Heroes and Abolition
An exploration of how the need for a hero led to the rewriting of history....
In 1949 Joseph Campbell wrote a book entitled The Hero With a Thousand Faces which built on the pioneering work of German anthropologist Adolph Bastian, who first proposed the idea that myths from all over the world seem to be built from the same "elementary ideas." The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung had also explored these elementary ideas and had named them "archetypes." He believed that everyone in the world is born with the same basic subconscious model of what a "hero" is, or a "mentor" or a "quest," and this is the reason why people may speak different languages yet they still enjoy the same stories. Jung believed that the archetypes are the building blocks not only of the unconscious mind, but of a collective unconscious (1).
Campbell 's work has in recent years, been consciously applied by a wide variety of modern writers and artists, particularly those involved in creating screenplays for movies. The most famous example is George Lucas, who acknowledged a debt to Campbell regarding both the original Star Wars trilogy and its prequels.
In this article I would like to relate Campbell’s model to a strand of history, namely that of the Abolition of the British Slave Trade in the British Colonies. I plan to demonstrate how, despite the fact that historians such as Adam Hochschild have shown that the abolition of the slave trade was brought about as the results of the arduous efforts of many people including Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp and Olaudah Equiano in this country and activists such as Samuel Sharp in the West Indies, these facts are still being disregarded in the drive to make the politician William Wilberforce into the ‘man who freed the slaves’, or the ‘hero of abolition’.
In this year of the 200 th anniversary of the Slave Trade Abolition this mis-representation has already been given prominence in the Radio 4 Programme ‘In Our Time’ where Melvin Bragg presented a special one-off programme to lauding the talents of Mr Wilberforce. Similarly a film on William Wilberforce, called ‘Amazing Grace’, is due to be released later this month, and the advertisement is captioned ‘one voice changed the lives of millions’. Similarly the website of this film had, until recently a picture of Wilberforce on the home page with a caption saying ‘a nation was blind until one man made them see’ (2).
In 1807 it was the abolitionist campaigner Thomas Clarkson who was heralded as the primary ‘hero’ of abolition in this country, and William Wilberforce who was acknowledged as the political exponent worldwide. These two men were friends and colleagues, the former had travelled thousands of miles round the country lobbying for the cause and collecting evidence on the atrocities of the trade, and the latter had collated the findings and presented them both persistently and eloquently in Parliament. They acted not on their own but with massive support from ordinary people throughout the British Isles and with the voices of the enslaved in the colonies, translated into many written accounts and rebellion, in their ears.
Contemporaries described Clarkson and Wilberforce as having no rivalry : they both were concerned not with “who should have the most honour?” but “who should do the most good!” (3). But the politician eclipsed the campaigner in the drive for just one ‘hero’ and even in our ‘enlightened’ times this desire is still given prominence.
In Part One of this article I will look at Campbell’s theory of how the hero goes through stages on his journey or ‘quest’ and relate these stages to the historical accounts of both Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce. In Part Two, I will explore how the former was totally eclipsed by the latter, laying the foundation for the view that is still with us today.
So first let me outline Campbell’s theory which divided the journey of the Hero into three sections – Departure, Initiation and Return
Campbell delineates the hero as the ordinary man who answers a call to adventure - sometimes after a series of refusals - embarks on a long and difficult journey towards an apparently unreachable goal, endures a series of gruelling and challenging tests, and finally reaches his lowest point of resistance. Referred to by Campbell as 'the belly of the whale' this can be imprisonment for the hero, physical disempowerment or sheer horror : it is always the turning point of the journey.
Thomas Clarkson was born on 28 th March 1760 in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire the middle of three children of the Reverend John Clarkson who was headmaster at the grammar school in the town. The family lived in accommodation at the school and John was also curate of Walsoken and afternoon lecturer at St Peter’s Church.
William Wilberforce was born on 24 August 1759 in Hull. He was the only son of the prosperous merchant Robert Wilberforce and he had three sisters, two of whom died young. William, a small sickly boy with weak eyesight, started attending Hull Grammar School when he was eight years old until his father died in 1768 when he was sent to London to live with relatives. At the age of 12 he came back to Yorkshire to attend Pocklington School as a boarder until he went up to St John’s College Cambridge in 1776.
