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."
Slavery in the United States (£1.29)
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."