By ISABEL WOLFF Daily Mail 3/22/07

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.

Full article: Daily Mail