TEN REASONS WHY THE PORTRAYAL OF THOMAS CLARKSON IN THE FILM ‘AMAZING GRACE’ SHOULD NOT BE SEEN AS HISTORICALLY ACCURATE .
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A website has recently stated that ‘The screenplay by Steven Knight has been exhaustively researched and is largely historically accurate’. I have just been to see the film ‘Amazing Grace’ and beg to differ, particularly where it concerns the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. I know a lot about Thomas but very little about Wilberforce so I will concentrate wholly on the former in this piece.
But before anyone accuses me of ‘sour grapes’ and trying to spoil the reputation of a good film, I would like to outline my reasons for adding this piece to the website.
It is in order to put the record straight for people (like myself) who like to know the ‘truth’ behind films and to ensure that uninformed teachers do not use the film ‘Amazing Grace’ as a teaching medium.
Well here are the TEN reasons why the film should not be considered as a serious historical source :-
- The film depicts a dinner at the home of William Wilberforce with James Ramsey, Olaudah Equiano, Hannah More and Thomas Clarkson plus others in attendance. They aimed to persuade Wilberforce to lead the Parliamentary Campaign.
The dinner that this is most likely based on was hosted by Dr Johnson’s friend Bennet Langton at his house in London. Neither Hannah More on Olaudah Equiano were in attendance. Clarkson wrote an account of the evening :
“I found the party [to] consist of Sir Charles Middleton, Mr. Wilberforce, Mr. [Isaac] Hawkins Browne, Mr. [William] Windham, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Mr. Boswell.” (1).
A similarly momentous event could have occurred at the home of the Sir Charles and Lady Middleton at Teston in Kent – Hannah More was a friend of the Middleton’s and Wilberforce and they were guests, along with Ramsey and Clarkson at various times in the early part of the campaign.
Evidence that Wilberforce met Equiano has not yet been found.
- The dinner party scene also shows Thomas Clarkson producing slave chains to back up his argument The account by Thomas Clarkson continued-
“After dinner, the subject of the Slave-trade was purposely introduced. Many questions were put to me, and I dilated upon each in my answers, that I might inform and interest those present as much as I could. They seemed to be greatly impressed with my account of the loss of seamen in the trade, and with the little samples of African cloth, which I had procured for their inspection...” (1)
Thomas did eventually collect chains and shackles etc for illustrating talks but he had not done so at this early stage in the campaign. In this connection the scene in the film that shows William Wilberforce lifting slave shackles on a slave ship to an audience of the upper classes, is inaccurate.
- There appear to be frequent meetings between William Wilberforce and the abolitionists including Thomas Clarkson, with Hannah More and Olaudah Equiano in attendance.
See comment to point no 1 regarding Equiano. Hannah More, even though a friend of Wilberforce, as a woman could not have been a member of the main Abolition Committee or even the Societies devoted to Abolition. Women had to start their own societies. This is also the point to mention that Wilberforce did not approve of women getting involved with politics.
- William Wilberforce called on Thomas Clarkson in the countryside. He found him holding a young baby, and asked him to get involved with the revived campaign.
Thomas and his wife Catherine moved to the Lake District after their marriage in January 1796. Thomas gave up campaigning and took up farming. His son was born in October 1796 and Thomas stayed in the idyllic surroundings until he rejoined the campaign in May 1804. I cannot imagine when this visit is likely to have occurred!
- Thomas Clarkson plans to go to France with the apparent aim of joining the ‘revolution’.
Whilst it is undisputed that Clarkson, like many of his time, gave his support to the Revolutionary cause, he was visiting France on behalf of the abolition committee in 1789, 1814/15 and 1819/20 to pursue the aim of getting the other European countries to abolish the slave trade.
- William Wilberforce appears to support the boycott of sugar by supporters of abolition.
It was Clarkson who suggested in 1791 that the supporters boycott West Indian in favour of East Indian produce, particularly sugar. This action was independent of the main committee and it is likely that William Wilberforce would not have approved of such action.
- Thomas Clarkson is portrayed as a ‘drinker’ with a number of shots of him drinking from a flask. There is also a brief scene in the film where Thomas Clarkson is depicted drinking on the grave of Olaudah Equiano.
Thomas Clarkson described himself as ‘almost a Quaker’. His sympathies with the Quakers would have ensured he only drank in moderation if at all.
Equiano died in 1797 and as we know Clarkson was out of the campaign from 1796 until 1804 I wonder when this was alleged to have taken place and what the point of it was? Also if the scriptwriter is aware of the location of the grave of Equiano I am sure historians would like to know!
- Thomas Clarkson is portrayed as being of average build with longish straight dark hair.
Thomas Clarkson was over 6ft with fiery red hair but the director decided that this look would be wrong for Rufus Sewell. Sewell explained "I remembered from trying to dye my own hair red at the age of thirteen that it didn't work on me. It gave me too much of a comedic appearance for the film. But we wanted an arresting look, so we came up with the long grey hair. And we aged Clarkson very quickly, more so than the others, because he invests so much of himself in the cause and gets into scrapes, so that would have taken its toll on his appearance." (2)
- Rufus Sewell also portrayed Thomas Clarkson as an “irascible, grumpy, boozy, stooped figure” (3)
Though Thomas Clarkson had to interview very unsavoury types, there is absolutely no evidence that this affected his personality in any way other than exhausting him mentally and physically. He was a passionate man, who could think only of ‘the injured African’ even when in the company of his friends. He and his wife were close friends of the Lakeland poets Wordsworth and Coleridge and one wonders, if he were that grumpy and irascible, how he would have kept the friendships going?
- Thomas Clarkson was also described by Rufus Sewell as ‘a religious man who “hung out with the wrong types, because they would give him proof of the iniquities of the trade.” (4)
Samuel Taylor Coleridge described Thomas Clarkson as "a moral steam engine". He may have interviewed people for proof of the iniquities of the trade but he did not ‘hang’ out with them. His friends were the Lakeland poets and a large number of Quakers!
A nice audio clip of historian Adam Hochschild discussing the Abolition Campaign and the Film ‘Amazing Grace’ can be heard at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=7466092
(1) Chapter 10 Clarkson, T (1808)‘History…of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade’
(3) Dark star interview with Rufus Sewell by Emine Saner in The Guardian Friday December 8, 2006 – on their website http://arts.guardian.co.uk/features/story/0,,1967439,00.html