This week: Thomas Clarkson

The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840, painted by Benjamin Haydon (1786-1846) and in the possession of the National Portrait Gallery. It depicts Thomas Clarkson addressing a meeting of over 500 delegates at the 1840 convention of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. One of the delegates, a liberated slave, watches the speech from among the audience at the very centre of the painting. 2.97m x 3.86m.

Almost half a century before the ownership of slaves was finally outlawed across most of the British empire, a devout young student at St John’s College, Cambridge, entered an essay competition and won first prize.

That 1785 essay – entitled ‘Is it right to make slaves of others against their will?’ – became one of the first attacks on slavery to reach a wide popular audience in the UK. And the student – whose name was Thomas Clarkson – would earn his place in history (alongside Granville Sharp and William Wilberforce) as one of the leading campaigners against the country’s involvement in a trade described last year by Prince Charles as an ‘appalling atrocity’.

These days, Clarkson is remembered with understandable pride in his home town of Wisbech, in Cambridgeshire. A large and elaborate memorial in the town centre celebrates his contribution to the struggle for human rights. Nearby, the Wisbech & Fenland Museum houses his archive – including the famous wooden campaign chest, housing examples of 18th-century African textiles, seeds and leatherwork, which he used to illustrate his case that direct trade with Africa could effectively replace the abhorrent but still-lucrative business of human trafficking.

As we discover this week on The Past, Clarkson’s chest has become an object of fascination in itself, as a tangible link to the history of abolitionism, and as a powerful symbol of faith in a better future.

In the latest issue of Current Archaeology magazine, we catch up with the results of a fascinating new study that uses cutting-edge technology to tell the story of the chest, and to shine a spotlight on the African peoples who were involved in the manufacture of its contents.

Elsewhere this week, we’ve also been digging into the archives in search of more archaeological clues about Britain’s involvement in the slave trade: we investigated what shipwrecks can tell us about some of the more shameful aspects of our colonial history; and we travelled to the Historic Dockyard at Chatham to discover what happened when Olaudah Equiano, later himself to become a prominent voice in the abolitionist movement, served as a 14-year-old slave on a Royal Navy ship during the bloody 1759 Battle of Lagos.

Separately, we are delighted to announce that the voting is open for our 14th annual Current Archaeology Awards. This is your chance to vote for your favourite people, projects and books of the year – and you can also meet the nominees for the coveted title of Archaeologist of the Year on a special edition of The PastCast, our brilliant podcast. The winners will be announced at our annual Current Archaeology Live! event, which this year is scheduled to be held online over the weekend of 25-27 February, but voting closes on 7 February – so don’t miss out!

And finally, don’t forget to have a go at our latest themed quiz, which this week also explores the history of abolitionism. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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