Thomas Clarkson lost his father when he was 6 years of age and his mother raised him, and his younger brother and elder sister in a nearby house owned by a cousin. Thomas attended his local grammar school until he went to London to attend St Paul’s School then up to St. Johns College, Cambridge with two scholarships in 1779.
William did not apply himself to his studies, preferring the social life of the town and he left university with a degree but no honours to pursue a career in politics, gaining a seat in Parliament for Hull in 1780 and for Yorkshire in 1784. Thomas arrived at the university just after William left, and applied himself diligently to pursuing a career in the church. He was awarded a B.A. and ordained as a deacon in 1783 and stayed on at the college for his Master’s.
The call to the cause of abolition for Thomas Clarkson’s came when in June 1785, he entered a Latin prize essay competition on the subject of ‘is it right to make slaves of others against their will? He was to write later that “It was but one gloomy subject from morning to night. In the daytime I was uneasy. In the night I had little rest. I sometimes never closed my eye-lids for grief. It became now not so much a trial for academical reputation, as for the production of a work, which might be useful to injured Africa” (4).
Clarkson remembered that he could not rest as the feeling grew “from day to day, that it was the duty of someone to expose the horrors of this bloody traffic” (5). He then rode down to London, still very agitated by his findings and planning to publish his essay and on what is now the old A10 at Wadesmill, Hertfordshire he stopped, got of his horse and reasoned that “if the contents of the essay were true..it was time some person should see the calamities to their end”. He at first refused ‘the call’ and agonised for some months before realising (with the help of others) that he would be the person (6).
It is debatable when Wilberforce received his calling. The conventional wisdom is that he had been introduced to the subject of the slave trade and had met others interested in taking action against it but initially refused ‘the call’. The story is that he became dedicated to the cause as a result of a conversation with his friend, the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger under an old oak tree in the grounds of Pitts house near Bromley in Kent. Pitt suggested to Wilberforce that he should put a motion to the House on the subject of the slave trade (7) The sons of Wilberforce found a much earlier indication of the quest (see section 2 below).
The call to Christianity which provided William Wilberforce’s supernatural aid is said to have come when he spent the winter of 1784-5 in the company of Isaac Milner, a clergyman, on a tour of France and Switzerland. He became an Evangelical Christian, a member of the Church of England who thought that Christianity should be carried into every part of life.
Clarkson was soon introduced to people within the Quaker circle of abolitionists as well as Granville Sharp, who was trying to establish the rights of slaves in Britain. It was however The Revd James Ramsey, who had lived 19 years in St. Kitts and who had written his own essay on the subject of slavery who became the most important early influence on Clarkson. In the summer of 1786, Thomas went to stay with Ramsey at his vicarage at Teston in Kent. It was then that he realised that he must commit himself to the cause. He was later to write “I was literally forced into it…I have often indulged in the belief that this feeling might have come from God…(8).
The young Wilberforce crossed the first threshold when he announced at the end of 1787 Wilberforce that he would move for abolition in the next session of Parliament. He was supported by William Pitt and by Charles James Fox leader of the opposition and when he came to make his first speech on the subject it was praised in the newspapers as being one of the most eloquent ever to have been heard in the house .
Clarkson very soon started gathering evidence against the trade. He never forgot the first African trader he boarded on which he found samples of African products that made him consider with sadness how such people could be enslaved (9). He then went on board a slave ship (into the belly of the whale) and was so horrified by a glimpse of the hold that he had to leave immediately. I have not been able to ascertain if William had a similar experience, but I would like to theorise that this occasion was when he was taken ill soon after to committing to the cause. He was not expected to survive and did not return to Parliament until the following November.
In the central section of the story, the hero is not yet out of
difficulties : he will be tempted away from the true path, but also offered more spiritual guidance and helpful advice : he may meet his true love, thereby passing the ultimate test of manhood, readiness for partnership : he may have to make his peace with the father, or a father-figure he has rebelled against, passing another test of manhood. At this point he will obtain the gifts for which he has travelled so determinedly. His purpose is now to return home while still protecting these gifts, in order that they may benefit the rest of mankind; the journey home can become a further learning curve for him.
