The Fearless Benjamin Lay

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The just man who is resolute/ Will not be turned from his purpose/ Either by the rage of the crowd or/ By an imperious tyrant. Roberts Vaux, an early biographer of Benjamin Lay, quoted these lines by Rome’s lyric poet of antiquity, Horace, to describe the fortitude and courage Lay showed throughout his remarkable life in the face of the ill will and taunts expressed towards him by those who benefitted from the vile transatlantic slave trade. And where not better to start a review of this simply very good book?

Marcus Rediker, if somewhat off target by placing Lay’s birthplace of Copford in Essex “about sixty miles northwest of London”, is spot on in his assessment of Benjamin Lay as a living continuum of the revolutionary thought and agitation that animated and drove the English Revolution of the 17th century.

An extremely well written and documented book, Rediker’s clear admiration of Lay’s character and bravery and his own highly tuned and nuanced approach to revolutionary materialist history has produced a compelling “history from below” of a person who is “in several ways a curiously modern man, he is a radical for our time”.

Benjamin Lay was born in 1682 into a modest Quaker family in Essex, “known in the seventeenth century for textile production, protest and religious radicalism”. And although without doubt it was this radical Quaker tradition that shaped and drove the early Lay’s thoughts and actions, it was the barbarity of the slave trade he and his wife Sarah witnessed in Barbados between 1718 and 1720 that transformed Lay into “the first revolutionary abolitionist”.

Rediker leaves us in no doubt that Lay not only thought that the buying and selling of humans was morally wrong and against god’s teachings, but actively and tirelessly campaigned against slavery in a period when it was held as “common sense”, writing what is one of the earliest anti-slavery tracts: “All Slave-keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates”.

The acts of “guerrilla theatre” he employed in his campaign against slavery make the agit-prop of Paris 1968 seem tame in comparison. Driving a sword into a Bible that he had filled with bright red pokeberry juice over the heads of the most prominent slave owning Quakers in Philadelphia’s most important yearly meeting was not only brave and audacious; it had everyone talking about Lay and his anti-slavery campaign.

For this he would be ostracised and abused, ridiculed and mocked — and, perhaps most painful for Benjamin, condemned by the faith and church he so fervently loved.

More often than not book covers are littered with hyperbole extolling the virtues and worth of the volume; however, Robin Blackburn in this case suggests a succinct and telling judgement when he writes “The Fearless Benjamin Lay offers a master class in eighteenth-century radical micro-history, showing how much is revealed by the scattered details of one man’s life. A short man but a political and moral giant”.