Thomas Clarkson and voluntary enslavement

Dr Judith Spicksley

Lecturer in Economic History

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

In this blog, Judith reflects on a little-discussed aspect of the writings of Thomas Clarkson, British abolitionist and leading campaigner against the transatlantic slave trade in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – his support for voluntary enslavement.

In an earlier blog I looked at two ceremonies of voluntary enslavement in the medieval period, one in England and the other in Scotland. Here I consider a further discussion of this practice in the work of Thomas Clarkson, which may surprise some readers. Clarkson, a leading light in British abolitionism, was a founder member of the Society for the Purpose of Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, established in 1787, and a driving force behind it. His obsessive desire for abolition appears to have developed during his time at St John’s College, Cambridge. After graduating with a BA in Mathematics in 1783, Clarkson, who stayed on to train for the priesthood, entered and won the undergraduate Latin essay competition in 1784. His success encouraged him to try his luck again the following year, a decision that was to change his life, and the lives of many others.

The question for the senior bachelor’s Latin essay prize in 1785 was decided by Peter Peckard, the newly appointed vice-chancellor of the University. Peckard, who had been the master of Magdalene College since 1781, had developed an interest in, as well as an opposition to, the transatlantic slave trade.

Like many people, Peckard had been horrified by the Zong incident, also in 1781, when a captain had thrown 133 slaves overboard so that he could reclaim their value in insurance. Once again Clarkson was successful, and having won the prize, had his essay translated quickly into English for the Quaker bookseller James Phillips, who became a close associate. It appeared in 1786 as An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African (London, 1786).  Clarkson gave up the idea of a career in the church and threw himself into the fight to abolish the slave trade.

This story of Clarkson’s winning essay is well known and frequently told, but there is rarely any discussion of the question set by Peckard. Yet this was the thing that interested me. Peckard chose as the title, Anne Liceat Invitos in Servitutem Dare? which translates into English as‘Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?’  Peckard did not appear to be concerned with the question of whether slavery was wrong per se, only if it was wrong to enslave someone against their will. This suggests that he believed slavery – when undertaken consensually – would be lawful. Moreover, this is clearly the position to which Clarkson was responding, as his opening gambit reveals.

He began his essay by describing ‘a general division of slavery, into voluntary and involuntary’. The voluntary he further divided into two classes:

for, in the first instance, there was a contract, founded on consent; and, in the second, there was a choice of engaging or not in those practices, the known consequences of which were servitude. (Essay, 6 [italics original])

Even though Clarkson accepted that the two classes of voluntary enslavement were distinct – those reduced on the one hand by ‘the contingencies of fortune’ and on the other by ‘their own imprudence’ – he still saw both as voluntary. Those who knew the punishment for a given offence was slavery had in his view made a choice to commit the offence, and therefore to suffer the consequences.

The experience of these two classes, however, was quite different. Those who contracted for their own slavery were able to regulate the conditions of their subjection.

We may observe of the above-mentioned [‘fortune’], that their situation was in many instances similar to that of our own servants. There was an express contract between the parties: they could, most of them, demand their discharge, if they were ill used by their respective masters; and they were treated therefore with more humanity than those, whom we usually distinguish in our language by the appellation of Slaves. (Essay, 4)

Those who became enslaved through ‘imprudence’ as punishment, on the other hand, were:

in a far more wretched situation, than those of the former; their drudgery was more intense; their treatment more severe; and there was no retreat at pleasure, from the frowns and lashes of their despotick masters. (Essay, 5)

Closer to what we might think of as slavery, Clarkson nevertheless referred to those who were enslaved through imprudence, as well as those through fortune, as ‘servants’, in order to distinguish them from what in his mind was the real villein of the piece – the illegitimate involuntary slavery he associated with the transatlantic slave trade.

Again it was not the idea of involuntary labour that Clarkson sought to challenge.  As meted out to ‘delinquents’ by European states in a variety of public works, slavery, in which ‘only the idea of labour is included’, was entirely acceptable. (Essay, 105-6) What he did not accept was the idea that people could be reduced to items of ‘property’, because this in turn reduced them to the status of a ‘brute’, and so was ‘a contradiction to every principle of nature’. (Essay, 106) Moreover, he believed that the notion that men were property had a lot to answer for.

