Thomas Clarkson’s campaign chest

About the object

© Wisbech & Fenland Museum
© Wisbech & Fenland Museum

The chest and its contents

Inside the chest are three trays, divided into small compartments. Although some items are now missing, the chest was originally filled with artefacts and samples collected by Clarkson as evidence against the slave trade. It contained items from west Africa, including natural products such as samples of wood, ivory, seeds, spices, gum, tobacco, beans, indigo and cotton, manufactured products such as rope, woven and dyed cloth along with a hand loom and spindle, and finished objects such as iron knives, gold objects, leather sandals, and bags woven from dried grasses.

Most of these objects were collected by Clarkson from the crews of ships engaged in trade with west Africa, as he toured the ports of Liverpool, Bristol and London conducting interviews to gather evidence for the abolition campaign. In Liverpool, Clarkson also purchased objects produced in the city for use in the transatlantic slave trade: leg shackles, handcuffs, a thumb screw and a speculum oris - a device used to wrench open a person’s mouth to force them to eat.

The travelling museum

The transatlantic slave trade and the exploitation of enslaved people on plantations had been a mainstay of the British economy for nearly two hundred years and for much of this time went unquestioned. There was an enormous appetite in Britain for sugar, coffee and cocoa. Many enterprising Britons saw in this an opportunity to make large profits, but these commodities were labour-intensive to produce. In order to make profit, producers used a workforce of kidnapped African people, forced to work unpaid through degradation and violence. Abolition campaigns in Britain therefore had to do two jobs: reveal the horrors and inhumanity of the practice of slavery to the British public and promote alternative viable economic products. With the actual atrocities taking place so far away, material and visual evidence was vital.

Clarkson travelled the country giving anti-slavery lectures during which he observed that a plan showing the inhuman way in which kidnapped African people were packed into the slave ship Brookes influenced the audiences more than words alone. He realised that the contents of the chest could reinforce the message of his lectures and thus it became an early form of travelling museum. The chest and its contents were also used in evidence given by Clarkson to the Privy Council in 1788 as part of its enquiry into the conduct of the slave trade. He said: “I wished the council to see more of my African productions and manufactures, that they might…know what Africa was capable of affording instead of the Slave Trade…and that they might make a proper estimate of the…talents of the natives.”

Few British people had any contact with African people, so most attitudes to racial difference at the time assumed that the British were superior to the uncivilised Africans. Clarkson sought to use the chest to counter this by demonstrating the sophistication and skill of the African craftspeople who made the artefacts it contained. He also used the contents of the chest to argue that it was better to trade in raw materials and manufactured goods than in people. He argued that not only was the trade cruel and unjust, but that it was blocking the development of a trade in commodities.

Clarkson and the movement to end slavery

Clarkson conducted meetings across Britain and encouraged the establishment of local branches for the abolition campaign. These local campaigners collected signatures for petitions to parliament, wrote letters to the papers, raised awareness by distributing pamphlets or wearing medallions bearing anti-slavery slogans, and urged people to boycott sugar and rum produced on plantations that exploited enslaved people. This type of activism enabled even those who could not vote - at the time a large proportion of the population, including all women - to campaign for change.

As further evidence, Clarkson also promoted Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, which raised awareness of the horrific nature of the transatlantic slave trade and through the quality of its writing challenged assumptions about African people. Equiano himself travelled the country giving lectures and became a leading abolition campaigner.

The artefacts for restraint and punishment collected by Clarkson are important reminders of the resistance of enslaved people themselves. This resistance could be passive, through non-co-operation and refusal to eat, or active and violent. In Haiti, for example, enslaved people who had escaped from plantations formed an army and eventually won their freedom. Clarkson corresponded with Henry Christophe, a commander of the army who became leader of Haiti, giving him support and advice.

When the 1807 Slave Trade act and the 1833 Abolition of Slavery act formally emancipated enslaved people in the British empire, Clarkson had played a highly significant part in leading the campaign, but he certainly did not achieve this alone.

More information

Thomas Clarkson and the Anti-Slavery movement


Thomas Clarkson’s chest and its contents
Further images of Thomas Clarkson’s chest and its contents.

Thomas Clarkson
More information about him and his chest.

Thomas Clarkson
A short article on the BBC history website.

Different methods used by abolitionists


Understanding Slavery
A website supporting the teaching and learning of transatlantic histories and legacies, developed through a partnership of museums.

The transatlantic slave trade
Comprehensive range of information and sources on the transatlantic slave trade.

Legacies of British slave-ownership project
University College London

Guidance on use of language
Guidance on use of language when talking and learning about this subject.

Next section: A bigger picture

Thomas Clarkson’s campaign chest