History Books at Blaydes House

Blog •

Thomas Clarkson and Voluntary Enslavement

In this blog, Judith reflects on a little-discussed aspect of the writings of Thomas Clarkson, British abolitionist and leading campaigner against the transatlantic slave trade in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – his support for voluntary enslavement.

Dr Judith Spicksley
Dr Judith Spicksley, Lecturer in Economic History

In an earlier blog I looked at two ceremonies of voluntary enslavement in the medieval period, one in England and the other in Scotland. Here I consider a further discussion of this practice in the work of Thomas Clarkson, which may surprise some readers. Clarkson, a leading light in British abolitionism, was a founder member of the Society for the Purpose of Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, established in 1787, and a driving force behind it. His obsessive desire for abolition appears to have developed during his time at St John’s College, Cambridge. After graduating with a BA in Mathematics in 1783, Clarkson, who stayed on to train for the priesthood, entered and won the undergraduate Latin essay competition in 1784. His success encouraged him to try his luck again the following year, a decision that was to change his life, and the lives of many others.

The question for the senior bachelor’s Latin essay prize in 1785 was decided by Peter Peckard, the newly appointed vice-chancellor of the University. Peckard, who had been the master of Magdalene College since 1781, had developed an interest in, as well as an opposition to, the transatlantic slave trade. Like many people, Peckard had been horrified by the Zong incident, also in 1781, when a captain had thrown 133 slaves overboard so that he could reclaim their value in insurance. Once again Clarkson was successful, and having won the prize, had his essay translated quickly into English for the Quaker bookseller James Phillips, who became a close associate. It appeared in 1786 as An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African (London, 1786). Clarkson gave up the idea of a career in the church and threw himself into the fight to abolish the slave trade.

This story of Clarkson’s winning essay is well known and frequently told, but there is rarely any discussion of the question set by Peckard. Yet this was the thing that interested me. Peckard chose as the title, Anne Liceat Invitos in Servitutem Dare? which translates into English as ‘Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?’ Peckard did not appear to be concerned with the question of whether slavery was wrong per se, only if it was wrong to enslave someone against their will. This suggests that he believed slavery - when undertaken consensually – would be lawful. Moreover, this is clearly the position to which Clarkson was responding, as his opening gambit reveals.


Thomas Clarkson blog 1

He began his essay by describing ‘a general division of slavery, into voluntary and involuntary’. The voluntary he further divided into two classes:

for, in the first instance, there was a contract, founded on consent; and, in the second, there was a choice of engaging or not in those practices, the known consequences of which were servitude. (Essay, 6 [italics original])

Even though Clarkson accepted that the two classes of voluntary enslavement were distinct – those reduced on the one hand by ‘the contingencies of fortune’ and on the other by ‘their own imprudence’ – he still saw both as voluntary. Those who knew the punishment for a given offence was slavery had in his view made a choice to commit the offence, and therefore to suffer the consequences.

The experience of these two classes, however, was quite different. Those who contracted for their own slavery were able to regulate the conditions of their subjection.

We may observe of the above-mentioned [‘fortune’], that their situation was in many instances similar to that of our own servants. There was an express contract between the parties: they could, most of them, demand their discharge, if they were ill used by their respective masters; and they were treated therefore with more humanity than those, whom we usually distinguish in our language by the appellation of Slaves. (Essay, 4)

Those who became enslaved through ‘imprudence’ as punishment, on the other hand, were:

in a far more wretched situation, than those of the former; their drudgery was more intense; their treatment more severe; and there was no retreat at pleasure, from the frowns and lashes of their despotick masters. (Essay, 5)

Closer to what we might think of as slavery, Clarkson nevertheless referred to those who were enslaved through imprudence, as well as those through fortune, as ‘servants’, in order to distinguish them from what in his mind was the real villein of the piece – the illegitimate involuntary slavery he associated with the transatlantic slave trade.

Again it was not the idea of involuntary labour that Clarkson sought to challenge. As meted out to ‘delinquents’ by European states in a variety of public works, slavery, in which ‘only the idea of labour is included’, was entirely acceptable. (Essay, 105-6) What he did not accept was the idea that people could be reduced to items of ‘property’, because this in turn reduced them to the status of a ‘brute’, and so was ‘a contradiction to every principle of nature’. (Essay, 106) Moreover, he believed that the notion that men were property had a lot to answer for. Commerce in men, according to Clarkson, was not only ‘founded on the idea that men were property’, but it was this commerce that had been the origin of involuntary slavery. (Essay, 31) And this, he argued, was the slavery on which the transatlantic trade had been built. Clarkson claimed that ninety percent of African slaves had either been privately kidnapped or seized without good cause on the authority of a prince. Received against their will by ‘fraud and violence’, they were subsequently sold to the highest bidder in direct contravention of divine law. (Essay, 94-6) This for Clarkson, was the ultimate form of slavery, and had to be brought to end.

But if Clarkson’s Essay kick-started the process that eventually led to the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, it also helped to undermine the idea that slavery could be voluntary. The decision of Cla,rkson to position voluntary slavery within the language of service, and conceptualise it as a contractual arrangement or a socio-legal obligation, served to separate it from the property-based model of the involuntary slave that we are now familiar with. Discussions of Clarkson’s Essay today rarely include any reference to voluntary slavery, at least in part because it is difficult to imagine slavery as anything other than involuntary – surely no-one would choose to reduce themselves to the status of property unless it was the least worst alternative? Then again, perhaps they didn’t. For Clarkson, it seems only those taken against their will as commodities were property. Other forms of slavery, based on punishment or agreement, had an impact on the social status of those concerned, but did not reduce them to property.

Last updated