The fellowship to abolish slavery - James Ramsay
An agent who has the power to bring about a particular action has ‘moral liberty’.
When James Ramsay stepped on board the Arundel and met Captain Charles Middleton, he and Middleton felt an immediate kinship. Ramsay had been born north of Middleton’s hometown, in the port of Fraserburgh, and had joined the Royal Navy in a spirit of adventure after training as a surgeon. Like O’Brian’s fictional characters Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin, they frequently dined together on board ship with the other officers, and talked at length. They bonded as they travelled together and faced danger. They shared an appreciation for common sense.
Middleton had come by his common sense during years spent at sea. Ramsay, still in his twenties, had discovered common sense while studying with the philosopher Thomas Reid.
Both Ramsay and Middleton had nerve. Middleton had the nerve of a man who is courageous, cool and effective in battle. Ramsay had the nerve of an 18th century surgeon who must save men by amputating their limbs without anaesthetic. The surgeon's nerve may not be equal to the nerve of the man facing the knife, but it is not to be discounted.
Ramsay also met the ship’s chaplain over dinner. More seriously the two would have met at the pallets of ill and dying men, as Ramsay tried to save them and the chaplain provided spiritual comfort. Not every ship in the Royal Navy held regular Sunday services. It was somewhat notable that Middleton’s did. It may even have contributed to Ramsay’s strange story, as he sailed far from Fraserburgh’s icy winters and cold summers toward a new world in the West Indies, where warm blue seas washed white beaches below blue-green hills, and exotic flowers seemed always in bloom.
In 1759 the Arundel was called upon to help a slave ship infested with disease. Ramsay was first to go on board and into the hold. What he saw seared him. In a portrait painted years later, just a few months before he died, his blue eyes still seem to contain the startled horror of his first unforgettable sight of that foul, airless hole where men and women were chained and heaped together, five of them where only one could lie comfortably, their liberty taken from them, their families severed from them, starving, thirsty, degraded, dying. Ramsay looked into their eyes, the eyes of men and women, and felt kinship, and outrage.
After helping as much as he could, he returned to the Arundel, but shortly afterwards, fell and fractured his thighbone. He became lame as a result, and had to leave the Navy. The blow would prove providential for abolition. Ramsay decided to take Holy Orders, and follow the Africans to the West Indies so he could minister to them.
In 1762 the newly ordained priest in the Church of England travelled to the beautiful Leeward Island of St Kitts, which lies in a crescent of islands south of Puerto Rico. Twenty-three miles long and five miles across at its widest point, St Kitts enjoyed a yearly average temperature of 79 degrees and cooling northeast trade winds. Ramsay fell in love with a planter’s daughter, and married in 1763. He also did something slightly unusual: He sat down to analyse his earlier experiences, and wrote an Essay on the Duty and Qualifications of a Sea Officer (1765) that was highly acclaimed.
St Kitts seemed like a balmy Eden, but Ramsay soon saw it was hell for Africans. Serving the plantation owners as both part-time surgeon and full-time pastor, Ramsay was appalled at the pathologies of domination and fear and greed that caused slave masters to work Africans to death, and to punish them violently for small infractions. He wept to see babies exposed to heat and rain while their mothers slaved in the fields. He saw that a slave’s services “were accepted with the same indifference that we express towards a clock.”
This was true all over the world. Servants or slaves handled the domestic services that technology – much of it subsequently invented by Brits – now provides. The men, women and children who were servants and slaves were treated with less care than we bestow on our laptops.
In America, in 1700, Samuel Sewall denounced slavery in his pamphlet The Selling of Joseph, but he had little effect in the American colonies or in Britain. Four decades later in Pennsylvania, three British Quakers, (Friends), Benjamin Lay, John Woolman and Anthony Benezet had more success. Listening in silence to the voice of God, as the Friends did, they concluded that God hated slavery and they must oppose it. Woolman travelled through most parts of the colonies on foot, to hold conversations with Friends, and urge them for the love of Christ to free their slaves. Benezet kept a free school at Philadelphia for the education of Africans and published treatises against slavery. These men were so tenacious that Philadelphia Quakers officially renounced the practice of slaveholding. But that breakthrough, which occurred in 1754, a decade before Ramsay’s sojourn on St Kitts, had no effect in the West Indies.
Ramsay, who soon had three daughters and a son and a wife to support, found himself caught in circumstances that only those of us who have faced our own shortcomings and compromises can appreciate. On an island where domestic services were provided by slaves, Ramsay had slaves. By all accounts he treated them with kindness, but he carried the wrongness of slavery like a brand burning inside him as he ministered to the Caucasian members of his parish and nursed ill Africans on the plantations.
He invited the Africans to share in worship at his church. He tried to reduce physical violence against the Africans through the law. He also tried to establish a more equitable tax system for residents of St Kitts who were not wealthy. He became the subject of relentless attacks from planters and parishioners who resented his views.
On the small island, there was no escape for the slaves or for Ramsay. He saw ever more intensely that Christ’s teachings forbade slavery. “By the coming of our Saviour, all men are become brethren!” he exclaimed, but there was no one on St Kitts who agreed. Increasingly he was being treated as a pariah.
After 14 years, exhausted and sickened by what he had seen and experienced, Ramsay left St Kitts and returned with his family to Britain. He went to sea again to support his family, but he never forgot what he had seen.
It was sometime in 1781, when Ramsay was forty-eight, that he met his old captain, Charles Middleton, again, who was now comptroller of the Navy and a baronet. He and his wife, Lady Middleton, were living in Teston, Kent. Out of the shambles of Ramsay’s old life, new life was about to spring. In fellowship with the Middletons he was going to create the most important event in the early anti-slavery movement.