"THE REALITY OF THE SLAVE TRADE SET OUT IN ALL ITS HORROR": RARE FIRST EDITION OF THOMAS CLARKSON'S LETTERS ON THE SLAVE-TRADE, 1791, PUBLISHED OVER A DECADE BEFORE HISTORY OF THE SLAVE TRADE, FEATURING TWO ENGRAVED PLATES OF ENSLAVED AFRICANS, LARGE ENGRAVED FOLDING MAP, AND ENGRAVED FOLDING PLAN OF AN AFRICAN VILLAGE, IN CONTEMPORARY CALF AND MARBLED BOARDS
CLARKSON, T[homas]. Letters on the Slave-Trade, And the State of the Natives in those Parts of Africa, Which Are Contiguous to Fort St. Louis and Goree, Written at Paris In December 1789, and January 1790. London: Printed and Sold by James Phillips, 1791. Square quarto (7-1/4 by 8-3/4 inches), contemporary three-quarter brown calf and marbled boards; (2), (i-iv), v-vii, (viii), (1), 2-81, (1). $11,800.
First edition of a seminal volume of 1789-1790 letters by Clarkson—"the heart and soul of the campaign for abolition"—written to French statesman Mirabeau at the time of the French Revolution, featuring "the most concrete details of the Middle Passage and the punishments inflicted on captives," with two copper-engraved plates of enslaved Africans bound by torturous wooden yokes, along with a large engraved folding map of an African coastal region and the engraved folding plan of an African village, in contemporary three-quarter brown calf and marbled boards.
Thomas Clarkson was dedicated to making the brutality and inhumanity of slavery undeniable. As the British movement's most tireless investigator, best known for History of the Slave Trade (1808), Clarkson was "the heart and soul of the campaign for abolition… the right man to inspire this movement" (Thomas, Slave Trade, 493-95). In 1789, two years after America's Constitutional Convention created its notorious three-fifths compromise and fugitive slave clause, and the same year the French Revolution erupted on the streets of Paris, Clarkson began writing the letters in this rare volume to the influential French statesman, Comte de Mirabeau, a leading member with Lafayette and Brissot de Warville of the French Société des Amis des Noirs. "Responding to the egalitarian rhetoric of the French Revolution, Clarkson traveled to Paris in August 1789, to agitate for anti-slavery legislation before the Assemblé Nationale… As part of his efforts, in December 1789, and January 1790," Clarkson wrote these letters to Mirabeau (DNB). At the time "Mirabeau was preparing a speech on the slave trade," and Clarkson's letters were crucial. They gave Mirabeau "all the details he requested on the modalities of the slave trade, in England, on the coast of Africa and the arrival in the islands, including the most concrete details on the conditions of the Middle Passage and the punishments inflicted on captives… here was the reality of the slave trade set out in all its horror before Mirabeau's very eyes" (Dorigny, ed., Abolitions of Slavery, 126). Ultimately, however, "the great debate on the slave trade, so minutely prepared by Mirabeau… never took place in the Constitutent Assembly" (Dorigny, 128).
On publication, over a decade before Clarkson's History, his Letters on the Slave-Trade had a powerful impact. While his letters were never published in French, his eleven letters to Mirabeau were translated and issued herein as nine key letters. Writing of slavery's "chains and imprisonment… [and] marks of the whip as time can never deface," his words found even greater authority in the volume's two copper-engraved plates that depict wooden yokes used to imprison and bind together those forced to march in long coffles (caravans of restrained slaves). There were "dozens up to 800 enslaved in a single caravan of coffles. The yokes were the target of much criticism among abolitionists." These plates illustrate "variations on the yoke. In the simplest version, Clarkson reported, Africans are bound around the neck by two pieces of wood fastened to each other. Such individual devices prevent escape by created an impediment to the escapee who cannot quickly run through the dense forest. A second version shows a single yoke with crutches at each end, one for each of two people. The third has a crutch at one end and a twisted robe at the other, by which it is hung around the neck. 'It is reported to be so heavy,' Clarkson writes, 'that it is extremely difficult for the person who wears it to walk, much less escape or run away.' The only way to manage the weight of the log was to rest the crutched end of the yoke on the shoulders of the person before. In Clarkson's account the straight end of the yoke is tied around the person's neck… most coffles walked from their point of capture to the coast… The march to the sea was gruesome," with many survivors bloodied and badly scarred by the torturous yokes (Nelson, Architecture and Empire, 14). Clarkson's letters extend from December 20, 1789 to January 4, 1790. Along with the two copper-engraved plates, the volume contains a large copper-engraved folding "Map of the Travels of Mr. de Villeneuve, from the River Sallum to the Senegal," and a copper-engraved folding "Plan of the Village of Portudal." Preface by Clarkson dated in print: "London, May 16, 1791." With half title. T148328. Sabin 13490. Goldsmiths' 14979. Kress B2049. Not in Blockson. Early owner signature to folding map verso. Small institutional bookplate. Small crossed-over notations to initial blank.
Interior generally fresh with light scattered foxing, a few expert paper repairs to folding map, small bit of dampstaining to blank preliminaries, slight edge-wear, rubbing to spine of contemporary boards.