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Thomas Clarkson's diary and the 1807 abolition bill

Thomas Clarkson portrait by Henry Room

Along with his fellow Johnian William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson played a crucial and tireless role in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. Clarkson entered St John's College in 1779, and in 1785 won a University essay prize on the topic 'Anne liceat invitos in servitutem dare?’ (Is it right to make slaves of others against their will?). In studying for this essay, Clarkson was appalled by the accounts of slavery he read. What began as an academic exercise became Clarkson's lifelong struggle against the slave trade.

Thomas Clarkson's diary 1787

Clarkson made it his business to collect evidence in support of the cause. Seeking out every possible source of information, he was to ride some 35,000 miles in the next seven years. He pursued his research at great personal risk (an attempt was made to drown him at Liverpool). Here, in his diary of 1787, Clarkson records his arrival in the port city of Bristol, a major hub of the trade. His resolve was initially shaken, but he soon recovered:

I became soon calm and collected, and seemed to gain fresh spirits ... which only confirmed me the more that I must be doubly diligent, active, and persevering in the Cause which I had undertaken. With these resolutions I entered the city, determining that no labour should appear too arduous, & no treatment from the inhabitants, should they to know my errand, be too horrid to deter me.

Abolition of the Slave Trade Bill, 1807

The fruit of Clarkson's and Wilberforce's labours came in the form of this 1807 Act of Parliament abolishing the slave trade in Britain. This is Clarkson's personal copy, which he signed and annotated throughout. In 1808, Clarkson wrote:

Thus ended one of the most glorious contests, after a continuance for twenty years, of any ever carried on in any age or country. A contest, not of brutal violence, but of reason. A contest between those, who felt deeply for the happiness and the honour of their fellow-creatures, and those, who, through vicious custom and the impulse of avarice, had trampled under-foot the sacred rights of their nature, and had even attempted to efface all title to the divine image from their minds.


This Special Collections Spotlight article was contributed on 1 May 2013 by Ryan Cronin, Librarian's Assistant.