James Ramsay (1733-89), by Carl Frederik von Breda
The Independent journalist, Patrick Cockburn, has discovered that he has an ancestor who isn’t famous, yet who certainly should be. This is the Reverend James Ramsay, rector of Teston (pronounced Teeson) in Kent, a pioneer in the movement to abolish the slave trade. The standard life is F. O. Shyllon’s James Ramsay: the Unknown Abolitionist (Canongate, 1977). I describe in my book how he had formerly been rector of the Caribbean island of St Kitts, where his experiences of what he described as a ‘nightmare of cruelty’ turned him into a passionate opponent of the slave trade and of the institution of slavery. In 1784 he wrote his Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies, a ground-breaking work that for the first time drew attention to the human cost of the production of the sugar that was such a mainstay of the British diet. I treat this more fully in a blog I wrote for my friend, Norman Geras.
A few years ago, another friend, the Reverend David Williams, went to the parish of St John Capisterre on St Kitts, as a stand-in for the regular rector. He took photographs of the church and the congregation, but even more remarkably, he photocopied some baptismal and marriage registers from St John’s and also from the sister church of St Paul from 1826 and 1830.
By this time Ramsay was long dead (1789), the slave trade had been abolished (1807), Wilberforce had retired from Parliament (1825), and since 1823 pressure had been building up to end the institution of slavery itself. The records show that Ramsay’s successor, the Revd. J. J. Kerie, was busy baptising slaves and conducting marriages. Most of the slaves made their mark rather than signing their names, but this was perfectly valid legally. The fact that they couldn’t sign their names isn’t necessarily evidence that they were illiterate, as reading and writing were taught separately.
In baptising and marrying the slaves, Kerie was granting them an autonomy and human dignity otherwise denied them. For this reason, many planters forbade slave marriages and baptisms. Below is a photograph of the church – not the original building, I imagine, but its successor, attended by a lively congregation, no doubt the descendants of the slaves baptised and married by Ramsay and Kerie.