John Newton

John Newton

John Newton was born on 24th July 1725 in Wapping. His father was a master mariner. His mother died of tuberculosis when John was only six. His father remarried after his mother's death, but John did not enjoy a good relationship with his stepmother.

In 1733 Newton was sent to a boarding-school at Stratford. At the age of eleven he went to sea with his father. A few years later he became a crew member of a slave-ship. He later recalled that he was based in Sierra Leone "for the purpose of purchasing and collecting slaves, to sell to the vessels that arrived from Europe."

Newton later explained: "The slaves, in general, are bought, and paid for. Sometimes, when goods are lent, or trusted on shore, the trader voluntarily leaves a free person, perhaps his own son, as a hostage, or pawn, for the payment; and, in case or default, the hostage is carried off, and sold; which, however hard upon him, being in consequence of a free stipulation, cannot be deemed unfair. There have been instances of unprincipled captains, who, at the close of what they supposed their last voyage, and when they had no intention of revisiting the coast, have detained, and carried away, free people with them; and left the next ship, that should come from the same port, to risk the consequences. But these actions, I hope, and believe, are not common."

Newton argued that it was important to have as many slaves as possible on board the slave-ship: "With our ships, the great object is, to be full. When the ship is there, it is thought desirable, she should take as many as possible. The cargo of a vessel of a hundred tons, or little more, is calculated to purchase from two hundred and twenty to two hundred and fifty slaves. Their lodging-rooms below the deck, which are three (for the men, the boys, and the women) besides a place for the sick, are sometimes more than five feet high, and sometimes less; and this height is divided towards the middle, for the slaves lie in two rows, one above the other, on each side of the ship, close to each other, like books upon a shelf. I have known them so close, that the shelf would not, easily, contain one more. Let it be observed, that the poor creatures, thus cramped for want of room, are likewise in irons, for the most part both hands and feet, and two together, which makes it difficult for them to turn or move, to attempt either to rise or to lie down, without hurting themselves, or each other."

Newton admitted that conditions on board ship were appalling: "The heat and the smell of these rooms, when the weather will not admit of the slaves being brought upon deck, and of having their rooms cleaned every day, would be, almost, insupportable, to a person not accustomed to them. If the slaves and their rooms can be constantly aired, and they are not detained too long on board, perhaps there are not many die; but the contrary is often their lot. They are kept down, by the weather, to breathe a hot and corrupted air, sometimes for a week: this, added to the galling of their irons, and the despondency which seizes their spirits, when thus confined, soon becomes fatal."

On one occasion Newton kept a record of how many slaves died on a journey from Africa to South Carolina: "The ship, in which I was mate, left the coast with two hundred and eighteen slaves on board; and though we were not much affected by epidemical disorders, I find, by my journal of that voyage (now before me) that we buried sixty-two on our passage to South Carolina, exclusive of those which died before we left the coast, of which I have no account. I believe, upon an average between the more healthy, and the more sickly voyages, and including all contingencies, One fourth of the whole purchase may be allotted to the article of mortality. That is, if the English ships purchase sixty thousand slaves annually, upon the whole extent of the coast, the annual loss of lives cannot be much less than fifteen thousand."

Newton also took slaves to Antigua. He later recalled a conversation with a man who purchased slaves from Newton: "He said, that calculations had been made, with all possible exactness, to determine which was the preferable, that is, the most saving method of managing slaves". He went onto say that they needed to decided: "Whether, to appoint them moderate work, plenty of provision, and such treatment, as might enable them to protract their lives to old age? Or, by rigorously straining their strength to the utmost, with little relaxation, hard fare, and hard usage, to wear them out before they became useless, and unable to do service; and then, to buy new ones, to fill up their places?" Newton added: "He farther said, that these skillful calculators had determined in favor of the latter mode, as much the cheaper; and that he could mention several estates, in the island of Antigua, on which, it was seldom known, that a slave had lived above nine years."

Newton's biographer, Bruce Hindmarsh, points out: "His behaviour during this whole period involved ribald and blasphemous language; he also alludes vaguely to sexual misconduct. After six months trading he determined to stay on the Guinea coast of Africa to work in the onshore trade, hoping to make his fortune as a slave factor on one of the Plantanes islands off the coast of Sierra Leone. Instead during the next two years he suffered illness, starvation, exposure, and ridicule as his master, a man named Clow, used him brutally. Newton always marked this point as the nadir of his spiritual journey."

On 21st March, 1748, Newton was aboard The Greyhound when he encountered a severe north Atlantic storm. Newton resorted to saying his prayers and because he survived he developed a new faith in God. Newton began to read the Bible and other religious books. However, he continued to work on ships taking slaves from the Guinea coast and the West Indies (1748–9).

Newton married Mary Catlett on 12th February 1750. He became master of slave-trading ships, The Duke of Argyle (1750–51) and The African (1752–54). Bruce Hindmarsh has argued "Newton has sometimes been accused of hypocrisy for holding strong religious convictions at the same time as being active in the slave trade, praying above deck while his human cargo was in abject misery below deck."

In 1754 Newton suffered a convulsive fit and was forced to leave the maritime trade. Later that year he attended religious meetings addressed by George Whitefield and John Wesley. In August 1755 Newton took up a civil service post as tide surveyor at Liverpool. He also became a leading evangelical laymen in the region. This included hosting large religious meetings in his own home.

Newton was considered a Methodist and was unsuccessful in several applications for orders in the Church of England. He sent the first draft of his autobiography to William Legge, 2nd Earl of Dartmouth. With his support Newton received deacon's orders, on 29th April 1764, from the Bishop of Lincoln. Newton became curate-in-charge of Olney in Buckinghamshire. Later that year Newton's Authentic Narrative appeared in print and it immediately established his place as one of the country's leading evangelicals.

Newton had become friends with the poet, William Cowper and in 1771 they began to collaborate formally on a project to publish a volume of their collected hymns. Olney Hymns was published in 1779. Newton's most famous contributions include Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken, How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds! and Amazing Grace. In his book, Life of Cowper (1835) Robert Southey claimed that Newton's influence had served to undermine Cowper's sanity.

In January 1780 Newton accepted the offer from John Thornton of the benefice of St Mary Woolchurch in Lombard Street. The living was worth just over £260 a year. He became close friends with William Wilberforce and became involved in his campaign against the slave-trade. In 1787 Newton published Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1787). He admitted that this was "a confession, which... comes too late....It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders."

Newton explained why he had become involved in the campaign against the slave trade: "The nature and effects of that unhappy and disgraceful branch of commerce, which has long been maintained on the Coast of Africa, with the sole, and professed design of purchasing our fellow-creatures, in order to supply our West-India islands and the American colonies, when they were ours, with slaves; is now generally understood. So much light has been thrown upon the subject, by many able pens; and so many respectable persons have already engaged to use their utmost influence, for the suppression of a traffic, which contradicts the feelings of humanity; that it is hoped, this stain of our National character will soon be wiped out."

John Newton died on 21st December 1807 and was buried by the side of his wife in St Mary Woolchurch on 31st December; both bodies were reinterred at Olney in 1893.

Primary Sources

(1) John Newton, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1787)

The nature and effects of that unhappy and disgraceful branch of commerce, which has long been maintained on the Coast of Africa, with the sole, and professed design of purchasing our fellow-creatures, in order to supply our West-India islands and the American colonies, when they were ours, with slaves; is now generally understood. So much light has been thrown upon the subject, by many able pens; and so many respectable persons have already engaged to use their utmost influence, for the suppression of a traffic, which contradicts the feelings of humanity; that it is hoped, this stain of our National character will soon be wiped out.

If I attempt, after what has been done, to throw my mite into the public stock of information, it is less from an apprehension that my interference is necessary, than from a conviction, that silence, at such a time, and on such an occasion, would, in me, be criminal. If my testimony would not be necessary, or serviceable, yet, perhaps, I am bound, in conscience, to take shame to myself by a public confession, which, however sincere, comes too late to prevent, or repair, the misery and mischief to which I have, formerly, been accessory.

I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was, once, an active instrument, in a business at which my heart now shudders. My headstrong passions and follies plunged me, in early life, into a succession of difficulties and hardships, which, at length, reduced me to seek a refuge among the Natives of Africa. There, for about the space of eighteen months, I was in effect, though without the name, a Captive and a Slave myself; and was depressed to the lowest degree of human wretchedness. Possibly, I should not have been so completely miserable had I lived among the Natives only, but it was my lot to reside with white men; for at that time, several persons of my own color and language were settled upon that part of the Windward coast, which lies between Sierra-Leone and Cape Mount; for the purpose of purchasing and collecting Slaves, to sell to the vessels that arrived from Europe.

This is a bourn, from which few travellers return, who have once determined to venture upon a temporary residence there; but the good providence of God, without my expectation, and almost against my will, delivered me from those scenes of wickedness and woe; and I arrived at Liverpool in May 1748. I soon revisited the place of my captivity, as mate of a ship, and, in the year 1750, I was appointed commander, in which capacity I made three voyages to the Windward Coast, for slaves.

I first saw the Coast of Guinea in the year 1745, and took my last leave of it in 1754. It was not, intentionally, a farewell; but through the mercy of God it proved so. I fitted out for a fourth voyage, and was upon the point of sailing, when I was arrested by a sudden illness, and I resigned the ship to another Captain.

Thus I was unexpectedly freed from this disagreeable service. Disagreeable I had long found it; but I think I should have quitted it sooner, had I considered it, as I now do, to be unlawful and wrong. But I never had a scruple upon this head at the time; nor was such a thought once suggested to me, by any friend. What I did, I did ignorantly; considering it as the line of life which Divine Providence had allotted me, and having no concern, in point of conscience, but to treat the Slaves, while under my care, with as much humanity as a regard to my own safety would admit.

The experience and observation of nine years, would qualify me for being a competent witness upon this subject, could I safely trust to the report of Memory, after an interval of more than thirty-three years. But, in the course of so long a period, the ideas of past scenes and transactions, grow indistinct; and I am aware, that what I have seen, and what I have only heard related, may, by this time, have become so insensibly blended together, that, in some cafes, it may be difficult for me, if not impossible, to distinguish them, with absolute certainty. It is, however, my earnest desire, and will therefore engage my utmost care, that I may offer nothing in writing, as from my own knowledge, which I could not cheerfully, if requisite, confirm upon oath.

(2) John Newton, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1787)

Some people suppose, that the ship trade is rather the stealing, than the buying of slaves. But there is enough to lay to the charge of the ships, without accusing them falsely. The slaves, in general, are bought, and paid for. Sometimes, when goods are lent, or trusted on shore, the trader voluntarily leaves a free person, perhaps his own son, as a hostage, or pawn, for the payment; and, in case or default, the hostage is carried off, and sold; which, however hard upon him, being in consequence of a free stipulation, cannot be deemed unfair. There have been instances of unprincipled Captains, who, at the close of what they supposed their last voyage, and when they had no intention of revisiting the coast, have detained, and carried away, free people with them; and left the next ship, that should come from the same port, to risk the consequences. But these actions, I hope, and believe, are not common.

With regard to the natives, to steal a free man or woman, and to sell them on board a ship, would, I think, be a more difficult, and more dangerous attempt, in Sherbro, than in London. But I have no doubt, that the traders who come, from the interior parts of Africa, at a great distance, find opportunity, in the course of their journey, to pick up stragglers, whom they may meet in their way. This branch of oppression, and robbery, would likewise fail, if the temptation to it were removed.

(3) John Newton, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1787)

I have, to the best, of my knowledge, pointed out the principal sources, of that immense supply of slaves, which furnishes so large an exportation every year. If all that are taken on board the ships, were to survive the voyage, and be landed in good order, possibly the English, French, and Dutch islands, and colonies, would be soon overstocked, and fewer ships would sail to the Coast. But a large abatement must be made for mortality. After what I have already said of their treatment, I shall now, that I am again to consider them on board the ships, confine myself to this point.

In the Portuguese ships, which trade from Brazil to the Gold Coast and Angola, I believe, a heavy mortality is not frequent. The slaves have room, they are not put in irons, (I speak from information only) and are humanely treated.

With our ships, the great object is, to be full. When the ship is there, it is thought desirable, she should take as many as possible. The cargo of a vessel of a hundred tons, or little more, is calculated to purchase from two hundred and twenty to two hundred and fifty slaves. Their lodging-rooms below the

deck, which are three (for the men, the boys, and the women) besides a place for the sick, are sometimes more than five feet high, and sometimes less; and this height is divided towards the middle, for the slaves lie in two rows, one above the other, on each side of the ship, close to each other, like books upon a shelf. I have known them so close, that the shelf would not, easily, contain one more.

And I have known a white man sent down among the men, to lay them in these rows to the greatest advantage, so that as little space as possible might be lost. Let it be observed, that the poor creatures, thus cramped for want of room, are likewise in irons, for the most part both hands and feet, and two together, which makes it difficult for them to turn or move, to attempt either to rise or to lie down, without hurting themselves, or each other. Nor is the motion of the ship, especially her heeling, or stoop on one side, when under sail, to be admitted; for this, as they lie athwart, or across the ship, adds to the uncomfortableness of their lodging, especially to those who lie on the leeward, or leaning side of the vessel.

The heat and the smell of these rooms, when the weather will not admit of the slaves being brought upon deck, and of having their rooms cleaned every day, would be, almost, insupportable, to a person not accustomed to them. If the slaves and their rooms can be constantly aired, and they are not detained too long on board, perhaps there are not many die; but the contrary is often their lot. They are kept down, by the weather, to breathe a hot and corrupted air, sometimes for a week: this, added to the galling of their irons, and the despondency which seizes their spirits, when thus confined, soon becomes fatal. And every morning, perhaps, more instances than one are found, of the living and the dead, like the Captives of Mezentius, fastened together.

Epidemical fevers and fluxes, which fill the ship with noisome and noxious effluvia, often break out, infect the seamen likewise, and the oppressors, and the oppressed, fall by the same stroke. I believe, nearly one half of the slaves on board, have, sometimes, died; and that the loss of a third part, in these circumstances, is not unusual. The ship, in which I was mate, left the coast with two hundred and eighteen slaves on board; and though we were not much affected by epidemical disorders, I find, by my journal of that voyage (now before me) that we buried sixty-two on our passage to South Carolina, exclusive of those which died before we left the coast, of which I have no account.

I believe, upon an average between the more healthy, and the more sickly voyages, and including all contingencies, One fourth of the whole purchase may be allotted to the article of mortality. That is, if the English ships purchase sixty thousand slaves annually, upon the whole extent of the coast, the annual loss of lives cannot be much less than fifteen thousand.

(4) John Newton, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1787)

The sailors must be much exposed to the weather; especially on the Windward Coast, where a great part of the cargo is procured by boats, which are often sent to the distance of thirty or forty leagues, and are sometimes a month before they return. Many vessels arrive upon the coast before the rainy season, which continues from about May to October, is over; and if trade be scarce, the ships which arrive in the fair, or dry season, often remain till the rains return, before they can complete their purchase. A proper shelter from the weather, in an open boat, when the rain is incessant night and day, for weeks and months, is impracticable.

I have myself, in such a boat, been five or fix days together, without, as we say, a dry thread about me, sleeping or waking. And during the fair season, tornadoes, or violent storms of wind, thunder, and heavy rain, are very frequent, though they seldom last long. In fact, the boats seldom return, without bringing some of the people ill of dangerous fevers or fluxes, occasioned either by the weather, or by unwholesome diet, such as the crude fruits and palm wine, with which they are plentifully supplied by the natives.

Strong liquors, such as brandy, rum, or English spirits, the sailors cannot often procure, in such quantities as to hurt them; but they will, if they can; and opportunities sometimes offer, especially to those who are in the boats; for strong liquor being an article much in demand, so that, without it, scarcely a single slave can be purchased, it is always at hand. And if what is taken from the casks or bottles, that are for sale, be supplied with water, they are as full as they were before. The blacks, who buy the liquor, are the losers by the adulteration; but often the people, who cheat them, are the greatest sufferers.

The article of women, likewise, contributes largely to the loss of our seamen. When they are on shore, they often, from their known, thoughtless imprudence, involve themselves, on this account, in quarrels with the natives, and, if not killed upon the spot, are frequently poisoned. On ship-board, they may be retrained, and in some ships they are; but such restraint is far from being general. It depends

much upon the disposition, and attention, of the Captain. When I was in the trade, I knew several commanders of African ships, who were prudent, respectable men, and who maintained a proper discipline and regularity in their vessels; but there were too many of a different character. In some ships, perhaps in the most, the license allowed, in this particular, was almost unlimited. Moral turpitude was seldom considered, but they who took care to do the ship's business, might, in other respects, do what they pleased. These excesses, if they do not induce fevers, at least, render the constitution less able to support them; and lewdness, too frequently, terminates in death.

The risk of insurrections is to be added. These, I believe, are always meditated; for the men slaves are not, easily, reconciled to their confinement, and treatment; and if attempted, they are seldom suppressed without considerable loss; and sometimes they succeed, to the destruction of a whole ship's company at once. Seldom a year passes, but we hear of one or more such catastrophes: and we likewise hear, sometimes, of whites and blacks involved, in one moment, in one common ruin, by the gunpowder taking fire, and blowing up the ship.

(5) John Newton, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1787)

Usually, about two-thirds of a cargo of slaves are males. When a hundred and fifty or two hundred stout men, torn from their native land, many of whom never saw the sea, much less a ship, till a short space before they are embarked; who have, probably the same natural prejudice against a white man, as we have against a black; and who often bring with them an apprehension that they are bought to be eaten: I say, when thus circumstanced, it is not to be expected that they will, tamely, resign themselves to their situation. It is always taken for granted, that they will attempt to gain their liberty, if possible. Accordingly, as we dare not trust them, we receive them on board, from the first, as enemies: and before their number exceeds, perhaps, ten or fifteen, they are all put in irons; in most ships, two and two together. And frequently, they are not thus confined, as they might, most conveniently, stand or move, the right hand and foot of one to the left of the other; but across, that is, the hand and foot of each on the same side, whether right or left, are fettered together: so that they cannot move, either hand or foot, but with great caution, and with perfect consent. Thus they must sit, walk and lie, for many months, (sometimes for nine or ten,) without any mitigation or relief, unless they are sick.

In the night they are confined below, in the day-time (if the weather be fine) they are upon deck; and as they are brought up, by pairs, a chain is put through a ring upon their irons, and this is likewise locked down to the ring-bolts, which are fastened at certain intervals upon the deck. These, and other precautions, are no more than necessary; especially, as while the number of slaves increases, that of the people, who are to guard them, is diminished, by sickness, or death, or by being absent in the boats: so that, sometimes, not ten men can be mustered, to watch, night and day, over two hundred, besides having all the other business of the ship to attend.

That these precautions are so often effectual, is much more to be wondered at, than that they sometimes fail. One unguarded hour, or minute, is sufficient to give the slaves the opportunity they are always waiting for. An attempt to rise upon the ship's company, brings on instantaneous and horrid war; for, when they are once in motion, they are desperate and where they do not conquer, they are seldom quelled without much mischief and blood-shed, on both sides.

Sometimes, when the slaves are ripe for an insurrection, one of them will impeach the affair; and then necessity, and the state policy, of these small, but most absolute governments, enforce maxims directly contrary to the nature of things. The traitor to the cause of liberty is caressed, rewarded, and

deemed an honest fellow. The patriots, who formed and animated the plan, if they can be found out, must be treated as villains, and punished, to intimidate the rest. These punishments, in their nature and degree, depend upon the sovereign will of the Captain. Some are content with inflicting such moderate punishment, as may suffice for an example. But unlimited power, instigated by revenge, and where the heart, by a long familiarity with the sufferings of slaves, is become callous, and insensible to the pleadings of humanity, is terrible.

I have seen them sentenced to unmerciful whippings, continued till the poor creatures have not had power to groan under their misery, and hardly a sign of life has remained. I have seen them agonizing for hours, I believe, for days together, under the torture of the thumb-screws; a dreadful engine, which, if the screw be turned by an unrelenting hand, can give intolerable anguish. There have been instances in which cruelty has proceeded still further; but, as I hope they are few, and I can mention but one, from my own knowledge, I shall but mention it.

I have often heard a Captain, who has been long since dead, boast of his conduct in a former voyage, when his Slaves attempted to rise upon him. After he had suppressed the insurrection, he sat in judgment upon the insurgents; and not only, in cold blood, adjudged several of them, I know not how many, to die, but studied, with no small attention, how to make death as excruciating to them as possible. For my reader's sake, I suppress the recital of particulars.

Surely, it must be allowed, that they who are long conversant with such scenes as these, are liable to imbibe a spirit of ferociousness, and savage insensibility, of which human nature, depraved as it is, is not, ordinarily, capable. If these things be true, the reader will admit the possibility of a fact, that was in current reports when I was upon the Coast, and the truth of which, though I cannot now authenticate it, I have no reason to doubt.

A mate of a ship, in a long-boat, purchased a young woman, with a fine child, of about a year old, in her arms. In the night, the child cried much, and disturbed his sleep. He rose up in great anger, and swore, that if the child did not cease making such a noise, he would presently silence it. The child continued to cry. At length he rose up a second time, tore the child from the mother, and threw it into the sea. The child was soon silenced indeed, but it was not so easy to pacify the woman: she was too valuable to be thrown overboard, and he was obliged to bear the sound of her lamentations, till he could put her on board his ship.

I am persuaded, that every tender mother who feasts her eyes and her mind, when she contemplates the infant in her arms, will commiserate the poor Africans. But why do I speak of one child, when we have heard and read a melancholy story, too notoriously true to admit of contradiction, of more than a hundred grown slaves, thrown into the sea, at one time, from on board a ship, when fresh water was scarce; to fix the loss upon the Underwriters, which otherwise, had they died on board, must have fallen upon the owners of the vessel. These instances are specimens of the spirit produced, by the African Trade, in men, who, once, were no more destitute of the milk of human kindness than ourselves.

(6) John Newton, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1787)

The condition of the unhappy slaves is in a continual progress from bad to worse. Their case is truly pitiable, from the moment they are In a state of slavery, in their own country; but it may be deemed a state of ease and liberty, compared with their situation on board our ships.

Yet, perhaps, they would wish to spend the remainder of their days on ship board, could they know, before-hand, the nature of the servitude which awaits them, on shore; and that the dreadful hardships and sufferings they have already endured, would, to the most of them, only terminate in excessive toil, hunger, and the excruciating tortures of the cart-whip, inflicted at the caprice of an unfeeling overseer, proud of the power allowed him of punishing whom, and when, and how he pleases.

I hope the slaves, in our islands, are better treated now, than they were, at the time when I was in the trade. And even then, I know, there were slaves, who, under the care and protection of humane masters, were, comparatively, happy. But I saw and heard enough to satisfy me, that their condition, in general, was wretched to the extreme. However, my stay in Antigua and St. Christopher's (the only islands I visited) was too short, to qualify me for saying much, from my own certain knowledge, upon this painful subject. Nor is it needful: Enough has been offered by several respectable writers, who have had opportunity of collecting surer, and fuller information.

One thing I cannot omit, which was told me by the gentleman to whom my ship was consigned, at Antigua, in the year 1751, and who was, himself, a planter. He said, that calculations had been made, with all possible exactness, to determine which was the preferable, that is, the most saving method of managing slaves: "Whether, to appoint them moderate work, plenty of provision, and such treatment, as might enable them to protract their lives to old age? Or, by rigorously straining their strength to the utmost, with little relaxation, hard fare, and hard usage, to wear them out before they became useless, and unable to do service; and then, to buy new ones, to fill up their places?"

He farther said, that these skillful calculators had determined in favor of the latter mode, as much the cheaper; and that he could mention several estates, in the island of Antigua, on which, it was seldom known, that a slave had lived above nine years.

When the slaves are landed for sale, for in the Leeward Islands they are usually sold on shore, it may happen, that after a long separation in different parts of the ship, when they are brought together in one place, some, who are nearly related, may recognize each other. If, upon such a meeting, pleasure should be felt, it can be but momentary. The sale disperses them wide, to different parts of the island, or to different islands. Husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sifters, must suddenly part again, probably to meet no more.