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. 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.
When the Sierra Leone Company formed, Clarkson was sent to Halifax to drum up colonists. However, the Directors of the Company failed to secure him the proper diplomatic clearance, leading to awkward interaction with Nova Scotia’s governor.
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. 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.
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. (In addition, there wasn’t any official British policy for the running of non-white colonies yet: another political challenge.). 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. 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.” Finally, in 1793 Clarkson decided to return to England, and was given three months’ leave – which later turned into a dismissal. 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.