Chronicle A decision that changed the world

If I were to ask the following question to somebody on the street today I doubt that anyone would know the answer: Do you know who Thomas Clarkson was? I doubt that even the more avid newspaper readers would be sure. Thomas Clarkson could have been an English soccer player or perhaps a gangster in Chicago.

Please let me tell you about this fascinating and yet entirely forgotten man. A warm day in June 1787 a young man by the name of Thomas Clarkson came riding upon his horse. He was on his way from Cambridge to London. After finishing his studies to become a minister he was to start working as a deacon in London.

But something held him back, made him doubt that this was the right choice. Eventually, halfway between Cambridge and London he dismounted his horse and sat down in the shade under a tree. His worse was grazing close by. In Thomas Clarkson’s head there was chaos. In his mind he returned to an event that had begun a few years earlier.

Thomas Clarkson did not come from a wealthy family. He had had trouble financing his studies at Cambridge. So when, in 1784, he heard that the university had announced that a prize would be awarded to the person who wrote the best essay on the subject Anne liceat invitos in servitutem dare (Is it lawful to enslave the unconsenting?) he decided to take part in the competition. He never hid the fact that it was the money he was interested in. Whether slavery should be abolished or not was not something he had given much thought.

When he decided that he would try to win this prize Thomas Clarkson thoroughly researched what you might call “the anatomy of slavery”. He travelled to Liverpool where he interviewed Captains who worked at slave ships, spoke to slave owners and probably with slaves as well. When he finally sat down to write his essay he had gained a unique insight into the conditions of slavery. And slowly his original ambition to win the prize transformed into something altogether different: an indignant contribution to the debate about the misery of slavery.

Thomas Clarkson won the competition with his essay. He got the money he needed to continue to study. And now he was on his way to London to begin his work in the theological field. But on his way he stopped, he dismounted from his horse and he sat down in the shadow of a tree.

Sitting there in the shadow he made a decision that would change his life: He would devote his life to the abolition of slavery, which he actually also did. When he died at the age of 80 slavery had been abolished in Great Britain. In the same way as slavery had been forced to retreat in other countries.

Thomas Clarkson is an inspiring example. We know that people with his courage and his will are desperately needed today as well. Classical slavery no longer exists. (Even though it can be still be found in some dark corners in different Arab states where people are forced to live under conditions that can hardly be labelled as anything but slavery.) However, slavery in the form of trafficking is a huge and vicious industry today, much like slavery was when Thomas Clarkson lived. To him the abolition of slavery was a question of reconquering the basic dignity of humanity.

This also means that the fight against slavery today is part of a tradition. Thomas Clarkson chose a way, which we must choose as well. As long as a single human being is the victim of trafficking or is living under slave like conditions we desperately need those who pave the way and who decide that they will give up the struggle. Today Thomas Clarkson is forgotten. But his effort is still alive. And it urges us to continue his struggle.

Henning Mankell

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