23rd March 2007
On one of his many investigative visits to Liverpool, then the world's largest slave ship port, Thomas Clarkson stopped at the end of a pier with rage in his heart.
Surveying the dozens of slave ships anchored in the harbour and watching the small boats riding out the heavy gale, his thoughts burned with the sheer inhumanity of life aboard those creaking hulks.
Suddenly, he turned and saw eight or nine burly seamen making towards him. But as he tried to walk away, the gang encircled him, pinning his arms against his sides. Realising their lethal purpose and the watery death that awaited him at their hands, Clarkson struggled to free himself.
"I darted forward," he wrote afterwards. "One of them, against whom I pushed myself, fell down. Their ranks were broken and I escaped, not without blows, amidst their imprecations and abuse."
The year was 1787, and for Clarkson, who was amassing evidence against the slave trade, attempts on his life were not uncommon, especially in the ports. On his many fact-finding trips, he surreptitiously boarded ships, and went into the taverns and custom houses to interview seamen and ships' surgeons about the squalid conditions in which the slaves were held.
His activities made him a hate figure - with his unusual height and red hair making him instantly recognisable - but he continued his work with ferocious zeal.
Quite simply, Thomas Clarkson was one of the greatest men in British history. Which makes it all the more remarkable that today his name, sadly, rings so few bells.
This Sunday's bicentenary of the abolition of the British slave trade has focused on William Wilberforce. Most of the publicity - and the new film Amazing Grace - promotes the myth that Wilberforce was anti-slavery's driving force. But the abolitionists' prime mover, its powerhouse, was Thomas Clarkson.
In his time, Clarkson was a man of colossal reputation. To the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he was 'a moral steam engine' and a 'giant with one idea'. Indeed, he was the only abolitionist to devote his life to the cause of anti-slavery.
Yet thanks to a terrible injustice, his part in the abolition movement was deliberately airbrushed from history to enable Wilberforce to seize the glory.
His achievements are all the more remarkable when you learn that he stumbled on his life's calling almost by chance.
Born in 1760, Clarkson had seemed destined for the Church. But while studying at Cambridge University, he entered a Latin essay competition, the subject of which had to be: Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?
Though it was designed to test his Classics skills, that essay was to change his life. Clarkson had known little about the subject until, during his research, he read a book about slavery by an American Quaker, Anthony Benezet.
"In this precious book, I found almost all I wanted," Clarkson later wrote. And what he found shocked him. "It was one gloomy subject from morning to night. I sometimes never closed my eyelids for grief."
Clarkson's resulting essay was full of passion as well as rationality. It conjured scenes of violence and desolation in Africa, of kidnapped slaves chained hand and foot; of men and women dying in dark, fetid ships' holds, ravaged by dysentery and nausea.
Clarkson had expected the competition to be no more than 'an innocent contest for literary honour', but by the time he had finished, it had become a moral crusade.
Riding back to London from Cambridge, after he had won first prize for his essay, Clarkson dismounted from his horse and sat down by the roadside. If the contents of his writings were true, he reflected, then 'someone should see these calamities to their end'.
That moment was a landmark on the path to the modern conception of universal human rights.
Though the anti-slavery movement had generated little public interest, within a few years Clarkson would turn it into the foremost political issue of the day. He accomplished this through sheer determination, augmented by a genius for organisation, and through daringly imaginative publicity.
Clarkson knew that Parliament would never abolish slavery without massive public pressure, since the trade was as important to the economy then as the oil industry is to Britain today.
The ports of Liverpool, Bristol and London were largely built on slavery. There were huge vested interests in the profits the trade generated, from the enormous personal fortunes built up by the plantation owners, right down to the brothels and boarding houses that served the ships' crews.
So Clarkson planned a national campaign. He translated his essay into English and had it circulated widely. But what he needed was a figurehead, a legislative spokesman who could drive the issue forward in Parliament. To that end, he singled out William Wilberforce, a young MP known for his interest in moral issues.
Clarkson besieged Wilberforce. He left a copy of his essay at his London home and lobbied him vigorously, offering a well-orchestrated plan of action and a nucleus of supporters drawn largely from Quaker circles.
Critically, he knew that Wilberforce's political career would not suffer if he took up the cause, since his home constituency, Hull, had no involvement in the slave trade.
In May 1787, Wilberforce, encouraged by his friend and mentor William Pitt the Younger, capitulated to Clarkson's persistence. It was the start of a friendship that was to endure for almost 50 years.
Wilberforce became a powerful Parliamentary spokesman on antislavery, but it was Clarkson who got him the facts and eyewitness stories that gave substance and urgency to his speeches.
By the end of a five-month tour of the nation's docks, Clarkson had collected the names of more than 20,000 sailors who had served on slave ships and acquired first-hand accounts of the squalor and brutality on board.
He learned that as many British seamen perished on each voyage across the Atlantic as Africans (about 20 per cent) since they succumbed to the same diseases that took hold in the squalid conditions.
Crucially, this enabled him to argue that slavery was not just immoral, it was uneconomic - an argument the Establishment was far more likely to take heed of.
And as he toured the country, Clarkson drew together disparate groups of abolitionist believers to create a national protest movement.
At inns and in private drawing rooms, he described the ghastly day-to-day conditions on the ships. Mixing showmanship with righteous zeal, he demonstrated to his audiences the hideous apparatus of the 'man-merchants' - the traders who profited from inhumanity.
In Liverpool, he had bought manacles, leg-irons, whips, thumbscrews and a speculum orbis, a vice used to wrench open the jaws of slaves who refused to eat. By the end of that first tour, petitions were pouring into Parliament, giving Wilberforce the ammunition he needed. Manchester's petition alone had 11,000 names on it, more than a fifth of the city's population at the time.
Clarkson's conviction never wavered, despite the threats of those who wished to silence him. During a campaign that would last for more than 20 years, he travelled an astonishing 100,000 miles up and down the country, alone and on horseback. As he described it: "I lived in hope that every day's labour would furnish me with that knowledge which would bring this evil nearer to its end."
Alongside his collection of torture instruments, Clarkson also carried a small wooden box filled with beautiful African artefacts to disprove the prevailing theory that black Africans were culturally inferior to white Europeans, and also to prove that trade with Africa was a viable alternative to slavery.
He also distributed widely a cross-section diagram of a slave ship, the Brookes, showing the hideous reality of 482 shackled slaves crammed into the hold. Known as The Print, the diagram was one of the most effective pieces of propaganda ever produced and came to hang in many homes. But Clarkson had other devices, too.
In 1788, Josiah Wedgwood, a Quaker and a member of the Abolition Committee, offered Clarkson and his colleagues a porcelain pendant depicting a slave in chains with the inscription: 'Am I not a man and a brother?'
Recognising the publicity value of this motif, Clarkson encouraged women, who could not vote, to show their solidarity with the cause by wearing brooches and bracelets with the same design. He handed these out at public meetings, drily observing that, for once, fashion was being used to promote justice.
In a similarly radical innovation, he distributed William Fox's pamphlet advocating a boycott - one of the first - of West Indian sugar that had been grown on plantations which used slave labour.
Thanks to Clarkson's combination of dogged determination and visionary daring, Wilberforce's anti-slave trade Bill became an Act of Parliament on March 25, 1807. The vote was carried and a dark chapter in our island story brought to a close.
But Clarkson didn't rest there. Together with Wilberforce, he began a campaign to have slavery banned throughout the Empire - a goal that was finally achieved in 1833.
In August of that year, Wilberforce died of a flu-related illness. And it is at this point that Clarkson's rightful place in history was snatched from him.
Five years after Wilberforce's death, his sons, Robert and Samuel (a bishop, no less), published a five-volume biography of their father, A Life Of William Wilberforce. Clarkson, by then 78 and half blind, read the book with astonishment and dismay.
Robert and Samuel, to whom he had lent letters and books to aid the research for their biography, suggested that far from originating the abolition campaign, Clarkson had been nothing more than a hired hand or paid agent who ran errands for their father.
Wherever possible, the brothers had ignored him; where they could not ignore him, they disparaged him and utterly diminished his role as the principal force in the abolitionist movement. They even refused to include any of the many affectionate and respectful references to Clarkson in their father's correspondence.
What had motivated them to make such an attack? '"I think they were shocked when they were doing their research to discover that their father, whom they idolised, was not, as they had always believed, anti-slavery's prime mover," says Clarkson's biographer, Ellen Gibson Wilson. "They had been very young and had no idea that Wilberforce was simply one important part of a very effective team. This hurt them terribly, so they determined to credit their father far beyond anything he would ever have claimed."
The only consolation for Clarkson was that when the book came out, there was a public outcry that he had not received due recognition. In a conspicuous display of solidarity, he was awarded the Freedom of the City of London. Humbled by the response, Wilberforce's sons eventually apologised in private to Clarkson and admitted that "too jealous a regard for what we thought our father's fame led us into a tone of writing which we now acknowledge was practically unjust".
Magnanimous to the last, Clarkson told them that he harboured no unfriendly feelings towards them, which seems remarkable considering that the apology was never made public, nor did Robert and Samuel correct in later editions the inaccuracies and innuendos that the book contained.
Thirty thousand copies of the Wilberforce book were sold, and it later became an authoritative source for historians.
As a result, the myth prevailed that William Wilberforce had abolished the slave trade almost singlehanded. Clarkson, an outstanding man, had been not just eclipsed but lost to history.
If this month's bicentenary serves any purpose, then, it should be to reinstate Clarkson to his rightful place as one of the greatest of British heroes - an ordinary man who achieved truly extraordinary things.