Two months after Wilberforce’s eloquent speech the French Revolution started and on the French Caribbean island of Haiti the slaves rose up against their owners. The government considered that this was the wrong time for abolition as it could be seen as encouraging insurrection. Wilberforce raised the issue of slavery again in 1791 and 1792 but without success. He was also fighting against the political strength of the pro-slavery and slave trade lobby.
Thomas was ‘out in the field’ talking to witnesses against the slave trade. He travelled almost 35,000 miles, visiting all the major ports in search of evidence, often riding at night (10) and risking his life. One particular account could be noted here-
Whilst searching for witnesses in Liverpool, to the savage beating and subsequent death of ship’s steward, Peter Green, he was warned that his life and his lodgings would be at risk if he brought the case to trial. Shortly after this, whilst standing on the pier watching the boats, he turned round, to be confronted by eight or nine men, including the murderer of Green. The men charged him and pushed him to the edge of the pier, in what he described as an attempt to shove him into the sea and make it look like an accident. His large stature probably saved him. He described the incident in his History (11).
Both Wilberforce and Clarkson were relatively late marrying the women who might be termed their ‘true loves’. William met Barbara Spooner, when she was 20 and he was 38 and after a two-week courtship they married on 30 May 1797. They moved into a house on the Clapham estate, and had six children.
Thomas after suffering what might be described as a mental and physical breakdown, gave up campaigning, thereby moving off his ‘true path’ and moved to the Lake District to stay with Quaker friends in 1794. Tired of the delays in political decision making he decided to live in the Lakes and to take up farming in 1794. He also at this time, gave up wearing clerical dress and informed friends that they should cease addressing him as ‘Reverend’. He explained to Wilkinson that ‘he couldn’t at present, unite in its forms of worship’ (12).Two years later he married Catherine Buck.
Thomas and Catherine what might be seen as an idyllic life. Thomas had built them a new home, which was situated near a brook that ran down to Lake Eusemere. Affluent friends who visited the couple remarked that they seemed to lead a rather bohemian ‘peasant life’. Their son, who was born there grew up on ‘oatmeal porridge’ and ran about ‘without cap or hat, without shoes or stockings and with very few clothes’. Clarkson pastured sheep and Scotch bullocks and grew wheat, barley, oats, red clover, tares and turnips. He kept hens and a cock and recorded all the details of his life in a journal.
The couple also met and made friends with the Lakeland Poets – Coleridge and Wordsworth and it was they who noticed that the slavery issue was never far from Clarkson’s mind. When Coleridge asked him if he ever thought about man’s fate in the next world, Clarkson replied “How can I? I think only of the slaves in Barbadoes” (13). During this break, he also wrote a book on the Quakers, which was completed in 1804 (14).
William also could be seen as diverting from the ‘true path’ by putting his efforts into not only constituency matters but also other evangelical or philanthropic ventures. He was instrumental in setting up The Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor and The Bible Society and in 1797 he published a book, A Practical view of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, a work of popular theology with a strong evangelical hue. He was also passionate about the Reformation of Manners.
In the Campbell model there should be atonement with a father figure. I have not been able to make decisions as to how the two abolitionists experienced this but I imagine it could evoke Wilberforce’s relationship with John Newton. Regarding Clarkson it is perhaps more likely to be connected in some way with the decision by Thomas to rejoin the revived abolition committee in 1804. For both Thomas and William the ultimate boon was in sight.
There are as many different versions of the return to as there are heros... some refuse to return, and inhabit for ever the new world they have discovered. Some have to be rescued by their new partners, some have to trick their way back again, some have to exchange their newly found gifts for freedom; all will apply what they have already learnt on their way to find their way home again. And, on their return with the gifts, a new partner and a new inner understanding, some are not listened to, and are disregarded by those around them. The hero has always achieved understanding of many worlds - those of the exterior world and the interior world, self-knowledge, sacred and profane, heaven & hell, the divine & the prosaic - but they do not always achieve the acclaim of the world around them.
I have also not been able to ascertain whether Thomas or William showed reluctance to join the renewed campaign but when they were committed they flew along in the pursuit of abolition. Thomas his earlier enthusiasm restored, was soon travelling around the country campaigning.
