Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce are historical heroes of the moment. I was delighted to discover, on the excellent and subversive Mother Jones website, the influence of a Latin essay competition on Clarkson.
On March 18, 1783, the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser carried a short letter to the editor about a case being heard in a London courtroom. The item caught the eye of a former slave living in England, Olaudah Equiano. Horrified, he ran immediately to see an Englishman he knew, Granville Sharp, an eccentric pamphleteer and known opponent of slavery. Sharp recorded in his diary that Equiano “called on me, with an account of one hundred and thirty Negroes being thrown alive into the sea.”
Months earlier, under Captain Luke Collingwood, the ship Zong had sailed from Africa for Jamaica with some 440 slaves, many of whom had already been on board for weeks. Head winds, spells of calm, and bad navigation (Collingwood mistook Jamaica for another island and sailed right past it) stretched the transatlantic voyage to twice the usual length. Packed tightly into a vessel of only 107 tons, slaves began to sicken. Collingwood was worried, for a competent captain was expected to deliver his cargo in reasonable health, and, of course, dead or dying slaves brought no profits. There was a way out, however. If Collingwood could claim that slaves had died for reasons totally beyond his control, insurance-at £30 per slave-would cover the loss.
Collingwood ordered his officers to throw the sickest slaves into the ocean. If ever questioned, he told them, they were to say that due to the unfavorable winds, the ship's water supply was running out. If water had been running out, these murders would be accepted under the principle of “jettison” in maritime law: A captain had a right to throw some cargo-in this case, slaves-overboard to save the remainder. In all, 133 slaves were “jettisoned” in several batches; the last group started to fight back and 26 of them were tossed over the side with their arms still shackled.
When the Zong's owners later filed an insurance claim for the value of the dead slaves, it equaled more than half a million dollars in today's money, and the insurance company disputed the claim. The moment Equiano showed him the newspaper article, Granville Sharp leaped into action. He hired lawyers, went to court, and personally interviewed at least one member of the ship's crew and a passenger. But the shocking thing about the Zong case-as much to Equiano and Sharp then as to us now-is that after more than a hundred human beings had been flung to their deaths, this was not a homicide trial. It was a civil insurance dispute.
Sharp tried and failed to get the Zong's owners prosecuted for murder. But he fired off a passionate salvo of outraged letters about the case to everyone he could think of. One letter apparently reached a prominent clergyman, who, the following year, became vice chancellor-the equivalent of an American university's president-of Cambridge. Disturbed by what he had heard, he put to use one of the most powerful tools at his command: He made the morality of slavery the subject of the annual Cambridge Latin essay contest.
Latin and Greek competitions were a centerpiece of British university life. To win a major one was like winning a Rhodes scholarship or the Heisman trophy today; the honor would be bracketed with your name for a lifetime. One entrant in the Latin contest was a 25-year-old divinity student named Thomas Clarkson. He had no previous interest in slavery whatever, he later wrote, but only “the wish of…obtaining literary honour.” Unexpectedly, however, as he read everything he could find, studied the papers of a slave trader who had recently died, and interviewed officers who had seen slavery firsthand in the Americas, Clarkson found himself overcome: “In the day-time I was uneasy. In the night I had little rest. I sometimes never closed my eye-lids for grief…. I always slept with a candle in my room, that I might rise out of bed and put down such thoughts as might occur to me…conceiving that no arguments…should be lost in so great a cause.”
He won first prize. When it was awarded in June 1785, Clarkson read his essay aloud in Latin to an audience in Cambridge's elegant Senate House; then, his studies finished, already wearing the black garb of a deacon, he headed off toward London and a promising church career. But he found, to his surprise, that it was slavery itself that “wholly engrossed my thoughts…. Coming in sight of Wades Mill in Hertfordshire, I sat down disconsolate on the turf by the roadside and held my horse. Here a thought came into my mind, that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end.”