A Student’s Essay That Changed the World

Published on 31st May 2005

As a former university professor, I read thousands of student-authored essays through the years — sometimes joyously, but probably just as often, painfully.  Occasionally, the process of researching and writing exerted significant influence over a student’s future interests, thinking and perhaps even behavior.  But of all the student essays ever written anywhere, I doubt that any had as profound an effect on its author and the world as one that was penned 220 years ago at Cambridge.


Throughout Britain, the annual Latin essay contest at Cambridge was known and the honor of winning it coveted.  The topic for the 1785 competition was prompted by a horrific human tragedy a few years before: Near the end of a long voyage from Britain to Africa to the West Indies, the captain of the British slave ship “Zong” had ordered his crew to throw 133 chained black Africans overboard to their deaths.  He reckoned that by falsely claiming the ship had run out of fresh water, he could collect more for the “cargo” from the ship’s insurer than he could fetch at a slave auction in Jamaica. 


No one in the Zong affair was prosecuted for murder.  A London court ruled the matter a mere civil dispute between an insurance firm and a client.  As for the Africans, the judge declared their drowning was “just as if horses were killed,” which, as horrendous as that sounds today, was not a view far removed from the conventional wisdom that prevailed worldwide in 1785.  Slavery, after all, was an ancient institution.  Even to this day, the number of people who have walked this earth in bondage far outnumbers those who have enjoyed even a modest measure of liberty.


Moved by the fate of the Zong’s victims and the indifference of the court, the university vice-chancellor in charge of selecting the topic for the 1785 contest at Cambridge chose this question: “Anne liceat invitos in servitutem dare?” – Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?” 


Enter a man who, with a handful of compatriots armed only with the printed and spoken word, would clutch the public by the neck and not let go until it consigned slavery to the moral ash heap of history.


Born in Wisbech in 1760, Thomas Clarkson was a 25-year-old Cambridge student who hoped to be a minister when he decided to try his luck in the essay contest.  Slavery was not a topic that had previously interested him, but he plunged into his research with the vigor and meticulous care that, with the passion that his findings later sparked, would come to characterize nearly every day of his next sixty-one years.   Drawing from the vivid testimony of those who had seen the unspeakable cruelty of the slave trade first-hand, Clarkson’s essay won first prize.


What Clarkson had learned wrenched him to his very core.  Shortly after claiming the prize, and while riding horseback along a country road, his conscience gripped him.  Slavery, he later wrote, “wholly engrossed” his thoughts.  He could not complete the ride without making frequent stops to dismount and walk, tortured by the awful visions of the traffic in human lives.  At one point, falling to the ground in anguish, he determined that if what he had written in his essay was indeed true, it could lead to only one conclusion: “it was time some person should see these calamities to their end.”


Adam Hochschild, author of a splendid recent book on the history of the campaign to end slavery in the British empire titled “Bury the Chains,” explains the significance of those few minutes in time:


“If there is a single moment at which the antislavery movement became inevitable, it was the day in 1785 when Thomas Clarkson sat down by the side of the road at Wades Mill . . . . For his Bible-conscious colleagues, it held echoes of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.  For us today, it is a landmark on the long, tortuous path to the modern conception of universal human rights.”  More than two centuries on, that very spot is marked by an obelisk, not far from London.


No man can rightfully lay claim, moral or otherwise, to owning another.  That became Clarkson’s all-consuming focus.  Casting aside his plans for a career as a man of the cloth, he mounted a bully pulpit and risked everything for the single cause of ending the evil of slavery.  At first, he sought out and befriended the one group — the Quakers — who had already gone on record on the issue.  But the Quakers were few in number and were written off by British society as fringe wierdos.  Quaker men even refused to remove their hats for any man, including the king, because they believed it offended an even higher authority.  Clarkson knew that anti-slavery would have to become a mainstream, fashionable, grassroots, educational effort if it had any hope to succeed.


