The Clapham Sect and Scotland

Charles_Grant

Charles Grant (1746-1823). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charles_Grant.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Charles_Grant.jpg

As the Scottish referendum draws near it’s worth looking at the Clapham Sect within a British, and particularly Scottish, context.

The Union of Parliaments of 1707 had created the United Kingdom. Scottish MPs now sat in the British parliament. Following this, as Linda Colley has shown, there was a conscious attempt to create a British identity, seen, for example in the creation of the British Museum and in the words of Rule Britannia’, written by the Scotsman, James Thomson. Some Scots took the opportunities opened up by the Union make their fortunes in the Empire, others to practise at the English bar. The most celebrated of these lawyers was the Lord Chief Justice, William Murray, Lord Mansfield, who in 1772 gave the important anti-slavery ruling in the famous Somerset case.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Union, the eighteenth century saw a flowering of Scottish cultural life.  The Scottish Enlightenment was a movement of European importance and had a huge influence on abolitionist thought. Teston, in Kent, described by Hannah More as ‘the Runneymede of the negroes’ was the home of the Scots Member of Parliament and naval administrator, Sir Charles Middleton. He appointed as rector another Scotsman, James Ramsay, whose ground-breaking accounts of the treatment of slaves in the West Indies drew attention for the first time to the human cost of cheap sugar.  In his books Ramsay took issue with his fellow Scotsman, David Hume, on the intellectual capacity and the cultural achievements of Africans, exposing in a devastating fashion the racism that lay behind so much Enlightenment thought. In his great abolitionist speech of 1789 Wilberforce built on Ramsay’s arguments and introduced Adam Smith’s concept of the impartial spectator, imagining him observing the treatment of the slaves on the terrible Middle Passage and judging it accordingly. Continue reading

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James Ramsay: the unknown abolitionist

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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. 

Ramsay 1

Ramsay 2

PICT0302By 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.

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