In 1806, there was ‘rescue from without’ via the new blood in Parliament and even the new Whig government was in favour of abolition. Wilberforce at this time, published an influential tract advocating abolition and he also had some new and valuable allies in James Stephens and Zachary Macaulay. The former, once a parliamentary reporter and West Indies official, was brother-in-law of Wilberforce and became an able adviser to the politician. Macaulay, an evangelical friend of Wilberforce who had spent time in Jamaica and was a governor of Sierra Leone, also regularly corresponded with the politician.
In the same year, Thomas Clarkson moved with his wife and son, back to East Anglia. Catherine was suffering from ill health which was aggravated by the dampness of the Lake District and the couple settled in Bury St Edmunds, much closer to London.
Both men crossed ‘the return threshold’ with the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in the British Empire which received Royal Assent on 25 March 1807. They were both heralded – Thomas by the poets, romantics and liberals and William in Parliamentary circles (15). They were now elders of the abolition movement and recognised as such in the Anti- Slavery conventions in the 1830s.
Wilberforce, who had retired from political life due to ill health in 1825, died on 29 July 1833, just three days after the passing of the Abolition of Slavery Act. He had planned to be buried at St Mary's Church in Stoke Newington with his sister, but parliament chose to give him a state funeral at Westminster Abbey.
Clarkson, with his life’s work done, should have been free to live his life in peace but now had to embark on a painful journey, more of which will be outlined in Part 2.
In his last section, Campbell also recognised Common Mythic Elements in the Hero stories which included Two Worlds (the mundane and the special) and the importance of the mentor.
Regarding the mythic elements common to the journey’s of hero’s. Wilberforce had his evangelical Christianity alongside his secular life and involvement in researching the horrors of slavery and the darkness of the ‘African trade’. Clarkson straddled the latter world too but this was alongside being ‘almost a Quaker’. Such was the mutual fondness between him and the Society of Friends that he was entrusted with the task of writing the definitive ‘exposition of the principles and practices of the Society’. He believed that ‘Christianity, in its sublimest discoveries, can be reduced and embodied in the lives and actions of its professors. (16)
Both had Mentors - John Newton the former English slave-ship master who became an Anglican clergyman and wrote the hymn Amazing Grace was an influential friend and adviser to Wilberforce, whilst James Ramsey, the former slave ship doctor who also became a clergyman advised Clarkson in the early days, whilst the Quaker Thomas Wilkinson, 9 years Clarkson’s senior helped him in after 1794.
Some interpretations of Campbell’s theory also indicate a failed hero. Clarkson had no one who clearly fits the bill, but the Wilberforce myth has Clarkson cast in this role. We know that in 1807 both men were heralded yet 200 years later we seem to be just acknowledging the latter. I would like now to look a how this change in viewpoint occurred.
One could argue that the change in attitude towards Thomas Clarkson would have come about slowly as living memory of the events disappeared to be replaced by a reliance on parliamentary documents, as is often the case with ‘History’. But the change for Clarkson was more shocking and was the result of a deliberate re-writing of history by Robert and Samuel Wilberforce, the sons of William, in their five volume ‘Life of William Wilberforce’.
As explained earlier, contemporaries described the two men as having no rivalry, and indeed of being close friends. But after their father’s death the Wilberforce boys, both by then influential clerics, felt the need to make their father into the ‘hero’ that they believed he was.
Soon after the death of William, Robert Wilberforce wrote to Thomas Clarkson asking for letters and papers that he could refer to as he planned to write the biography of his father. Clarkson informed him that as he had been living “in lodgings, coffee-houses, and friends houses” (17) he had kept little in the way of correspondence. He sent what he could and recommended that Robert read his ‘History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ where he should find all he would need to know of the early period of abolition.
Both of the Wilberforce sons read the book and realised that the contents did not match the hero story that they had created around their late father. They informed Clarkson that they would be writing their own version. Disregarding his argument that the ‘History…’ had never been criticised for its content before, they alleged that their father had never completed reading the book as he had seen “enough to induce him to refuse to read, lest he should be compelled to remark upon it” (18).
