How a Latin essay influenced the campaign against the slave trade

A suggestion for a talk to secondary school pupils

The statue of William Wilberforce outside his family home in Hull

Is it right to make men slaves against their wills?

Can you imagine writing an essay that will shape the rest of your life?

That is what happened to Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) In 1785, when he was 25, he wrote an essay condemning the slave trade. In fact the essay was written in Latin, for a Latin prize, which he won.

But in 18 century Britain, Latin essays were not going to set the world on fire! Clarkson translated it into English and it was published by the Quaker bookseller, James Phillips, in 1786.

This brought Clarkson into contact with William Wilberforce, the staunchest opponent of the slave trade. In May 1787, Clarkson teamed up with a group of Quakers, including bookseller James Phillips, to form a committee for the suppression of the slave trade. He spent a good deal of time travelling about Britain - especially to the slave-trading ports like Bristol and Liverpool, finding out as much as he could about the slave trade. He passed his information on to the Abolition committee.

It took twenty years to achieve the first important step towards their goal. On 25 March 1807, just 200 years ago, an Act of Parliament was passed abolishing the slave trade in the British colonies.

What will your essays lead to?

Find out more about Thomas Clarkson

Return to the Slavery index page.