Many people will have heard of William Wilberforce, the great English evangelical parliamentarian who laboured for decades to bring Britain’s involvement in the slave trade to an end. Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) is not so well known but, although an Anglican clergyman, he travelled the countryside to collect the data that Wilberforce used in his speeches, which could go for three or four hours. The son of a clergyman father, who was 25 years older than his mother, Thomas Clarkson was a six-foot tall, red-headed Englishman, who interviewed sailors, and debated those who were in favour of the slave trade. He even memorised 145 questions so that he did not need to look up any references during conversations.

In the slave port of Liverpool, especially, he risked life and limb as he was set upon by thugs. In 1786 he published An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, particularly the African. It sold very well. Soon after he wrote An Essay on the Impolicy of the African Slave Trade. The Brookes diagram of April 1789 became a much-used weapon in the battle, as it showed how many slaves were crammed into slave ships. Clarkson was more politically radical than Wilberforce, and supported what is now called boycotting, of West Indian sugar. He grew close to the Quakers, and for a time favoured the French Revolution. He was naturally blunt and straightforward, and yet fearful at times. 

Clarkson came to know the Romantic poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and also William and Mary Wordsworth. It was Coleridge who said that Clarkson was ‘like a giant with one idea’, while Wordsworth who penned a sonnet about him as the ‘firm friend of mankind’. Indeed he was, and this is a story worth knowing about. It is aimed at teenagers.

                                                                                    – Peter Barnes