Thomas “tried by every possible means, to convince [them]…how mistaken they were in the construction they had put upon” his book (19). There was repeated correspondence between Thomas and the sons of William before ‘the Life of William Wilberforce’ was published. Clarkson, with failing eyesight and deeply upset over this battle with the sons of “one of his oldest and most esteemed friends” (20), forced himself to write a reply and trawled through the ‘History…’ and the scant collection of letters and papers he still had in his possession. He also wrote letters to the few surviving people who remembered the events of 1807, asking for their support.
The book entitled “Strictures on a Life of William Wilberforce’ was ready for publication in 1838 when Clarkson was 78 years of age. In it he remarked how there was the “least possible” reference to him or his ‘History...’ or actions, in the ‘Life…’ and how the writers had ignored many of his letters and just picked out sentences from one or two to “vilify” him in the public opinion.
One of the biggest insults in the biography was the demotion of Clarkson into a mere employee of the committee. The Wilberforce sons published correspondence designed to indicate that he was paid for his work for the abolition committee, and Thomas had to show in his ‘Strictures…’ that this was just the reimbursement of expenses.
In a similar way, the biography stated that in the year 1790 “once every week the ‘slave committee’ dined with [Wilberforce]. Messrs Clarkson, Dickson &C were ‘jocosely named by Mr Pitt, his ‘white negroes’, were his constant inmates; and were employed in classing, revising and abridging evidence under his own eye” (21). William also seems to have used the term ‘white negroes’ (22).
Robert and Samuel also uncovered and printed what can be seen as an early call to the hero quest in the form of a letter from a Reverend T T Walmsley D.D. Warmsley wrote that William’s “abomination of the slave trade…he evinced when he was not more than 14 years of age. He boarded in the masters house, where the boys were kept within bounds. I lived in the village. One day he gave me a letter to put into the post office addressed to the editor of the York paper, which he told me was in condemnation of the odious traffic in human flesh. “ (23)
Not content with demoting Clarkson the sons of Wilberforce also went on to paint Thomas in the role of the ‘failed hero’, by printing adverse comments about the campaigners support for the French Revolution. They included the contents of a letter sent to Wilberforce on July 18 1791 “what business had your friend Clarkson” asked Dundas, “to attend the Crown and Anchor last Thursday? He could not have done a more mischievous thing to the cause you have taken in hand” (24). Undoubtedly Clarkson was a revolutionary in the early days, but so were a number of other influential people.
Finally to further illustrate the damage done to Clarkson I would like to add how in the cause of exhibiting “the true character of Mr Wilberforce in his various relations” they chose to print a sad episode in the relationship between William and Thomas in which the latter wrote to the former regarding help in getting his brother promotion in the navy (25).
Thomas Clarkson fortunately recovered from the upsetting Wilberforce episode and carried on campaigning to abolish world slavery. In 1841, he wrote the pamphlet ‘A letter to the Clergy of Various Denominations and to the Slave Holding Planters in the Southern Parts of the United States of America’, to support the cause of American abolition. He was by this time, living in Playford, Suffolk and in his last years, he frequently accepted visits by American campaigners including William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass.
Thomas lived long enough to assist in the formation of a world movement to end slavery (now named Anti-Slavery International), and was president of the first World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840. Though partially blind (a cataract operation failed to save the sight in one eye but repaired the other), he was still signing autographs weeks before his death on 26 th September 1846.
At his funeral, which was a quiet affair attended by family, friends, servants and members of the Anti-Slavery Society (26), the Quakers made an unimaginable break from tradition and removed their hats (27). Shortly after his death, in a biography written by a Quaker, Thomas Clarkson is described as having done ‘more than any other man, present or past, to hasten the overthrow of slavery, wherever it may exist’ (28). The same author added that Thomas ‘was one of those rare characters, who, in the course of every two or three centuries, are called by Providence from obscurity, to work some stupendous moral change upon the history of an empire, or the human race at large; and who can believe nothing impossible, because the work which they have to do appears an impossibility.’ (29)
To mark the passing of Clarkson, The Gentleman’s Magazine included in the obituary a section on the beginnings of the Slave Trade abolition campaign as follows : “No successful attempt can be made to show that any other than he was the originator of that system of agitation which led to the well-known measures for the suppression of the Slave Trade. Much may be said of…[here follows a list including Benezet and Ramsey]…and even of Granville Sharp, but previous to the time of Clarkson no commanding of masterly effort had been made.” (30)
The Wilberforce sons were later to express their regret over what they had printed but no official public apology was made. Their book being the definitive biography of a successful politician has been more widely read than the ‘strictures…’ that condemn the contents. Clarkson, mainly due to the lack of personal archives had to wait well over a century for a comprehensive biography to be written by Ellen Gibson Wilson.
