Small man, big politics

Marcus Rediker – The Fearless Benjamin Lay (Verso)

This is a great addition to literature addressing radicalism in the 17th and 18th centuries: Peter Linebaugh et al; The London Hanged; Many Headed Hydra and Albion’s Fatal Tree, for instance, much of it also published by Verso.

Marcus Rediker is part of this group of writers with his new book The Fearless Benjamin Lay, a man originally from Essex who was one of the first to demand a total, unconditional end to the slavery of Africans globally.

He went to one Quaker meeting in America, a gathering of friends, with a hollowed out book containing a balloon of animal skin with red fruit juice in it. At the climax of his speech he stabbed the book to release the fake blood. He wrote a tract against slavery which was published by Benjamin Franklin in 1738.

He told the printer to take the pages and publish them in any order. It did not matter which part of his dissent came first. Benjamin Lay tried to speak in new concepts that were not immediately sensible. Lay was tiny, described as ‘a dwarf’, but his courage was gigantic.

The Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was established in 1787. There is, therefore, a very long pause between the savage and strange moment of tearing done by Benjamin Lay and the moment where slavery as a universal evil can be seen.

The first open public meeting on abolitionism, according to Andrew Shanks, was ‘in the Collegiate Church of Manchester, which was later to become Manchester Cathedral.’ The campaigner ‘Thomas Clarkson was riding back to London from Liverpool’, where he had been interviewing the crews of slave trade ships. He had been ‘collecting true horror stories from them’. In Liverpool, he was physically attacked.

In Manchester Clarkson ‘was asked to speak on the subject of abolitionism. He was by no means an experienced public speaker. But he’d studied theology […] The church was packed. And in the congregation he counted some 40 or 50 Africans. At that moment a whole new species of political campaigning was born.’

What this detail shows is that it was not in any way obvious to Quakers who preached universal love and vegetarianism that African slaves should be freed. They had done well from maritime trading that was inextricably tied up with slaving and indeed many were slave owners.

Benjamin Lay was not welcomed by many Quakers and it took years for the cause of abolitionism to become ‘common sense’. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries dissenter Christian sects were many and the practice of exile was widespread.

Quakers, Methodists and other groups sailed to be free to practice in the new world, a world ironically lit up by the French Revolution’s ‘Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite‘ and, in many cases, slave ownership.

So what? If the things Lay said were not sensible in their time, it is not because he was a madman drooling at the fringes of reason, it is because he was expanding the boundaries of that reason. Here are the best dimensions of the Abrahamic faiths: Their sheer openness to radical absolutes. But the Abrahamic faiths are so often much less than this.

This book is a great addition to both a theological and leftwing library. It it detailed and engagingly written, it will appeal to scholars of the era as well as to the interested reader.

– Steve Hanson

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