Abolishing slavery and an obelisk

BLACK LIVES MATTERED MUCH to young Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), who was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire. One day when he was walking with his horse from Cambridge to London, he stopped on a slope that was above and in sight of the Feathers Inn at Wadesmill (Hertfordshire) next to a bridge crossing the River Rib on a stretch of the old Roman road known as Ermine Street.

A student at St Johns College in Cambridge, he had just won a prize for his essay (in Latin) that addressed the subject “Is it right to make slaves of others against their will?” Soon after writing his piece, he published an English translation of it. Clarkson, who had done much research into slavery past and in his time, was thoroughly disapproving of the slave trade. The concluding paragraph of his long and well-reasoned essay, rich in factual material, summarises the young man’s objection to slavery:

“For if liberty is only an adventitious right; if men are by no means superiour to brutes; if every social duty is a curse; if cruelty is highly to be esteemed; if murder is strictly honourable, and Christianity is a lye; then it is evident, that the African slavery may be pursued, without either the remorse of conscience, or the imputation of a crime. But if the contrary of this is true, which reason must immediately evince, it is evident that no custom established among men was ever more impious; since it is contrary to reason, justice, nature, the principles of law and government, the whole doctrine, in short, of natural religion, and the revealed voice of God.”

With the Feathers inn ahead of him, he had a revelation. In his own words:

“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. Agitated in this manner I reached home. This was in the summer of 1785”

That revelation, like a Dick Whittington moment or the apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head, set Thomas on his life’s mission to abolish slavery. His essay inspired the formation of a small group of Quakers, whose aim was to lobby the British Parliament to campaign against slavery. Soon, this led to the formation of a non-denominational ‘Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ (in 1787).  Clarkson was a member of this committee. It was he who encouraged the young (and now well-known) William Wilberforce (1759-1833), a Member of Parliament, to join the group.

Although it was Wilberforce who introduced the first Bill to abolish the slave trade in 1791, it was Clarkson, who worked tirelessly to persuade the British public of the desirability to bring an end to the trade in human cargoes. Clarkson travelled about 35,000 miles throughout Britain, amassing information about the slave trade and persuading people of its evil nature. He collected evidence of the cruelties and injustices of slavery from 20,000 sailors who had worked or were working on slave carrying ships. He wrote several pamphlets about the slave trade and its impropriety and assembled visual aids with which he could dramatically purvey its horrors and cruelties to the British public, whom he encountered during his extensive travels.

When, finally in 1807, the Act for Abolition of the Slave Trade was passed by the British Parliament, the poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) wrote a sonnet in honour of Clarkson’s immense efforts to defeat the slave trade. Called “To Thomas Clarkson On the final passing of the Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, March, 1807.”, it goes like this:

“Clarkson! it was an obstinate Hill to climb:

How toilsome, nay how dire it was, by Thee

Is known,—by none, perhaps, so feelingly;

But Thou, who, starting in thy fervent prime,

Didst first lead forth this pilgrimage sublime,

Hast heard the constant Voice its charge repeat,

Which, out of thy young heart’s oracular seat,

First roused thee.—O true yoke-fellow of Time

With unabating effort, see, the palm

Is won, and by all Nations shall be worn!

The bloody Writing is for ever torn,

And Thou henceforth shalt have a good Man’s calm,

A great Man’s happiness; thy zeal shall find

Repose at length, firm Friend of human kind!”

It was descending the hill to Wadesmill that set Clarkson, the real initiator of the abolition of the slave trade, that set him to “… climb that obstinate Hill…” And his halt near Wademill, in sight of the Feathers inn has not been forgotten. An obelisk by the roadside commemorates Clarkson’s ‘light bulb moment’. The base of the obelisk bears the words:

“On the spot where stands this monument in the month of June 1775 Thomas Clarkson resolved to devote his life to bringing about the abolition of the slave trade.”

The monument was erected in 1879 for a chess playing barrister, Arthur Giles Puller (1833-1885) of Youngsbury, which is close to Wadesmill. According to a web page , http://abolition.e2bn.org/source_27.html:

“In 1833, Basil Montague asked Thomas Clarkson to show a party of abolitionists, the exact spot where he decided to dedicate his life to ending slavery. A young Charles Merivale went with them. Years later he became Dean of Ely and told his story to Arthur Giles Puller, of Youngsbury, who offered to help him fulfil his promise to mark the spot. Charles Merivale unveiled the monument on 8th October, 1879.”

Charles Merivale (1808-1893), apart from becoming the Dean of Ely, was one of the founders of the annual Oxford and Cambridge boat race, which was first held in 1829. Destined for a career in India (which he decided against), he studied both at Haileybury College and St Johns College Cambridge, where Clarkson had also studied.

Clarkson’s monument was restored by members of the US Airforce in the 1950s. in June 1972, it was moved 9 yards up the road to allow some road widening. Finally, in November 2007, a very thorough restoration and repair of the monument was completed. Now in 2020, part of the base looks as if it could benefit from some more repair work.

The monument, unlike many of those that commemorate slave-owners, is a modest memorial to a man whose efforts and achievements have been overshadowed by those of his fellow abolitionist, William Wilberforce. I am very grateful to our dear friends who live in Hatfield (Hertfordshire) for showing me this monument after we had enjoyed a large lunch at the Feathers Inn that Clarkson was able to see when he resolved to bring the slave trade to an end.

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