Commerce in men, according to Clarkson, was not only ‘founded on the idea that men were property’, but it was this commerce that had been  the origin of involuntary slavery. (Essay, 31) And this, he argued, was the slavery on which the transatlantic trade had been built. Clarkson claimed that ninety percent of African slaves had either been privately kidnapped or seized without good cause on the authority of a prince. Received against their will by ‘fraud and violence’, they were subsequently sold to the highest bidder in direct contravention of divine law. (Essay, 94-6) This for Clarkson, was the ultimate form of slavery, and had to be brought to end.

But if Clarkson’s Essay kick-started the process that eventually led to the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, it also helped to undermine the idea that slavery could be voluntary. The decision of Clarkson to position voluntary slavery within the language of service, and conceptualise it as a contractual arrangement or a socio-legal obligation, served to separate it from the property-based model of the involuntary slave that we are now familiar with. Discussions of Clarkson’s Essay today rarely include any reference to voluntary slavery, at least in part because it is difficult to imagine slavery as anything other than involuntary – surely no-one would choose to reduce themselves to the status of property unless it was the least worst alternative? Then again, perhaps they didn’t. For Clarkson, it seems only those taken against their will as commodities were property.  Other forms of slavery, based on punishment or agreement, had an impact on the social status of those concerned, but did not reduce them to property.

Richard Dunn, Sugar and Slaves, at Fifty Years 

Professor Trevor Burnard

Wilberforce Professor of Slavery and Emancipation and Director

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

Following a workshop earlier this year on Richard Dunn’s Sugar and Slaves, first published in 1972, contributors reproduced their talks for a special issue in the eminent early American history journal, Early American Studies, which has just been published. This blog by Professor  Burnard was written to accompany it.  

Historians are surprisingly poor at honoring the works of the historians who went before them.  We are focused on the present, at least when we consider historiographical trends. We tend to relegate historical masterpieces to distant memory. The historical amnesia about the great historians of the recent past has become even more pronounced as we have moved into the twenty first century and as we have dropped from our reading lists many books that have a twentieth century imprint. Books published before 2000 seem, to us and to our students, just old and out of date.

I remember well a manifestation of this love of the immediate in the historians we read in discussions over dinner in Curacao in the 2010s with Mary and Richard Dunn, Alison Games, Rod McDonald and Michelle Craig McDonald. Mary amused us all by teasing Richard over a comment made at the conference proceedings that day at the Association of Caribbean Historians by an early career scholar, educated mostly in the twenty first century, that Richard was a prominent twentieth century historian of the West Indies, a comment that seemed to suggest that Richard’s scholarship had all been done in the distant past. The speaker was referring, of course, to Richard’s 1972 masterpiece, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713, which is the subject of this blog.

Richard Dunn

Of course, Mary’s teasing, while very funny, was utterly misplaced. Richard was far from being an historian whose work had been written so long ago that it was no longer au courant. He was an adventurous and forward-thinking historian whose work on the Caribbean is as vital in the third decade of the twenty first century as it had been in the eighth decade of the twentieth century. It is easy to imagine, however, a Richard Dunn whose scholarship might have developed in much more conventional grooves than it eventually did. He had been trained in seventeenth-century Anglo-American history at Harvard and Princeton. In his first decade or so as a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, he had written books on traditional topics, such as New England Puritans and the religious wars of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One would have guessed in the mid-1960s that he would have continued in the same way that he started his historical career. Indeed, that seemed to be the case when he embarked upon a project (never completed, though it did inspire some outstanding essays along the way) to write about the Glorious Revolution of 1689-90 in a transatlantic context.

But Richard got waylaid by a document that he had come across, somewhat accidentally, at what was then called the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane, London. That document stopped any movement to conventional historical scholarship dead in its tracks. This document  was a census of Barbados in 1680. It showed how the transition a generation before to sugar and African chattel slavery had led in Barbados to the growth of the wealthiest ruling class in seventeenth century English America. The long-term result of this discovery, which led to his book on the Glorious Revolution to be put on a permanent back-burner, was the publication of one of the great masterpieces of early American history, written in a protean age of historical writing on seventeenth-century North America. Sugar and Slaves is one of the standout monographs of social history in the time when social and economic historians utilizing techniques drawn from French and British scholarship were transforming the landscape of early American historiography. Richard established, among many other findings, that historians writing on seventeenth century English America had to include Barbados in their accounts, along with more familiar stories drawn from Virginia, Massachusetts, and the Ohio Valley borderlands. It was an opening salvo in the conceptualization of a wider idea of early America, encapsulated nowadays in the commonly used hashtag #VastEarlyAmerica.

