Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VII. - The History of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade, vol. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
CHAPTER VII. - Thomas Clarkson, The History of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade, vol. 1 
The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament, 2 vols. (London: L. Taylor, 1808). Vol. 1.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Fourth class of forerunners and coadjutors up to 1787—Dr. Pechard, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, the first of these—gives out the Slave-trade as the subject for one of the annual prizes—Author writes and obtains the first of these—reads his Dissertation in the Senate-house in the summer of 1785—his feelings on the subject during his return home—is desirous of aiding the cause of the Africans, but sees great difficulties—determines to publish his prize-essay for this purpose—is accidentaily thrown into the way of James Phillips, who introduces him to W. Dillwyn, the connecting medium of the three classes before mentioned—and to G. Sharp, and Mr. Ramsay—and to R. Phillips.
I proceed now to the fourth class of forerunners and coadjutors up to the year 1787 in the great cause of the abolition of the Slave-trade.
The first of these was Dr. Peckard. This gentleman had distinguished himself in the earlier part of his life by certain publications on the intermediate state of the soul, and by others in favour of civil and religious liberty. To the latter cause he was a warm friend, seldom omitting any opportunity of declaring his sentiments in its favour. In the course of his preferment he was appointed by Sir John Griffin, afterwards Lord Howard, of Walden, to the mastership of Magdalen College in the University of Cambridge. In this high office he considered it to be his duty to support those doctrines which he had espoused when in an inferior station; and accordingly, when in the year 1784 it devolved upon him to preach a sermon before the University of Cambridge, he chose his favourite subject, in the handling of which he took an opportunity of speaking of the Slave-trade in the following nervous manner:—
“Now, whether we consider the crime, with respect to the individuals concerned in this most barbarous and cruel traffic, or whether we consider it as patronized and encouraged by the laws of the land, it presents to our view an equal degree of enormity. A crime, founded on a dreadful preeminence in wickedness—A crime, which being both of individuals and the nation, must sometime draw down upon us the heaviest judgment of Almighty God, who made of one blood all the sons of men, and who gave to all equally a natural right to liberty; and who, ruling all the kingdoms of the earth with equal providential justice, cannot suffer such deliberate, such monstrous iniquity, to pass long unpunished.”
But Dr. Peckard did not consider this delivery of his testimony, though it was given before a learned and religious body, as a sufficient discharge of his duty, while any opportunity remained of renewing it with effect, And, as such an one offered in the year 1785, when he was vice-chancellor of the University, he embraced it. In consequence of his office, it devolved upon him to give out two subjects for Latin dissertations, one to the middle bachelors, and the other to the senior bachelors of arts. They who produced the best were to obtain the prizes. To the latter, he proposed the following: “Anne liceat Invitos in Servitutem dare?” or, “Is it right to make slaves of others against their will?”
This circumstance of giving out the subjects for the prizes, though only an ordinary measure, became the occasion of my own labours, or of the real honour which I feel in being able to consider myself as the next coadjutor of this class in the cause of the injured Africans. For it happened in this year that, being of the order of senior bachelors, I became qualified to write. I had gained a prize for the best Latin dissertation in the former year, and, therefore, it was expected that I should obtain one in the present, or I should be considered as having lost my reputation both in the eyes of the University and of my own College. It had happened also, that I had been honoured with the first of the prizes* in that year, and therefore it was expected again, that I should obtain the first on this occasion. The acquisition of the second, however honourable, would have been considered as a falling off, or as a loss of former fame. I felt myself, therefore, particularly called upon to maintain my post. And, with feelings of this kind, I began to prepare myself for the question.
