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Committee for effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade

The horror of the middle passage is what motivated the abolitionists, to relieve African slaves of their suffering, and an infamous event in November 1781 gave their cause an added impetus. The slave ship Zong, sailing from Liverpool to Jamaica via Africa, arrived in the West Indies. The ship carried about 470 slaves, as many as could be crammed aboard, causing sickness and the deaths of seven crew and sixty Africans. Captain Luke Collingwood ordered the remaining sick slaves, 133 in all, thrown overboard and left to drown (one survived).

When the Zong arrived back in England its owners claimed for the value of the slaves from their insurers. They argued that the sick Africans posed a threat to the remaining cargo and crew, alleging that the ship’s water supply was dangerously low and would be wasted on them. In 1783 the owners won their case, although it was later revealed that the Zong was carrying 420 gallons of water at the time of the massacre. Nobody was prosecuted for murder.

The Zong incident broadcast the awfulness of the slave trade to some who might not otherwise have shown concern. In 1785, the vice-chancellor of Cambridge set as the subject title for that year's Latin essay, the slave trade. Twenty-four-year old divinity student Thomas Clarkson, never before much interested in the plight of African slaves, won with an essay titled Anne liceat Invitos in Servitutem dare? (Is it right to make slaves of others against their own will?), that aspired to be "useful to injured Africa" and gained the resounding approval of the university dons. Thinking no more on the subject, Clarkson was later riding towards Wades Mill in Hertfordshire when:

I sat down disconsolate on the turf by the roadside... Here a thought came to my mind, that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to the end.

Clarkson describes solitary walks he took where he might calm his mind. But a question nagged: if the horrors of the slave trade were true, "Then surely some person should interfere?"

Clarkson resolved that it was indeed he that should interfere. In 1786 he arranged with Quaker friends to have his Essay published to a wider audience as An Essay of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African. Later, Clarkson was introduced to members of an informal anti-slavery movement, including the well-known keen abolitionist, academic and advocate of political and social reform Granville Sharp, about whose activities he confessed to having no knowledge.

With Clarkson involved, the movement lobbied Members of Parliament thought to be sympathetic to the cause. One such member was the MP for Hull, William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was recently acquainted with Thomas Newton, who as a young midshipman in 1744 deserted his ship HMS Harwich in Plymouth before being caught and thrown in the town’s guardhouse. Progressing to slave trading and latterly the Anglican clergy, Newton, through his own experience knew the trade to be" so iniquitous, so cruel, so oppressive, so destructive". Newton convinced Wilberforce of the righteousness of Evangelism and of the evilness of slavery. From 1785, Wilberforce joined the abolitionist’s crusade.

On 22 May 1787 the Committee for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formally instituted with twelve members, including Clarkson and nine Quakers. The task of the committee was to provide evidence of the vileness of the slave trade that Wilberforce could represent in Parliament, and to that end Clarkson travelled throughout England, covering 35,000 miles during the next seven years. Whilst in Plymouth he laid the foundation for the Plymouth Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade under the chairmanship of Sir William Ellford, the members of which included the Quakers William Cookworthy, John Prideaux and James Fox, and George Leach, Samuel Northcote and John Saunders.

Clarkson was sent one vital piece of evidence from Plymouth, a leaflet published by the Plymouth Committee that was to have a huge impact upon those who saw it. The leaflet showed interior deck plans of the Liverpool slave ship Brookes with 454 Africans crammed on board, prone and without privacy and space. The Brookes had at other times carried as many as 609 Africans. In his history of the abolition movement, Clarkson wrote:

...this print seemed to make an instantaneous impression of horror upon all who saw it, was therefore very instrumental, in consequence of the wide circulation given it, in serving the cause of the injured Africans.

Clarkson was so thorough in his investigation that when, in 1790, tracking down one unnamed seaman who served on an unknown vessel and had apparently witnessed atrocities in Africa, he visited ports all over the south coast, searched 317 ships and interviewed 3,000 seamen. Clarkson found his man, Isaac Parker, in Plymouth, aboard the frigate Melampus, the fifty-seventh vessel he searched in that port. Parker, who had previously sailed from Plymouth with Captain Cook, was of 'respectable' and 'exemplary' character, and he provided evidence of slave poaching off the African coast between the Calabar and Bonny rivers.

Thomas Clarkson returned to Plymouth in 1792 in the company of John Frederick, the twenty-nine-year old son of Naimbana, the King of the Temne people of Robana in Sierra Leona. Frederick, known as the 'Black Prince', was in England being educated, and was given a tour of Plymouth's dockyards by Clarkson. At the time, the Sierra Leona Company, of which Clarkson was a member, was negotiating with the Naimbana for the resettlement of Freetown in Sierra Leone with black former soldiers who fought in the American War of Independence and freed American slaves. John Clarkson, Thomas’ younger brother, delivered 1,100 such passengers from Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1792.

Learn more about slavery and abolition and the Plymouth connection:

John Hawkins

Slave Trade Triangle




Slavery and abolition web links

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