The impact of Sugar and Slaves was immediate and lasting. In my opinion, it ranks with Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery (1944), Richard Pares, A West India Fortune (1950) and Elsa Goveia’s Slave Society in the British Leeward Islands (1965) as the most significant book on the early English Caribbean in the middle years of the twentieth century.

1973 edition

No other book in the last fifty years, I believe, has approached it in influence, historical esteem and in writerly verve, although Vincent Brown’s 2021 Tacky’s Revolt has won enough prizes to suggest it might join Dunn’s work in the pantheon of great works on the history of the British Caribbean during slavery.

I had been a fellow at the (then) Philadelphia Center for Early American Studies in 1986-7 before taking up a position at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica. In was in 1986 when I first met Richard who was the director of the center where I was a fellow. Alison Games, now of Georgetown University, had been a student of Richard Dunn, working on a dissertation, later an important book, on migration patterns in the early seventeenth-century English Atlantic. Barbados had featured prominently in her dissertation and I had begun while at Mona extensive work into the Jamaican archives which led to scholarship on that island. Over the years, we had moved from being deferential students to becoming respectful colleagues of Richard. We had always valued very highly Sugar and Slaves, both as a source of empirical information and as a model of how to write about the early English Atlantic world.

It seemed to us that the fifty years’ anniversary of the publication of Sugar and Slaves was an appropriate time to evaluate it and its influence over time. Thus, we organized a workshop in June 2021 with speakers from Europe and North America who ranged in status from graduate students to emeritus professors. That workshop led to a special issue in the eminent early American history journal, Early American Studies, published alongside the publication of this blog, in the fall of 2022. I’d like to thank the new editors of EAS, Rose Beiler and Judith Ridner, for their enthusiastic support of our initiative to consider the arguments in Sugar and Slaves after 50 years.The workshop, which was done online, was sponsored by the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull and by the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, the latter through the generous leadership of Daniel Richter.

The fact of the conference being online had advantages and disadvantages. It required less organization than a conference in person and cost very little to put on. There was some organization, however, and I’d like to thank Laura Spero and Amy Baxter-Bellamy of the McNeil Center for the many things they did to ensure that the workshop went well – which it did. Doing it virtually allowed for much greater participation than would have been likely for an in -person conference. The total attendance was around 150 people with about 80 people present at each session. On the other hand, we missed the chance to socialize and network with friends, new and old. A stimulating session would be followed by the dispiriting experience of a solitary lunch or dinner.

Alison and I were delighted by what happened at the workshop. It was satisfying on both a personal and an intellectual level. Personally, a highlight of the conference was that Richard was able to attend – he listened attentively to every paper. Richard, aged nearly 93 at the time of the workshop, was not in great physical health and indeed he died relatively soon after the workshop, in January 2022. But if struggling physically he was in great shape mentally and he gave a fascinating and moving speech at the end of the workshop which placed Sugar and Slaves in historical context; outlined some of his thinking behind writing the book; and, most interestingly, outlined how this book had shaped his research for his other important book on the British Caribbean (and the American South) which was A Tale of Two Plantations (2014).

On an intellectual level, the workshop and the ensuing special issue demonstrated both the lasting power of Sugar and Slaves as a mid-twentieth century historical masterpiece and also the ways in which, in part due to its influence, the themes that Richard developed have evolved and transformed over time. As Richard noted, the scholarship on this period of English Caribbean history is notably denser and richer than had been the case when he started his work. Our introduction to the special issue outlines some of the ways in which scholarship on the topics that Richard Dunn brought to historical attention in 1972 has changed over time.

A special feature of the workshop was a session in which close colleagues of Richard – Sir Hilary Beckles, Roseanne Adderly, Roderick McDonald and Nicholas Canny – reflected on Sugar and Slaves and what it meant to them and also on how Richard himself had shaped how they looked at early Caribbean history.

2000 edition

Two of these reminiscences are included with this blog as separate blog posts. For me, the opportunity to do homage to a great book, written by a wonderful historian, was the highlight of both the workshop and the special issue that this blog draws attention to.The best way to acknowledge a mentor and colleague, I believe, is to take seriously his or her work. This is what Alison and I have tried to do here for Sugar and Slaves, a book that retains its power and vitality, even fifty years after it was first published.

Shakespeare and the language of slavery

Dr Judith Spicksley

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

In this blog, commissioned by the Folger Shakespeare Library earlier this year, and reworked for this platform, Dr Judith Spicksley argues that Shakespeare’s use of the term ‘slavery’ can tell us a great deal about what the term meant at the turn of the seventeenth century, and what we can take from it today.

