson in Penrith.
He fell in love with the Lake District at first sight and when he spoke of abandoning further ambitions once the slave trade was abolished, and withdrawing into obscurity, he meant to Ullswater. While Clarkson was there, Wilberforce wrote to their mutual friend William Smith that 'To live in such a Country seems almost like a continual Turtle feast.' In 1796 he married Catherine Buck and, for the next eight years, they lived a simple life in the cottage they named Eusemere Hill.
During his time in the Lakes he became great friends with the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge. Clarkson was the first to link Wordsworth's poetry with the Quakerism, which was his chief study in the Eusemere Hill years. He wrote his Portraiture of Quakerism, which was the first book to explain the principles and peculiarities of the Society to the world at large. He had a strong Anglican upbringing and believed that the abolition movement began with the earliest teachers of Christianity. The impulse that 'forced [me] into the great work', he was convinced, came from God. Coleridge said of him 'He, if ever human being did it, listened exclusively to his conscience, and obeyed its voice'.
In 1804 he came out of retirement to work again towards the abolition of the slave trade, which finally took place in the early hours of 24 February 1807. The vote was a resounding 283 in favour to 16 against, probably [Clarkson thought] the biggest majority recorded on any issue where the House divided. Clarkson lived on to see also the emancipation of slaves in 1833 before his death, at the venerable age of 86, in 1846.