Home: People: Influential: John Clarkson
John Clarkson began serving in the British navy at the age of eleven. He was concerned with the plight of people less fortunate than himself. Through his brother Thomas Clarkson, he became involved with the English Abolitionists. This included the famed Granville Sharp, who had brought to court the case which ended slavery in England. Sharp needed somebody to travel to Nova Scotia to promote the Sierra Leone Colony to the free blacks. As a navy man, a committed abolitionist, and a shareholder in the Company, Clarkson was perfect for the job.
Charged with this responsibility, Clarkson traveled from England to Halifax in 1791 to recruit Blacks for Sierra Leone. Thomas Peters has arrived before Clarkson and had began telling blacks about this opportunity. Dundas, the Colonial Secretary of State, had written to Governor Parr urging that he assist Clarkson in his efforts, but privately, neither Parr nor Dundas were very enthusiastic about the scheme.
Clarkson was a naturally enthusiastic and emotional character. Although he vowed (and was told) to lay out the company's proposal impartially, Clarkson's enthusiasm and sympathy for the plight of the Black Loyalists soon got the better of him. Clarkson began promoting the colony wholeheartedly instead of merely laying out the proposal and signing up those who wished to leave. Clarkson also made some unwise promises, particularly in suggesting that there would be no land taxes (quitrents) in the colony.
Upon his arrival he spoke to Blacks in many areas of the province including Preston, Birchtown and Shelburne. So many people signed up with the company, that Clarkson was unable to deal with all the issues and disputes. He appointed Thomas Peters, John Ball and David George to deal with any problems on his behalf. The amount of people who signed up exceeded the number the company was prepared for, so after awhile Clarkson had to accept people on the condition that there would be room for them. He planned a second trip later, but of course, that never happened.
While preparing for the embarkation Clarkson was involved in all aspects of planning. He supervised the refitting of the vessels, the cleaning and drying of the sleeping areas, the completion of the contracts and preparations of the provisions. Clarkson even took the time to ensure that the captains of the boats had instructions to treat the passengers well.
Clarkson became very ill before departure and nearly died; he had to be hoisted onto the ship before leaving. The flotilla left for Sierra Leone on 15 Jan 1792. The boats carried 1190 free Black emigrants. There was a great amount of sickness during the voyage that resulted in sixty-seven deaths, Clarkson himself did not die, but was very feeble upon arrival.
When he rowed ashore he was greeted with the news that he had been appointed as the new governor of the colony. Clarkson was exhausted, but he tried to do his best. He had the difficult task of meeting the high expectations of the Black Loyalists. Many saw Sierra Leone as a promised land of freedom, and were disappointed when the old problems of corruption and land distribution reemerged.
Clarkson soon had a confrontation with Thomas Peters, but most of the settlers sided with Clarkson. Peters' discrediting and death soon after helped end that dispute. Still, there were constant problems to deal with. The land distribution was slow and the government was not what the settlers had been led to believe. Clarkson constantly encouraged patience and tried to mediate the disputes. His health had been poor since he had left Nova Scotia, and the constant demands exhausted him. Clarkson left for England in December of 1783 to rest and recover, only 8 months after he had arrived.
Once Clarkson had somewhat recovered, he was summoned to a meeting of the directors of the company. They offered him a generous pension if he would resign the post of Governor. Clarkson refused, and they promptly fired him.
Clarkson continued to donate money to the colony. He tried to get a fair hearing for some petitioners from the colony when they traveled to England seeking a change in government, but the experience had disillusioned him. Clarkson remained active among the abolitionists, even donating money to the colony, and died in the 1850's.