During my virtual fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library last year, I examined the growth of the language of slavery in early modern England, and more specifically, the use of that language in the works of William Shakespeare.  The research forms part of my broader reassessment of the use of the terms ‘slave’ and ‘slavery’ by modern historians to describe institutions of subjection in the past. In searching through a concordance of Shakespeare’s plays and poems I found 163 references to ‘slave’ and 3 to ‘bondslave’, but there were only 5 occasions in all of his works in which he used the term ‘slavery’, even though four of his plays were set in Ancient Rome.

Much of this can be explained by the fact that ‘slavery’ was a relatively new term. Derived from the medieval Latin term sclavus, the English term ‘slave’ has been around since the end of the thirteenth century, when it was used to describe a captive in the absolute power of his or her captor. Already by then it was associated with the misuse or abuse of power. But the first examples of the term ‘slavery’ are not found until much later – they only emerge in the sixteenth century. The earliest example I have found so far is not a literal usage either, but a figurative one, dating to 1542 in a pamphlet by the Protestant reformer, Thomas Becon (A comfortable epistle too Goddes faythfull people in Englande).  There is no sense at this point that he is talking about the institution of slavery as currently understood.  In extending the root ‘slave’ by adding the ‘ery’ suffix Becon was creating a term that referred to the condition in which the ‘slave’ existed, not his status as chattel, and this condition was clearly ignominious. Becon’s aim was to demonstrate the absolute power of the Lord, who could transform the various negative conditions of people’s lives into their positive counterparts – sorrow into joy, darkness into light, death into life, and ‘slavery’ into honour.

In his 1551 translation of Thomas More’s Utopia (A fruteful and pleasant worke of the beste state of a publyque weale and of the newe yle called Utopia) Ralphe Robinson drew on the same portrayal of ‘slavery’ as a base condition, linking it in this case to menial forms of labour. For Robinson, ‘slavery’ represented a type of noxious and miserable work – ‘all vyle seruice all slauerie and drudgerye, with all laboursome toyle and busines’ – fit only for those at the lowest social level.

But the term ‘slavery’ really came into its own as a critique of abusive or illegitimate forms of power. Europe underwent a major fracturing of religious and political authority in the early modern period, so it’s perhaps not surprising to find that the language of slavery provided the perfect vehicle for the airing of religious and political grievances, sometimes brought together in one text. If we look, for example, at Robert Crowley’s The Way to Wealth Wherein is Plainly Taught a most Present Remedy for Sedicion (1550), we can see that the author turned to ‘slavery’ to criticise the actions of rack-renting landlords who were oppressing their tenants. But as a good Puritan, the connection between ‘slavery’ and popery was never far from his mind. He argued strenuously that by not addressing this issue of tyrannical landlords at home English men would risk being ‘brought to the lyke slauery that the french men are in’.

If we now turn to the five contexts in which ‘slavery’ appears in Shakespeare’s works, we can see that the Bard also introduced the term when he was intent on providing a critique of power.  

A Shakespeare First Folio, courtesy of The Folger Shakespeare Library at

We perhaps get closest to the understanding of slavery as we imagine it in Othello, in which the eponymous hero is taken captive by the ‘insolent foe’ and sold into ‘slavery’ (Othello I. iii). As the sale of people as commodities was condemned in the Old and New Testaments, I take this use of ‘insolent’ to indicate that the foe was contemptuous of rightful authority, making the seizure arbitrary and unjust (Amos 3:6; Revelation 18:13). Moreover, the context draws on a major element in the semantic framing of the ‘slave’ in the early modern period – as a commodity that was to be bought and sold. John Hawkins is on record as having seized Africans for no other reason than to sell them for profit in the Americas, and by this time details of his activities were already available in print.

A second case of ‘slavery’ that also has biblical signposts appears in The Tempest. Here it is the absolute power wielded by the sorcerer Prospero that is under discussion. The shipwrecked Ferdinand, ordered by Prospero to pile up logs, describes the task as his ‘wooden slavery’, a classic reference to the fate of the Gibeonites, whose punishment involved performing the lowliest of tasks as ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ in perpetuity (Tempest, III. i; Joshua 9). 

