By Jonathon Van Maren, October 7, 2016
There are moments in the lives of men and women that, in retrospect, shift the course of human history in ways too enormous and too wonderful to even imagine at the time. In those moments, often against their will, their hearts are set ablaze for something much bigger than themselves. One of those moments was in the year 1785, when a twenty-five-year old aspiring English clergyman named Thomas Clarkson decided to enter an essay competition. He chose the topic of the slave trade—not, as he said, because he had strong feelings on the matter, but for the purpose of “obtaining literary honour.”
It was what Clarkson discovered that horrified him. His eyes ran across descriptions of filthy slave ships with bellies full of suffering humanity and belching the stench of death. He read of slaves being tortured and then burned like used farm equipment. The sheer scale of the tragedy he had uncovered hiding in plain sight gripped him. “In the daytime I was uneasy,” he wrote. “I had little rest. I sometimes never closed my eyelids for grief…I always slept with a candle in my room, that I might rise out of bed and put down such thoughts as might occur to me in the night…conceiving that no arguments of any moment should be lost in so great a cause.”
The essay, which became the stuff of his nightmares, won first prize. The literary honor he had sought was his—but the victory was empty. Already a deacon in the Anglican church, he headed off to London to begin a promising career in the Church of England. It was on the road to London that everything changed. As historian Adam Hochschild writes in Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves:
Over six feet tall, Clarkson had thick red hair and large, intense blue eyes that looked whomever he spoke to directly in the face. Riding to the capital in the black garb of a clergyman-to-be, he found himself, to his surprise, thinking neither of his prospects in the church nor of the pleasure of winning the prize. It was slavery itself that “wholly engrossed my thoughts. I became at times very seriously affected while upon the road. I stopped my horse occasionally, dismounted, and walked. I frequently tried to persuade myself in these intervals that the contents of my Essay could not be true. The more however I reflected on them, or rather upon the authorities on which they were founded, the more I gave them credit.” These feelings grew more intense at the midpoint of his journey, as he was riding down a long hill towards a coach station where the road crossed the River Rib. “Coming in sight of Wades Mill in Hertfordshire, I sat down disconsolate on the turf by the roadside and held my horse. Here a thought came into my mind, that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end.” If there is a single moment at which the antislavery movement became inevitable, it was the day in June 1785 when Thomas Clarkson sat down by the side of the road at Wades Mill.
That thought stands out starkly, defining a man of moral clarity: “If the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end.” Clarkson could not unsee what he had seen, and he could not forget what he had learned. The weight of this knowledge pressed down on his conscience, demanding a response. He did not know what that response could be, he only knew that one was demanded of him. Hochschild recalls Clarkson’s turmoil:
long months of doubt followed his roadside moment of revelation. Could a lone, inexperienced young man have “that solid judgement…to qualify him to undertake a task of such magnitude and importance; –and with whom was I to unite?” But each time he doubted, the result was the same: “I walked frequently into the woods, that I might think on the subject in solitude, and find relief in my mind there. But there the question still recurred, ‘Are these things true?’—Still the answer followed as instantaneously ‘They are.’—Still the result accompanied it, ‘Then surely some person should interfere.’”
It was one question, asked and answered over and over again, that eventually drove Thomas Clarkson to devote his life to freeing the slaves: Are these things true? If they were—and he knew they were—Then surely some person should interfere. That person would be Clarkson himself.
Thomas Clarkson is one of those great men who becomes a victim of his own success: he and his fellow activists at the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade did such an effective job at transforming the British Empire into a Commonwealth that despised slavery that many forgot Clarkson had even existed, so distant was the memory of an England where men stood up in Parliament and defended the barbarisms of West Indies plantation owners and ships loaded with murder and mayhem. Clarkson’s colleague William Wilberforce is somewhat better remembered, but he, too, is not given the credit he deserves for functioning as the conscience of the British Empire for tireless decades.
Wilberforce was the politician, and Clarkson was the agitator. His journeys in search of new evidence to bring before the eyes of the British people and Parliament were breathtaking in their enormity and tenacity. He travelled more than 35,000 miles on horseback through England, Scotland, and Wales, tracking down witnesses and spreading the word of the slave trade’s horrors, using handcuffs, shackles, and thumbscrews he had obtained to highlight the brutality taking place in the realms of the King. He was consumed by his desire to bring the slave trade to an end. “I seldom got home till two,” he wrote, “and into bed till three. My clothes, also, were frequently wet through with the rains. The cruel accounts I was daily in the habit of hearing…often broke my sleep in the night, and occasioned me to awake in an agitated state.”
One can almost imagine Clarkson during these dark, rain-swept nights, riding on horseback down deserted roads, the shackles of slaves clanking in his saddlebags and water running in rivulets from his fiery red hair down his face. Through these days and weeks of ceaseless toil and often disappointment, the question probably sprang to his mind time and again, driving him forward: Are these things true?
They were. And the perpetrators faced an absolutely formidable foe in Clarkson, a foe who fought them relentlessly, until the slave trade collapsed in 1807 under the weight of the damning evidence Clarkson had compiled. In 1833, slavery itself was banished in the British Empire. The movement that saw the wretched trade’s demise began when a twenty-five-year old man read of the horrors, and asked himself one question, over and over: Are these things true? That movement truly began when Thomas Clarkson realized that answering yes to that question gave him a unique responsibility. His answer made him one of history’s truly unique heroes.
That’s why when I found a three-page letter in tiny, scrawled handwriting at a rare Bibles dealer a few months ago, I was thrilled to purchase it. The letter was handwritten by Thomas Clarkson in 1841 five years before his death, to an abolitionist and suffragette, Elizabeth Pease. It was sealed in black wax, with the initials TC stamped into it. In the letter, Clarkson relates to Pease his recent meeting with two black abolitionists, Charles Remond and John Collins, in which they discussed the American anti-slavery movement and Clarkson wrote with some concern about William Lloyd Garrison’s radical approaches to Christianity. “Were the Sabbath and a Ministry to be abolished,” Clarkson wrote to Pease, “in less than a Century Men would forget that there was a God & Religious Principle would be done away, and we should fall into Heathenism far worse than the ancients, because from the great external knowledge we possess, we should be capable of doing greater Mischief. Were America to adopt these…Fancies as a Nation, she would be totally without any moral Principle, and civilized Europe would have no commercial Dealings with her because it could not trust to her Word.”
There are prophetic echoes in the 175-year-old words written by a man who was by then the elder statesman of the global abolitionist movement. I photographed the letter and sent the pictures to Dr. John Oldfield, the Director of the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull (Hull being Wilberforce’s boyhood home.) He responded to me several days later, after completing the transcription: “This is an interesting letter, not least because of [Clarkson’s] assessment of Garrison. I haven’t seen anything quite like this before…I was also intrigued by [Clarkson’s] own self-awareness as the leader of the anti-slavery cause. “
Heroes like Thomas Clarkson need to be remembered, because examples like Clarkson’s need to be followed. He dedicated his life to the pursuit of a cause that was extraordinarily unpopular at the time—at one point he was nearly flung off a Liverpool dock by slave traders intent on drowning him. But he pushed on, because he knew that the horrors he had discovered were truly happening, and that “surely some person should interfere.” Five years after penning the letter that lies on my desk next to me, Thomas Clarkson passed away on September 2, 1846. His work battling the slave trade can be summed up best, perhaps, in Clarkson’s own words: “It has furnished us also with important lessons. It has proved what a creature man is! how devoted he is to his own interest! to what a length of atrocity he can go, unless fortified by religious principle! But as if this part of the prospect would be too afflicting, it has proved to us, on the other hand, what a glorious instrument he may become in the hands of his Maker; and that a little virtue, when properly leavened, is made capable of counteracting the effects of a mass of vice!”
If everyone who lays his or her eyes on an injustice and asks, “Is it true?” and answers the affirmative with the question, “then surely some person should interfere!” will, as Clarkson did, make the world around them a better place—but only if, as Clarkson did, they realize that the person they are thinking of must be themselves. So look around, and ask yourselves a dangerous question: What is true?