On May 22, 1787, Clarkson’s organizational skills brought together twelve men, including a few of the leading Quakers, at a London print shop to plot the course.  Alexis de Tocqueville would later describe the results of that meeting as “extraordinary” and “absolutely without precedent” in the history of the world.  This tiny group, which named itself the Committee for the Abolition of the African Slave Trade, was about to take on a firmly established institution in which a great deal of money was made and on which considerable political power depended.  The broad public knew little about the details of slavery and what it did know, it had accepted for the most part as perfectly normal since time immemorial. 


“Looking back today,” writes Hochschild, “what is more astonishing than the pervasiveness of slavery in the late 1700s is how swiftly it died.  By the end of the following century, slavery was, at least on paper, outlawed almost everywhere.”  Thomas Clarkson was the prime architect of “the first, pioneering wave of that campaign” (the movement in Britain) which Hochschild properly describes as “one of the most ambitious and brilliantly organized citizens’ movements of all time.”


William Wilberforce is most often given the lion’s share of the credit for ending slavery in the British empire.  He was the long-time Parliamentarian who never gave in to overwhelming odds, introducing bill after bill to abolish first the trade in slaves and later, slavery itself.  Hero he certainly was, but it was Thomas Clarkson who first proposed to Wilberforce that he be the movement’s man in Parliament.  And it was information Clarkson gathered by crisscrossing 35,000 miles of British countryside on horseback that Wilberforce often used in parliamentary debate.  Clarkson was the mobilizer, the energizer, the barnburner, the fact-finder, and the very conscience of the movement.


He translated his prize-winning essay from Latin into English and supervised its distribution by the tens of thousands.  He gave lectures and sermons.  He wrote articles and at least one book.  He helped British seamen escape from the slave-carrying ships they were pressed against their will to serve on.  He filed murder charges in courts to draw attention to the actions of fiendish slave ship captains.  He convinced witnesses to speak.  He gathered testimony, rustled up petition signatures by the thousands, and smuggled evidence from under the very noses of his adversaries.  His life was threatened many times and once, surrounded by an angry mob, he very nearly lost it.  The long hours, the often thankless and seemingly fruitless forays to uncover evidence, the risks and the costs that came in every form, the many low points when it looked like the world was against him — all of that went on and on year after year.  None of it ever made so much as a perceptible dent in Thomas Clarkson’s drive. 


When Britain went to war with France in 1793, Clarkson and his committee saw early progress in winning converts evaporate.  The opposition in Parliament argued that abandoning the slave trade would only hand a lucrative business to a mortal enemy.  And the public saw winning the war as more important than freeing people of another color from another continent.  But Clarkson did not relent.  He, his ally in Parliament Wilberforce, and the committee Clarkson had formed, kept spreading the message and looked for the best opportunities to press it forward.


It was at Clarkson’s instigation that a diagram of a slave ship became a convincing tool in the debate.  Depicting hundreds of slaves crammed like sardines in horrible conditions, it proved to be pivotal in winning the public mind.  Clarkson’s committee enlisted the help of famed pottery maker Josiah Wedgwood in producing a famous medallion with the image of a kneeling black man, chained, uttering the words, “Am I not a man and a brother?”  Indeed, Clarkson’s imprint was on almost everything the committee did.  It even produced one of the first newsletters and one of the first direct-mail campaigns for the purpose of raising money.


The effort finally paid off.  The tide of public opinion swung firmly to the abolitionists.  The trade in slaves was outlawed by act of Parliament when it approved one of Wilberforce’s bills in 1807.  Twenty-six more years of laborious effort by Clarkson, Wilberforce and others were required before, in 1833, Britain freed all slaves within its realm and became a model for peaceful emancipation everywhere. 


Clarkson died at the age of 86, having outlived the other eleven he had called together at the print shop back in 1787.  Hochschild tells us that the throngs of mourners “included many Quakers, and the men among them made an almost unprecedented departure from sacred custom” by removing their hats.


An essay lit a match, which started a fire, which saved millions of lives and changed the world.  If you ever hear anyone dismissing the power of pen and ink, just tell them the story of Thomas Clarkson and his prize-winning essay.


This essay first appeared in print in the May 2005 issue of The Freeman, the journal of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York--www.fee.org.



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