The other three uses are all figurative examples, reflecting the huge conceptual power that ‘slavery’ had come to wield. In Henry VI Part II, Jack Cade uses the metaphor of ‘slavery’ to highlight the oppression of peasants living under the tyranny of a self-serving nobility (Henry VI, Part II, IV. Viii). The term also appears in Henry VIII – thought to have been a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher – in Act II, scene 2 (a section believed to have been written by Shakespeare). Here the author employed the metaphor, in one of its very popular manifestations, in relation to subjection to a Catholic ruler – the Duke of Suffolk hopes to be freed from his ‘slavery’ to the French king. The final appearance of the term is in Sonnet 133, where the themes are those of a painful and tortuous relationship, in which the speaker is berating the actions of a cruel lover. It is love itself that is here the absolute and arbitrary master of the lover’s fate.

So why is understanding Shakespeare’s use of the term ‘slavery’ important? First it means we have to think again about the development of language – terms have their own histories that change over time. In Shakespeare’s day ‘slavery’ was a social condition rather than a social status; it was only later that the term came to represent the institution of chattelhood we recognise today.

Nevertheless the elements that have become embedded in the institution following abolition – coercion, absolute subjection and arbitrary power – were all prefigured in Shakespeare’s use of the term. What this suggests is something fundamental for the historiography of the institution of slavery as we know it – it has not been around for thousands of years. ‘Slavery’, emerging in the sixteenth century as a condition of drudgery, and a measure of absolute and arbitrary power, is less than five hundred years old.  

Insurance Covered! A look at the Zong Massacre

Professor Trevor Burnard

Director of the Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

Insurance Covered! offers a series of podcasts on all matters relating to insurance, created and compered by Peter Mansfield, a partner with the law firm RPC (Reynolds Porter Chamberlain). As part of this series Professor Trevor Burnard was invited to discuss the most notorious insurance case in history, Gregson v Gilbert (1783), commonly known as the Zong Massacre. In the podcast Professor Burnard places this case in its Jamaican historical context, explains why the case came about and notes its importance in the burgeoning British abolitionist movement.  A summary of the podcast is provided below.

The Zong massacre, long recognised as a notorious event in insurance history, involved the despicable murder of enslaved people in an attempt to claim back losses in insurance. During November and December 1781, the crew of the ship named the Zong threw more than 120 enslaved captives overboard in order to claim insurance on these ‘losses’. This took place only a month after Britain had lost the American Revolution with the Battle of Yorktown. French ships were at that stage just moving in towards the Caribbean, and it looked like Jamaica would be conquered by the French fleet. At that point, Jamaica, which was Britain’s most valuable and important colony, was in a terrible state. The great majority of Britons were invested in the slave trade and Britain was the greatest slave trading nation in the world.

The Zong was a ship captured in Ghana by the Gregson family, Liverpool slave traders, who used this captured ship to transport a very large number of captives to the West Indies, ideally to Kingston, but with only a very small crew. The ship encountered trouble en route, found itself off course and running low on supplies. With not enough water to go round the crew had three choices. The first and the most obvious was to wait for water to arrive, in other words, rain, or another ship, and to sail for Montego Bay as quickly as possible. The second was to batten down the hatches so the slaves could not escape, accept that some would die from dehydration and disease and then to try and sell as many as they could for whatever price they could get when they got to Montego Bay; that’s what normally happened on slave ships in this sort of situation. The third, and the one they chose to take, was to throw 54 women and children overboard in order, they claimed later on, to stop an insurrection; this took place on 29th November 1781. A further 42 individuals, all men, were thrown over on 1st December and sometime after 6th December the crew threw over another 26; 10 Africans threw themselves overboard. This equates to the abhorrent murder of 122 captives and a total of 132 deaths.

The Gregsons then put in an insurance claim, citing the action taken to be lawful to prevent insurrection and rebellion, which at the time was a common claim to make. The underwriter however refused to pay out on the claim. This is thought to have been because the actions of the crew made him doubt that this was a legitimate claim – it looked more like a scheme to maximise profits and make up for the poor return on the voyage. The decision was then left to the courts to decide. Initially the decision went in favour of the slave traders, but on appeal, Lord Mansfield reversed the decision. There were two key reasons for this: the manner in which a number of captives had thrown themselves off the ship;  and the claim that a lack of water had been the reason for insurrection, when in fact there had been heavy rain before, during and after the massacre. Despite Mansfield’s ruling the story has an unsavoury ending: the Gregsons may not have won their claim but they ultimately got away with 122 murders. The case of the Zong was nevertheless of key importance in helping to kickstart the abolitionist movement.

You can view the podcast via the following links:




‘The Slave Ship’ by J. M. W. Turner (1840). In the background, the sun shines through a storm while large waves hit the sides of a sailing ship. In the foreground, enslaved people are drowning in the water, while others are being eaten by large fish. Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston