Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Amazing Grace author’s slavery confession found ‘hidden in plain sight’

A harrowing anonymous account by an 18th-century slave trader was written by Amazing Grace author John Newton, a study suggests.

According to historian Professor John Coffey, the discovery transforms our understanding of Newton’s involvement in the slave trade and abolitionism — as well as the meaning of the world-famous hymn.

The account was first published in 1762, in the second edition of the American Quaker abolitionist Anthony Benezet’s influential book A Short Account of that Part of Africa Inhabited by the Negroes, and the Manner by which the Slave-Trade is Carried On.

Its unnamed author describes a voyage from Liverpool to the coast of West Africa, around the year 1749, in a 90-ton vessel, during which the author was “ordered [by his captain] to go up the Country a considerable Distance” to buy slaves. He describes handing over “a small case of English Spirits, a Gun, and some Trifles” to an African ruler and viewing about 200 slaves who were confined together in “fearful Apprehension”.

“Under a Sense of my Offence to GOD, in the Person of his Creatures,’ he writes, ‘I acknowledge I purchased eleven.”

He states that, during the subsequent Atlantic crossing, some of the 170 slaves shackled on board intended to rise and free themselves, but the plot was discovered and the ringleader killed. The author describes how: “The Ringleader ty’d by the two Thumbs over the Barricade Door, at Sun-rise received a Number of Lashes, in this Situation he remained till Sun set, exposed to the Insults and Barbarity of the brutal Crew of Sailors, with full Leave to exercise their Cruelty at Pleasure: The Consequence of this was, that next Morning the miserable Sufferer was found dead, flead [flayed] from the Shoulders to the Waist.”

Brutal conditions on slave ships are captured in this 1792 engraving by Isaac Cruikshank showing a British captain with an enslaved girl he was accused of whipping to death. Image: Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons

The author is explicit in his condemnation of the slave trade. He said he was writing so “that I may contribute all in my Power towards the Good of Mankind, by inspiring any of its individuals with a suitable Abhorence for that detestable Practice of trading in our Fellow-Creatures, and in some Measure atone for my Neglect of Duty as a Christian, in engaging in that wicked Traffic.”

Coffey said: “The account immediately drew my attention, partly because it’s so rare to find any repentance or confession by anybody directly involved in the slave trade. Except we know of one quite famous case, which is John Newton many years later.” 

To identify the writer, Coffey, professor of history at the University of Leicester, searched for matching voyages in the Slave Voyages Database of over 36,000 journeys between Africa and the New World. The only close match was that of the Brownlow in 1748/49. The ship was of the same tonnage, sailed from Liverpool, and was the scene of brutally suppressed resistance.

Significantly, John Newton, the English slave trader turned Anglican clergyman who publicly denounced slavery in the 1780s, served as first mate on this voyage. In his older age, Newton recalled travelling inland from the West African coast to purchase slaves in 1749. And Coffey notes that the account features phrasing very similar to that of Newton’s known writings. For example, the author refers to the desensitising effects of slavery on slave traders’ hearts — a theme of Newton’s later texts.

An early 19th-century engraving showing Rev John Newton, the clergyman and former slave trader. Image: National Library of Wales, via Wikimedia Commons

In his paper, in Slavery & Abolition, Coffey argues that the anonymous account is early, previously unrecognised testimony by Newton. “If Newton was not the author, we are faced with two highly implausible alternatives: either the testimony was a fabrication, or Newton had a mysterious doppelgänger. The first option requires us to believe that the fabricator just happened to concoct a narrative with an uncanny, point-by-point resemblance to the voyage of the Brownlow; it would also demand a fundamental reappraisal of Anthony Benezet and his modus operandi. The second alternative looks even more far-fetched, positing two Newton-like figures on board 90-ton Liverpool slave ships in 1749.” 

The document, he said, was effectively “hidden in plain sight”.

Coffey addresses two potential discrepancies. The first is that some 218 slaves were embarked on the Brownlow and the anonymous account refers to 170 slaves on board. However, only 154 slaves survived the voyage of the Brownlow and Coffey suggests that Newton was giving an approximate figure from memory.

Second, the initials “WF” were appended to the account in its first printing. Coffey said there were no known candidates for authorship with those initials and he speculates that the account was passed on to Benezet by William Fenner, one of the London publishers of an antislavery pamphlet quoted extensively in Benezet’s book. The initials would then be Fenner’s testimony to the ‘candour’ of the writer. 

If the identification of Newton as the anonymous author is correct, it has significant ramifications.

Coffey said that, by sharing his experiences and condemning the slave trade in the early 1760s, Newton could be identified as a pioneer of antislavery campaigning, rather than a latecomer to the cause. 

Newton experienced a prolonged religious awakening, beginning in 1748 while he was still in the trade, accelerating after his retirement from it on health grounds in 1754, and culminating in his ordination a decade later. At the time of the publication of the anonymous account, Newton was actively seeking ordination. Coffey suggests that, had it appeared under his own name, it would have antagonised pro-slavery interests and marked Newton out as a dangerous agitator. This, and his admission of complicity in atrocities, could easily have blocked his clerical career.

Although Newton mentioned the Brownlow‘s voyage in his 1764 spiritual autobiography, An Authentic Narrative, he glossed over the ten-week Middle Passage to Antigua in four words and did not explicitly condemn the slave trade.

Yet if Newton spoke out anonymously in 1762, as Coffey believes, standard interpretations of his attitudes fall apart. As the historian explains in his paper: “Newton’s story has often been seen as emblematic, a personification of Britain’s relationship with the slave trade: utterly immersed in the trade during the mid-18th century, despite his religiosity and respectability, he remained morally insensitive to it for many years, until he finally saw the light in the 1780s.”

The discovery not only alters that timeline but reveals, specifically, that Newton was repentant about his role as slave trader — and not simply conscious of his religious conversion — when he wrote his hymn with the line: “I once was lost, but now I’m found/Was blind but now I see.”

Coffey’s research also indicates that Newton had more intense interactions with John Wesley, the clergyman, evangelist and abolitionist, than was previously thought. Newton’s unpublished spiritual diaries show, for example, that he listened to Wesley preach on 16 separate occasions over 11 days in Liverpool in April/May 1757, making notes and conversing with him. A close friendship developed, with Wesley later claiming the younger man regarded him as a “father and brother”.

Singers who have helped to popularise Newton’s best-known hymn include Aretha Franklin, depicted in a still from the 2018 film Amazing Grace. Image: ©Sundial Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection/Alamy

According to Coffey, it is likely that Newton’s anti-slavery conversion and his apparent decision to anonymously condemn the slave trade were both heavily influenced by Wesley, who had a “perfect detestation of that horrid trade”. If he was collaborating with figures such as Wesley, Fenner and Benezet in abolitionist activities during the early 1760s, “we have a prefiguration of the Quaker-Evangelical-Methodist-Dissenter alliance that would drive the British abolitionist movement from the 1780s to the 1830s.”

He said his discovery also emphasised the role and agency of enslaved Africans in the origins of British abolitionism. Leading figures in the early movement such as Newton were eyewitnesses to the suffering and resistance of the enslaved and conveyed their impressions to a growing audience in print.

So, does the finding reflect well on Newton, in revealing an earlier role in abolitionism, or badly, in placing him closer to atrocities?

“You could spin it either way,” Coffey said. “You could say, actually, this is evidence that Newton was one of the people who woke up to the evil of the slave trade much earlier than others. He was one of the very, very rare, almost entirely exceptional, slave ship officers who repented of what he was involved in and went on the record against it. And arguably he was a significant influencer in terms of his interpersonal relationships with people like William Cowper and William Wilberforce who would also play a very important roles in the campaign against the slave trade.

“On the other hand, what I’ve documented is the difficulty Newton himself had in being completely honest about his own role in the trade. It was a difficult thing to look back on his early career and reflect on how close he was, how immersed he was in it, and the sorts of torture and violence that were involved in the trade — he tended to distance himself from that. So it’s a complicated story.”

Newton died in December 1807, aged 82, having lived to see parliament’s abolition of the British Atlantic slave trade earlier that year. His hymn Amazing Grace was set to New Britain — the tune with which it is now most associated — in the 1840s and became hugely popular. It was even adopted as an unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

The picture at the top of the article is The Slave Trade — a 1791 print by John Raphael Smith after a painting by George Morland. Image: Alamy

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