Thursday, 2 August 2012

Thomas Clarkson, Abolitionist

On 1st, August, the people of many of the English-speaking Caribbean islands celebrate the emancipation of our ancestors from slavery in 1834.  Historians and others have pointed to reasons other than those purely humanitarian for Britain's abolition of slavery - for example, the changed economic conditions which lowered both the price of sugar and the profitability of the Sugar Islands, and the financial cost of the frequent insurrections.  Yet, for the friends of our race, it was the humanitarian impulse that was the primary and sole motivation.  Abolitionists were many in number but some of their names have been lost to history.  Today, I'll let one of the greatest and best among them, Thomas Clarkson, speak.  This man literally spent years of his life, at the cost of his health, checking out slave ships to document abuses, speaking to slaves and ex-slaves, and riding thousands of miles around Britain on horseback to drum up support for abolition.

The excerpt below is taken from his Cambridge essay, "An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species; Particularly the African".  The research he undertook in the process of writing the essay changed his life and he later became one of the founders of the The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, one of the groups whose activism resulted in the 1807 passage of legislation to abolish Britain's participation in the slave trade.

Thomas Clarkson
"When the wretched Africans are conveyed to the plantations, they are considered as beasts of labour, and are put to their respective work. Having led, in their own country, a life of indolence and ease, where the earth brings forth spontaneously the comforts of life, and spares frequently the toil and trouble of cultivation, they can hardly be expected to endure the drudgeries of servitude. Calculations are accordingly made upon their lives. It is conjectured, that if three in four survive what is called the seasoning, the bargain is highly favourable. This seasoning is said to expire, when the two first years of their servitude are completed: It is the time which an African must take to be so accustomed to the colony, as to be able to endure the common labour of a plantation, and to be put into the gang. At the end of this period the calculations become verified, twenty thousand of those, who are annually imported, dying before the seasoning is over. This is surely an horrid and awful consideration: and thus does it appear, (and let it be remembered, that it is the lowest calculation that has been ever made upon the subject) that out of every annual supply that is shipped from the coast of Africa, forty thousand lives are regularly expended, even before it can be said, that there is really any additional stock for the colonies.
"When the seasoning is over, and the survivors are thus enabled to endure the usual task of slaves, they are considered as real and substantial supplies. From this period therefore we shall describe their situation. 
"They are summoned at five in the morning to begin their work. This work may be divided into two kinds, the culture of the fields, and the collection of grass for cattle. The last is the most laborious and intolerable employment; as the grass can only be collected blade by blade, and is to be fetched frequently twice a day at a considerable distance from the plantation. In these two occupations they are jointly taken up, with no other intermission than that of taking their subsistence twice, till nine at night. They then separate for their respective huts, when they gather sticks, prepare their supper, and attend their families. This employs them till midnight, when they go to rest. Such is their daily way of life for rather more than half the year. They are sixteen hours, including two intervals at meals, in the service of their masters: they are employed three afterwards in their own necessary concerns; five only remain for sleep, and their day is finished. 
"During the remaining portion of the year, or the time of crop, the nature, as well as the time of their employment, is considerably changed. The whole gang is generally divided into two or three bodies. One of these, besides the ordinary labour of the day, is kept in turn at the mills, that are constantly going, during the whole of the night. This is a dreadful encroachment upon their time of rest, which was before too short to permit them perfectly to refresh their wearied limbs, and actually reduces their sleep, as long as this season lasts, to about three hours and an half a night, upon a moderate computation. Those who can keep their eyes open during their nightly labour, and are willing to resist the drowsiness that is continually coming upon them, are presently worn out; while some of those, who are overcome, and who feed the mill between asleep and awake, suffer, for thus obeying the calls of nature, by the loss of a limb. In this manner they go on, with little or no respite from their work, till the crop season is over, when the year (from the time of our first description) is completed.
"To support a life of such unparalleled drudgery, we should at least expect: to find, that they were comfortably clothed, and plentifully fed. But sad reverse! they have scarcely a covering to defend themselves against the inclemency of the night. Their provisions are frequently bad, and are always dealt out to them with such a sparing hand, that the means of a bare livelihood are not placed within the reach of four out of five of these unhappy people. It is a fact, that many of the disorders of slaves are contracted from eating the vegetables, which their little spots produce, before they are sufficiently ripe: a clear indication, that the calls of hunger are frequently so pressing, as not to suffer them to wait, till they can really enjoy them. 
"This, situation, of a want of the common necessaries of life, added to that of hard and continual labour, must be sufficiently painful of itself. How then must the pain be sharpened, if it be accompanied with severity! if an unfortunate slave does not come into the field exactly at the appointed time, if, drooping with sickness or fatigue, he appears to work unwillingly, or if the bundle of grass that he has been collecting, appears too small in the eye of the overseer, he is equally sure of experiencing the whip. This instrument erases the skin, and cuts out small portions of the flesh at almost every stroke; and is so frequently applied, that the smack of it is all day long in the ears of those, who are in the vicinity of the plantations. This severity of masters, or managers, to their slaves, which is considered only as common discipline, is attended with bad effects. It enables them to behold instances of cruelty without commiseration, and to be guilty of them without remorse. Hence those many acts of deliberate mutilation, that have taken place on the slightest occasions: hence those many acts of inferiour, though shocking, barbarity, that have taken place without any occasion at all: the very slitting of ears has been considered as an operation, so perfectly devoid of pain, as to have been performed for no other reason than that for which a brand is set upon cattle, as a mark of property
"But this is not the only effect, which this severity produces: for while it hardens their hearts, and makes them insensible of the misery of their fellow-creatures, it begets a turn for wanton cruelty. As a proof of this, we shall mention one, among the many instances that occur, where ingenuity has been exerted in contriving modes of torture. "An iron coffin, with holes in it, was kept by a certain colonist, as an auxiliary to the lash. In this the poor victim of the master's resentment was inclosed, and placed sufficiently near a fire, to occasion extreme pain, and consequently shrieks and groans, until the revenge of the master was satiated, without any other inconvenience on his part, than a temporary suspension of the slave's labour. Had he been flogged to death, or his limbs mutilated, the interest of the brutal tyrant would have suffered a more irreparable loss. 
"In mentioning, this instance, we do not mean to insinuate, that it is common. We know that it was reprobated by many. All that we would infer from it is, that where men are habituated to a system of severity, they become wantonly cruel, and that the mere toleration of such an instrument of torture, in any country, is a clear indication, that this wretched class of men do not there enjoy the protection of any laws, that may be pretended to have been enacted in their favour."

Thomas Clarkson, you are remembered.

1 comment:

  1. Hopped over from the Saturday Snapshot post, but appreciate this post on Clarkson!! A great story. It reminds me of the books I enjoyed, Receive Me Falling by Erika Robuck, and then The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom. Both great novels which touch on the slavery in the South.