In studying the thesis, I conceived it to point directly to the African Slave-trade, and more particularly as I knew that Dr. Peckard, in the sermon which I have mentioned, had pronounced so warmly against it. At any rate, I determined to give it this construction. But, alas! I was wholly ignorant of this subject; and, what was unfortunate, a few weeks only were allowed for the composition. I was determined, however, to make the best use of my time. I got access to the manuscript papers of a deceased friend, who had been in the trade. I was acquainted also with several officers who had been in the West Indies, and from these I gained something. But I still felt myself at a loss for materials, and I did not know where to get them; when going by accident into a friend’s house, I took up a newspaper then lying on his table. One of the articles, which attracted my notice, was an advertisement of Anthony Benezet’s Historical Account of Guinea. I soon left my friend and his paper, and, to lose no time, hastened to London to buy it. In this precious book I found almost all I wanted. I obtained, by means of it, a knowledge of, and gained access to, the great authorities of Adanson, Moore, Barbot, Smith, Bosman and others. It was of great consequence to know what these persons had said upon this subject. For, having been themselves either long resident in Africa, or very frequently there, their knowledge of it could not be questioned. Having been concerned also in the trade, it was not likely that they would criminate themselves more than they could avoid. Writing too at a time, when the abolition was not even thought of, they could not have been biassed with any view to that event. And, lastly, having been dead many years, they could not have been influenced, as living evidences may be supposed to have been, either to conceal or to exaggerate, as their own interest might lead them, either by being concerned in the continuance of the trade, or by supporting the opinions of those of their patrons in power, who were on the different sides of this question.
Furnished then in this manner, I began my work. But no person can tell the severe trial, which the writing of it proved to me. I had expected pleasure from the invention of the arguments, from the arrangement of them, from the putting of them together, and from the thought in the interim that I was engaged in an innocent contest for literary honour. But all my pleasure was damped by the facts which were now continually before me. It was but one gloomy subject from morning to night. In the day-time I was uneasy. In the night I had little rest. I sometimes never closed my eye-lids for grief. It became now not so much a trial for academical reputation, as for the production of a work, which might be useful to injured Africa. And keeping this idea in my mind ever after the perusal of Benezet, I always slept with a candle in my room, that I might rise out of bed and put down such thoughts as might occur to me in the night, if I judged them valuable, conceiving that no arguments of any moment should be lost in so great a cause. Having at length finished this painful task I sent my Essay to the vice-chancellor, and soon afterwards found myself honoured as before with the first prize.
As it is usual to read these essays publicly in the senate-house soon after the prize is adjudged, I was called to Cambridge for this purpose. I went and performed my office. On returning however to London, the subject of it almost wholly engrossed my thoughts. I became at times very seriously affected while upon the road. I stopped my horse occasionally, and dismounted and walked. I frequently tried to persuade myself in these intervals that the contents of my Essay could not be true. The more however I reflected upon them, or rather upon the authorities on which they were founded, the more I gave them credit. 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.
In the course of the autumn of the same year I experienced similar impressions. I walked frequently into the woods, that I might think on the subject in solitude, and find relief to my mind there. But there the question still recurred, “Are these things true?”—Still the answer followed as instantaneously “They are.”—Still the result accompanied it, “Then surely some person should interfere.” I then began to envy those who had seats in parliament, and who had great riches, and widely extended connections, which would enable them to take up this cause. Finding scarcely any one at that time who thought of it, I was turned frequently to myself. But here many difficulties arose. It struck me, among others, that a young man of only twenty-four years of age could not have that solid judgment, or knowledge of men, manners, and things, which were requisite to qualify him to undertake a task of such magnitude and importance;—and with whom was I to unite? I believed also, that it looked so much like one of the feigned labours of Hercules, that my undersanding would be suspected if I proposed it. On ruminating however on the subject, I found one thing at least practicable, and that this also was in my power. I could translate my Latin dissertation. I could enlarge it usefully. I could see how the public received it, or how far they were likely to favour any serious measures, which should have a tendency to produce the abolition of the Slave-trade. Upon this then I determined; and in the middle of the month of November 1785, I began my work.
