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News and views from St. Mary's Woodbridge
Issue 2 Easter 2007
John Clarkson

Lieutenant John Clarkson, RN Artist unknown, c1790s miniature, Private collection

An African adventure

Note March 25th in your diary. It marks the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade; for we have a very personal reminder of it in St Marys churchyard, where the tomb of John Clarkson, younger brother of the great anti-slavery campaigner, the Revd Thomas Clarkson, has recently been restored to its former glory.

Had he lived in the age of television, John might well have been the more celebrated of the two brothers as a man of action and the first Governor of Sierra Leone. Born in Wisbech where his father was headmaster John joined the navy as soon as he could. At the end of the War of American Independence, black slaves who had fled across British lines, were guaranteed their liberty and given free passage in British ships to settle in Nova Scotia. The Sierra Leone Company was formed to transport those who wished to go to "The Colony of Freedom" which was established in West Africa.

With time on his hands at the close of the war, and considerable experience of the horrors of slavery in the West Indies, Lt John Clarkson was chosen as Commodore. Pausing only to seek the agreement of his fiance, Susannah Lee of Ingoldisthorpe Hall, to defer their marriage, he set sail from Halifax, Nova Scotia with 1,192 men, women and children in fifteen ships. The story of this voyage, with its storms, sickness and shipwreck, is an amazing tale of horror and heroism. John himself was almost lost; but was successful in establishing the little colony and framing its administration. According to historian Simon Schama, who made the epic exodus the centre of his book Rough Crossings, "The sight of the fleet leaving Halifax harbour was a spectacle to make the heart leap".

Surprisingly, it did not founder almost at once, for, when John obtained some home leave to marry Susannah, he was abruptly dismissed from his post as Governor, a move that can only be attributed to internal politicking among the company directors.

John was affronted and sought reinstatement, but without success; so he engaged in various commercial operations at home. He finally settled into happy family life in Woodbridge, as senior partner of a country bank. Unlike brother Thomas, who lived on, the benevolent squire of Playford Hall until he was 86, John died after a short illness at the age of 64 and was buried in our churchyard of Woodbridge St Mary in 1828.