The negativity regarding Clarkson has survived to the point that when describing his role in ‘Amazing Grace’ Rufus Sewell described his character as “this irascible, grumpy, boozy, stooped figure” (31) and as a religious man who “hung out with the wrong types, because they would give him proof of the iniquities of the trade.” (32)
But let us not in 2007, forget that before its abolition, the trade in enslaved Africans had contributed enormously to the wealth of this country and particularly the ruling classes and that it had stimulated the industrial revolution. Abolition came about through a change in thought, coupled with a growing self-awareness of those such as Samuel Sharp (33), who though trapped in the state of slavery, were not willing victims and fought for their freedom. All these people should be seen as heroes.
To say that Abolition was just brought about by Wilberforce is to do a great disservice to all the others. However, just acknowledging Wilberforce could be seen as an indicator of how much we are subject to control by our ‘unconscious’ or even ‘collective unconscious’.
(2) http ://www.amazinggracemovie.com/index.php This has now been removed from the homepage but still appears on the downloadable teachers pack. The website has a trailer for the film which includes the caption ‘one man who changed history’
(3) Biographical sketch of Thomas Clarkson possibly by James Hurnard page ix in Clarkson, T (1846) Portraiture of Quakerism.
(4) Clarkson, T (1808) The history of the rise, progress, and accomplishment of the abolition of the African slave-trade by the British Parliament, Vol. I pp 208-9
(5) Clarkson, T (1838) Strictures on a Life of William Wilberforce p42
(6) An obelisk erected in 1879 marks the spot
(7) Hull Museums website and BBC Radio 4 In our Time 23 Feb 2006
(8) Wilson, Ellen Gibson, (1989) Thomas Clarkson : A Biography p17
(9) ibid p19
(10) Clarkson, T (1838) Strictures … p79
(11) Clarkson, T (1808) The history…Vol. 1 p379
(12) Wilson, Ellen Gibson, (1980) John Clarkson and the African Adventure p146
(13) Carr, Mary (1905) Thomas Wilkinson : A friend of Wordsworth…p54
(14) Clarkson, T (1806) A Portraiture of Quakerism
(15) Wilson, Ellen Gibson, (1989) Thomas Clarkson…p114
(16) Biographical sketch of Thomas Clarkson possibly by James Hurnard
(17) Clarkson, T (1838) Strictures … p5
(18) Wilberforce, R I & S (1838) Life of William Wilberforce, Vol 1 p141
(19) Clarkson, T (1838) Strictures … pv
(20) ibid. p 10
(21) Wilberforce, R I & S (1838) Life of William Wilberforce, Vol 1 p255
(22) ibid p264
(23) ibid p9 [no researcher has been able to find this letter – Hochschild (2005) Bury the Chains : The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery p350
(24) Wilberforce, R I & S (1838) Life of William Wilberforce, Vol 1 p344
(25) ibid Vol II p39
(26) Gentleman’s Magazine (Nov 1846) p545
(27) Hochschild (2005) Bury the Chains p354
(28) Biographical sketch of Thomas Clarkson possibly by James Hurnard page xi in Clarkson, T (1846) Portraiture of Quakerism
(29) ibid page v
(30) Gentleman’s Magazine (Nov 1846) p542
(31) Dark star interview with Rufus Sewell by Emine Saner in The Guardian Friday December 8, 2006 – on their website http://arts.guardian.co.uk/features/story/0,,1967439,00.html
(33) for more about Samuel Sharp see http://www.antislavery.org/breakingthesilence/slave_routes/slave_routes_jamaica.shtml
Unannotated quotes on Wilberforce are from
William Wilberforce: a campaigning life- a Hull Museums study sheet downloadable from
I would also like to acknowledge the help of my friend Helen in aiding my understanding of the ‘ Campbell’ model and with providing the ‘potted’ summaries for each of the sections.
© Maureen James B.Ed. M.A.