By the middle of January, I had finished half of it, though I had made considerable additions. I now thought of engaging with some bookseller to print it when finished. For this purpose I called upon Mr. Cadell, in the Strand, and consulted him about it. He said that as the original Essay had been honoured by the University of Cambridge with the first prize, this circumstance would ensure it a respectable circulation among persons of taste. I own I was not much pleased with his opinion. I wished the Essay to find its way among useful people, and among such as would think and act with me. Accordingly I left Mr. Cadell, after having thanked him for his civility, and determined, as I thought I had time sufficient before dinner, to call upon a friend in the city. In going past the Royal Exchange, Mr. Joseph Hancock, one of the religious society of the Quakers, and with whose family my own had been long united in friendship, suddenly met me. He first accosted me by saying that I was the person, whom he was wishing to see. He then asked me why I had not published my Prize Essay. I asked him in return what had made him think of that subject in particular. He replied, that his own Society had long taken it up as a religious body, and individuals among them were wishing to find me out. I asked him who. He answered, James Phillips, a bookseller, in George-yard, Lombard-street, and William Dillwyn, of Walthamstow, and others. Having but little time to spare, I desired him to introduce me to one of them. In a few minutes he took me to James Phillips, who was then the only one of them in town; by whose conversation I was so much interested and encouraged, that without any further hesitation I offered him the publication of my work. This accidental introduction of me to James Phillips was, I found afterwards, a most happy circumstance for the promotion of the cause, which I had then so deeply at heart, as it led me to the knowledge of several of those, who became afterwards material coadjutors in it. It was also of great importance to me with respect to the work itself. For he possessed an acute penetration, a solid judgment, and a literary knowledge, which he proved by the many alterations and additions he proposed, and which I believe I uniformly adopted, after mature consideration, from a sense of their real value. It was advantageous to me also, inasmuch as it led me to his friendship, which was never interrupted but by his death.
On my second visit to James Phillips, at which time I brought him about half my manuscript for the press, I desired him to introduce me to William Dillwyn, as he also had mentioned him to me on my first visit, and as I had not seen Mr. Hancock since. Matters were accordingly arranged, and a day appointed before I left him. On this day I had my first interview with my new friend. Two or three others of his own religious society were present, but who they were I do not now recollect. There seemed to be a great desire among them to know the motive by which I had been actuated in contending for the prize. I told them frankly, that I had no motive but that which other young men in the University had on such occasions; namely, the wish of being distinguished, or of obtaining literary honour; but that I had felt so deeply on the subject of it, that I had lately interested myself in it from a motive of duty. My conduct seemed to be highly approved by those present, and much conversation ensued, but it was of a general nature.
As William Dillwyn wished very much to see me at his house at Walthamstow, I appointed the thirteenth of March to spend the day with him there. We talked for the most part, during my stay, on the subject of my Essay. I soon discovered the treasure I had met with in his local knowledge, both of the Slave-trade and of slavery, as they existed in the United States, and I gained from him several facts, which with his permission I afterwards inserted in my work. But how surprised was I to hear in the course of our conversation of the labours of Granville Sharp, of the writings of Ramsay, and of the controversy in which the latter was engaged, of all which I had hitherto known nothing! How surprised was I to learn, that William Dillwyn himself, had two years before associated himself with five others for the purpose of enlightening the public mind upon this great subject! How astonished was I to find that a society had been formed in America for the same object, with some of the principal members of which he was intimately acquainted! And how still more astonished at the inference which instantly rushed upon my mind, that he was capable of being made the great medium of connection between them all. These thoughts almost overpowered me. I believe that after this I talked but little more to my friend. My mind was overwhelmed with the thought that I had been providentially directed to his house; that the finger of Providence was beginning to be discernible; that the day-star of African liberty was rising, and that probably I might be permitted to become a humble instrument in promoting it.
In the course of attending to my work, as now in the press, James Phillips introduced me also to Granville Sharp, with whom I had afterwards many interesting interviews from time to time, and whom I discovered to be a distant relation by my father’s side.
He introduced me also by letter to a correspondence with Mr. Ramsay, who in a short time afterwards came to London to see me.
He introduced me also to his cousin, Richard Phillips of Lincoln’s Inn, who was at that time on the point of joining the religious society of the Quakers. In him I found much sympathy, and a willingness to cooperate with me. When dull and disconsolate, he encouraged me. When in spirits, he stimulated me further. Him I am now to mention as a new, but soon afterwards as an active and indefatigable coadjutor in the cause. But I shall say more concerning him in a future chapter. I shall only now add, that my work was at length printed; that it was entitled, An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the human Species, particularly the African, translated from a Latin Dissertation, which was honoured with the First Prize in the University of Cambridge, for the Year 1785; with Additions;—and that it was ushered into the world in the month of June 1786, or in about a year after it had been read in the Sonate-house in its first form.
[* ]There are two prizes on each subject, one for the best and the other for the second-best essays.