Whilst writing the book, I thought that the most relevant themes in Thomas’ life would be the involvement of his ship Worcester in the Union of England and Scotland and his part in the early days of globalisation. Certainly, these topics have remained current. When COVID-19 hit, the feedback I received tended to focus on the 1665 plague and the affect this probably had on the remained of Thomas’ life.
Even more recent events have struck a note with me: Thomas’ involvement in slavery but I have been reluctant to be seen as trying to hijack the topic. However, I found that this was the most difficult aspect of Thomas’ life for me to address and I do not feel that I can ignore it. He transported slaves on behalf of Muslim traders whilst still in the East Indies and food for slaves is included in one of his account books. This trade ended badly for Thomas and resulted in him losing money and being imprisoned for a short while.
This Indian Ocean slave trade has long been overlooked. When the Europeans arrived in the East, they participated in a local trade in slaves that had existed for centuries. Worldwide, slavery had existed since the earliest of time. In ancient Rome, slavery was considered the natural way of the world. Slaves were utilised by the East India Company because they found most Englishmen were unable to carry out essential manual tasks such as blacksmithing in the climate. It is estimated that that there are at least 20,000 people of African-ethnic origin living in India today, most of them the descendants of slaves, and known as Siddis.
After Thomas’ return to England, at least one of his trading voyages had the objective of purchasing slaves from a Madagascan chief to trade in India. This voyage failed because the ship was taken by pirates before the slaves could be delivered to the ship. In addition, he was proposed in various schemes involving East African slaves for the East Indian Company and the king of Prussia, none of which came to anything.
In my book, I quested whether Thomas should be judged by the attitudes of today for his willingness to be involved in slavery, however unsuccessful, or if he could be exonerated because of the prevailing beliefs of his day?
From the age of ten, Thomas was raised in close contact with the employees of the East India Company and many of his values were formed at this time when each Company ship was required to carry to India ten African slaves. Back in London, the question was much more multifaceted and Thomas was exposed to a wide range of beliefs. One of his acquaintances, Daniel Defoe, frequently condemned Africans who sold slaves to Europeans, not for the act but for bad business. They sold them too cheaply.
I was, and am, not convinced that Thomas can be excused. If he was very aware that conditions for the crew of slavers were bad, which he was, he also knew that it was much worse for their human cargo. There were conflicting Christian attitudes to slavery. Many used the Bible to justify the practice but, by the late seventeenth century, Christian abolitionism had begun with Quakers who believed everyone was equal in the sight of God. By 1696, the Quakers of Pennsylvania officially declared their opposition to the slave trade. Thomas had returned to Wapping, an area with a strong Quaker community. He had at least one Quaker acquaintance in Peter Briggins. Charlwood Lawton, who reviewed Thomas’ proposals in 1708, had previously acted as the agent in England for Quaker and founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn.
It is probable Thomas was aware of the abolitionist viewpoint. Some decades later, Thomas Clarkson was to discover that much of the population of Bristol expressed great loathing for the concept of slavery yet did not consider its abolition. The only conclusion is that Thomas, who kept abreast of news and prevailing attitudes, made an informed and conscious decision to deal in human lives. That he was not unusual in this cannot excuse his actions.