John Clarkson & the Sierra Leone Company

By Maureen James

John, the younger brother of Thomas Clarkson was born in the old Grammar School, Wisbech on April 4 th 1764. At the age of 12 he joined the British Navy under the patronage of a distant relation. During the War of American Independence he served on 9 ships defending the West Indies.

After the war ended in 1783 John, who had reached the rank of lieutenant, returned home to Wisbech on half-pay. Two years later, when his brother was editing his prize-winning essay, he assisted him in the task. Thomas was soon to become actively involved with the English Abolitionists including Granville Sharp, who had brought to court the case which people believed marked the end of ownership of slaves in England and who had an interest in establishing an African Colony 10 Sierra Leone.

John was also involved in the abolition cause. In 1788 he was granted permission to travel to Le Havre, France to observe the French slave trade and in 1790 he was appointed by the committee to examine records re mortality in slave ships in 1786-87. On 3 May 1791, John was elected as a member of the abolition committee.    

In the winter of 1785 the problem of the black poor in East London became noticeable as large numbers were living on the streets. In 1786 Granville Sharp formed the Committee for Black Poor in London to help ease the situation. More than £1000 was raised by local businessmen to provide food, clothes, blankets, healthcare and jobs to 460 Blacks, whose average age was 25, and of whom half came from North America - Virginia, South Carolina and Jamaica . When the charity money ran out Parliament approved relief payments of 6 pence per day.

In 1786 the idea of founding the self-governing free settlement in Sierra Leone was put forward as a solution to the problem. The Treasury agreed to grant £14 per person. A former slave, Olaudah Equiano was appointed as Commissary to the project, a role he would later be dismissed from when he uncovered discrepancies in the official accounts. Equiano's muster lists show that the settlers were not just Blacks, but also included mixed race couples. Of 459 people, 344 were black (290 men, 43 women, 11 children) and 115 white (31 men, 75 women, 9 children). The voyage set sail on 8th April 1787.

The Philanthropist p97 Vol. 4 No. XIV 1814 later gave an account of the journey

"the black poor in London and its vicinity, who had been fed in the year 1786 by the bounty of the late Mr. Granville Sharp and others, were collected in 1787, and put on board the ship Myro to be conveyed to Sierra Leone, there to get their own living by their industry and to form an independent annuity of themselves... when they set sail from London their number exceeded 400 and they were accompanied by several white adventurers, of whom the greater part were women, chiefly of the lowest order, in ill health, and of but moderate character....adverse winds so come in to Plymouth, where 15 left the ship and no less than 50 died. 34 died during the passage."

The ship reached Sierra Leone on the 9th May at the start of the rainy season when cultivation of crops was impossible. The settlement was broken up in December, when a local tribal leader, King Jimmy attacked the town in a mistaken revenge against Americans whose slave ship had abducted some of his people.

In 1790 Thomas Peters, a Black Loyalist arrived in London from Nova Scotia. He brought with him the request that the Government assist him and his fellow colonists, who had fought for the King in the American Wars, with plans to resettle in Sierra Leone. Sharp saw John Clarkson, a navy man and a committed abolitionist, as perfect for the job.

John Clarkson travelled from England to Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1791 to recruit Blacks for the settlement at Sierra Leone. Thomas Peters had arrived home before John and had begun spreading the word about the opportunity and despite the lack of enthusiasm by the Colonial Secretary of State and the Governor they found that the number of people who signed up for the voyage far exceeded the number the company was prepared for.

John not only chose the people for the voyage but also got involved in all aspects of planning for the endeavour. He supervised the cleaning and refitting of the vessels, as well as the obtaining of provisions. He even took the time to ensure that the captains of the boats had instructions to treat the passengers well.

Fifteen ships left for Sierra Leone on 15 Jan 1792 carrying 1190 free Black emigrants. There was a great amount of sickness during the voyage that resulted in sixty-seven deaths. John himself almost died of fever and was still very feeble upon arrival.

On arriving at the colony John was greeted with the news that he had been appointed as the new governor. He was exhausted, but tried to do his best to meet the high expectations of the Black settlers. The majority of them saw Sierra Leone as a promised land of freedom, and were disappointed when they found that there were problems of corruption and land distribution.

John, with the support of most of the settlers, was forced into a confrontation with Thomas Peters, but the illness and death of the latter helped end that dispute. Clarkson was instrumental in mediating disputes and put the welfare of the settlers before the recommendations of the Sierra Leone Company. In early 1793 he returned to England to report on the progress of the colony. He had sailed away from Sierra Leone, confident of its future success and with the good will of the people, including “a grisgris, or charm for his future personal protection... prepared... by one of the ...priests of the area at the request of the king”

John returned to a quiet welcome. There was no public acknowledgement of his achievements and when he went to a meeting of the directors of the company, he was offered a generous pension if he would resign the post of Governor. John refused, and he was promptly dismissed to be replaced by the much sterner Zachary Macauley.

John continued to donate money to the colony and also sought to get fair hearings for some petitioners from the colony when they travelled to England seeking a change in government, but the experience disillusioned him. In late 1793 he was offered the command of a ship but refused it, ‘giving, as his reason, that he did not approve of the war’.

One year after his separation from the Sierra Leone Company, John and his new wife Susan, moved to Purfleet in Essex. John was to take charge of a large estate belong to the brewer Mr Whitbread. The couple lived in Purfleet House, on the corner of the village High Street and John managed the local Lime Works. In 1820 John left the Whitbread Company and took on a partnership in a bank in Stone Street, (now Church Street) in Woodbridge, Suffolk, just a few miles from where Thomas lived at Playford. John died in 1828 and was buried in St. Mary’s churchyard. He and his wife had 10 children of whom only four daughters survived John.

© Maureen James 2019