By the banks of the River Nene in Wisbech stands a memorial to a largely forgotten hero.

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A wartime hero perhaps?

Thomas Clarkson certainly faced danger during his career, but it was his tireless devotion to ending the institution of slavery for which he is remembered. Together with the better-known William Wilberforce he spent many years from the end of the 18th century to the early decades of the 19th trying to end what both men considered an abomination. Today the 68ft high memorial is by Wisbechs town bridge, a stones throw from the house where Clarkson was born in 1760. It was put up 40 years after his death to honour his life and work.

What exactly did he do?

Son of the Rev John Clarkson, headmaster at Wisbech Royal Free Grammar School, young Thomas was meant to become an Anglican clergyman. But it was while studying at Cambridge that his interest in slavery began. Set an essay question on the legality of one person owning another, he researched the issue, and was horrified by what he learned. African slavery had begun during the previous century to provide cheap labour for West Indian and American colonies. Although Britain was far from the first country to use slaves, and by a long way not the last, by the second half of the 18th century much of its sugar production, for example, depended on slave labour. Slaves were shipped across the Atlantic from Africa in despicable conditions, many dying along the way. By Clarksons own account it was while travelling to London, aged 25, that he experienced a spiritual revelation from God to spend his life in a bid to abolish the slave trade. He was among a small group who set up the Committee for the Abolition of the African Slave Trade. He set off around the country, travelling more than 30,000 miles in seven years, in search of facts to support the campaign. In ports such as Bristol and Liverpool it was dangerous work, as slavetraders and shipowners werent keen on having the brutality of their trade exposed. He was threatened, but refused to back down, and publicised what he saw.

What about Wilberforce?

MP for Hull, Wilberforce threw himself into the campaign with the same zeal as Clarkson. If Wilberforce provided the political arm of the abolitionist movement, keeping the pressure on in Parliament through a series of inquiries, it was Clarkson who fed him information and publicised the cause. He interviewed thousands of sailors and collected such material evidence as iron handcuffs, thumbscrews, branding irons and instruments for forcing slaves jaws open. Despite initial public hostility, and the setbacks of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars against France, attitudes were beginning to change. The problem was that the institution was profitable; Michael Manley, 20th century prime minister of indepedent Jamaica, claimed the expansion of the British Empire was based on it. The achievement of Clarkson and his colleagues was in making people realise by the early 1800s the essential inhumanity of slavery, something that had previously been glossed over or not thought about, and persuading enough influential figures to put morality before profit.

Not before time...

In 1807, the liberal-leaning Whig government, influenced by the growing public campaign, outlawed the international trade. It was not until 1833, however, that slavery itself was abolished; despite failing health, both Clarkson and Wilberforce lived to see it. In later life Clarkson suffered from cataracts, and almost went blind. A risky operation restored his sight and he went on writing and reading feverishly, ignoring doctors orders. He died in 1846 at his home near Ipswich. Clarksons national profile was not high, but he was never forgotten in his native town. It was the Peckover family successful bankers in Wisbech for more than a century who were the moving spirits behind an idea to honour the towns most famous son. The Peckovers were Quakers, religious dissenters who were among the first groups in the country to point out the immorality of slavery even when it was unpopular to do so, which made it fitting they should lead the public appeal to fund a fitting memorial.

Must have cost a bit.

The Clarkson Memorial cost just over 2,000 a tidy sum then and a donation from the Peckovers was added to by public subscription. A prominent position on Bridge Street on the South Brink of the Nene was chosen. An old Customs House, and before that the towns Butter Market, stood there until 1856 when the town bridge was rebuilt. The Customs House was pulled down to make way for it. In 1880, when work started on the memorial, its central position made it favoured. Leading architect Sir George Gilbert Scott, who had earlier worked on much-needed renovations at Ely Cathedral, was chosen to design it. His first plans were put forward in 1875, and the current structure is based on these. The neo-Gothic memorial features a statue of Clarkson himself, holding a pair of manacles to symbolise the freed slaves, rising to a spire. Carved in bas relief around the sides are a slave in a gesture of supplication and representations of Wilberforce and Granville Sharp, another leading abolitionist. A detached plinth in front of the memorial reads: Remember those who are in bondage. It was officially unveiled in November, 1881, and has stood dominating the river approach and road to the market place ever since.

Any other honours?

At Wadesmill in Hertfordshire, where Clarkson had received the vision of his mission, a Victorian monument reads: On this spot in the month of June 1785 Thomas Clarkson resolved to devote his life to bringing about the abolition of the slave trade. More recently in 1996, 150 years after his death, a plaque was laid in his memory in Westminster Abbey.

FURTHER READING

The Slave Trade, Hugh Thomas (in paperback Phoenix Press 2006).

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