John Clarkson (1764–1828)

As the younger son, John Clarkson joined the Royal Navy in 1777, where he remained until peace descended in 1783 and he found himself a half-pay Lieutenant with scant prospects of promotion.[1] Naturally, he was drawn to his brother Thomas’ cause, and after serving as his secretary for a few years and then studying the French slave trade, in 1791 Clarkson was elected to the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.[2]

When the Sierra Leone Company formed, Clarkson was sent to Halifax to drum up colonists.[3] However, the Directors of the Company failed to secure him the proper diplomatic clearance, leading to awkward interaction with Nova Scotia’s governor.[4]

These political difficulties aside, in January 1792 Clarkson left Nova Scotia with over a thousand black settlers in a fleet of 15 ships, and arrived at Sierra Leone in March after an extremely difficult passage that nearly cost him his life.[5] There he assumed the role of governor of the new colony, and although the settlers were devoted to him, calling him their “Moses,” more problems soon arose.[6]

The Sierra Leone Company’s failure to secure a charter from the British government forced Clarkson to assume an authority he technically did not possess in order to manage the colony.[7] (In addition, there wasn’t any official British policy for the running of non-white colonies yet: another political challenge.).[8] Clarkson also had to deal with “numerous shipping complaints,” to which end he requested British intervention in the form of a man-of-war stationed in the harbor.[9] Even worse, when the Directors of the Company appointed a council to advise Clarkson and help superintend the operations of the colony, the men appointed practised, in Clarkson’s words, “nothing but pride, arrogance, self-sufficiency, meanness, drunkenness, atheism and idleness.”[10] Finally, in 1793 Clarkson decided to return to England, and was given three months’ leave – which later turned into a dismissal.[11] This marked the end of Clarkson’s career in the abolition movement, and indeed any sphere of a quasi-political nature. He retired to banking, married, and died in 1828.[12]

[1]Hugh Brogan, ‘Clarkson, Thomas (1760–1846)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2011,, accessed 24 April 2012.
[4] A.P. Kup, “John Clarkson and the Sierra Leone Company,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 5, no. 2 (1972): 213.
[5]Brogan, ‘Clarkson, Thomas (1760–1846)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
[7] Kup, “John Clarkson and the Sierra Leone Company,” 212.
[8]Ibid., 215.
[9]Ibid., 210.
[10] B.M. Add. MS. 41263 f 74 v, Clarkson to Hartshorne, 4 September 1793, in Kup, “John Clarkson and the Sierra Leone Company,” 214.
[11]Kup, “John Clarkson and the Sierra Leone Company,” 219.
[12]Ibid., 220.