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The Fellowship to abolish slavery - Margaret, Lady Middleton

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We have found no portrait of Margaret, Lady Middleton, and only a few references to her contributions to the early abolition movement, though these were significant.

Margaret, Lady Middleton helped make possible “the most important event in the early history of the anti-slavery movement,” but she hardly sets foot in the history books. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) confines her to brief mentions in her husband’s, her daughter’s, and James Ramsay’s entries. No one even knows the year Margaret Gambier was born, only that sometime around 1741 she stepped on board her uncle’s ship the Sandwich and fell in love with Charles Middleton, who was working as a servant.

She must have been ten, at least. Middleton was fifteen. Even when he became captain of his own ship Middleton could not afford to marry. Margaret defied her father, refusing to marry any other man, and waited for him. She fled to Teston, in Kent, to live with her childhood friend Elizabeth Bouverie.

Finally, on December 21, 1761, after Middleton had made his fortune, they married. He was 35. Their daughter was born nine months later.

We have no letters or accounts of their marriage. Their discretion exceeds Jane Austen’s in writing about Anne Elliott who was married after a separation of eight years to Captain Wentworth, and “gloried in being a sailor’s wife” (Persuasion, 1818).

We know only that Middleton declined another seagoing appointment and they lived in their London house at Hanover Square and in Teston at Barham Court with Elizabeth, whose house was big enough to share with friends. Middleton expertly farmed Elizabeth’s land while remaining close enough to London and the Chatham dockyard to keep in touch with naval affairs.

When James Ramsay returned in 1781, the Middletons and Elizabeth arranged to give him the living of Teston and to make him secretary to Middleton who with characteristic energy was completely revamping the Royal Navy in his new role as comptroller. It was not a moment too soon. Riddled by incompetence and corruption, the Navy’s ships were falling apart, its crews were undisciplined and underpaid, and it was facing a wartime challenge as the Franco-Spanish fleet threatened Britain.

Middleton streamlined and reorganized; ended corruption; increased sailors’ pay; improved ship maintenance and performance; established effective supply lines; outwitted the Franco-Spanish fleet; introduced a new weapon, the carronade, a light naval gun “capable of hurling a large short with great force over a short distance” which would become a mainstay in the Navy’s defence against Napoleon; and reformed the Standing Orders. We mention this because though they are hardly remembered, these reforms will prove crucial to the abolition of the slave trade.

Lady Middleton gathered family, friends, thinkers such as Dr Johnson, and artists around their dinner table. She was known as a painter, and as a person who loved animals, and could not bear to see an animal hurt. She was also, according to the formidably intelligent Dr Johnson, one of the wisest persons he knew.

Lady Middleton had another quality that was quite rare. She listened. It is one of the least used, least understood and most powerful acts that can occur between two people.

James Ramsay was a mild man with a thin skin. He had been relentlessly attacked when he tried to discuss the wrongs of slavery with planters in St Kitts. Though quite capable of drafting a memo on naval policy, he found it difficult to talk of the horrors he had seen. No one seemed to care or understand.

At Barham Court Lady Middleton listened with her mind and heart, and Ramsay told her what it was like to treat malnourished, exhausted and mutilated Africans, who worked at planting and harvesting the tall, knife-sharp cane that could pierce leather, and slashed their unprotected arms and hands. He described the dangerous and exhausting days and nights processing the cane while standing for hours over boiling vats. He spoke of the unspeakable violence they suffered from plantation owners and overseers.

As she listened, James Ramsay felt his burnt heart begin to heal. Here was someone who understood and empathized and saw the horror and injustice of what was being done. He no longer felt alone.

But Lady Middleton did more. She “urged him to lay his evidence before the nation” (DNB). A Christian, she believed that the Lord had made Ramsay a witness to this injustice so that he would end it.

She sat with him, raising the questions that the public would ask. They would be incredulous, hostile, accusing, scoffing. He would need to persuade them that what he said was true and that slavery was wrong. He would have to guess their objections before they raised them, and answer them. With her help, Ramsay did.

He wrote the Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies, and showed it to Charles Middleton, who brought his own demanding questions. The essay was improved by his critique, but it would never have existed without her.

In 1784, with her tender and resolute face before him, Ramsay left Teston, and took the essay to London, where J. Phillips published it. The public’s reaction was intense. Soon the Middletons were clearing the decks for action at Teston and strategizing on a public and parliamentary campaign to end slavery with two young, visionary men, William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson.

To be continued. To read about other members of the Fellowship to abolish slavery, go here.

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