John Newton: Sailor to Slave Ship Captain

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John Newton (1725-1807)

The man who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace” led a colorful life before penning his famous hymn lyrics.

Perhaps the best-known slave-ship captain in history is John Newton, the man who wrote “Amazing Grace”. Rebellious in his youth, he experienced first-hand what it meant to be a slave only to become a slave-ship captain upon his deliverance. Profiting nicely from the trade during his prime, he spoke out against slavery later in life.

John Newton’s Life Before “Amazing Grace”

John Newton made four slave-trading voyages between 1748 and 1754, and served as captain on three of them. Although “bred to the sea”, according to Marcus Rediker’s, The Slave Ship: A Human History, Newton demonstrated a definite rebellious streak. His father was a sea captain and had apprenticed Newton out at age eleven as was customary. He worked his way up the ranks as expected, but eventually deserted only to be caught and punished. To avoid the punishment of a longer voyage at a reduced rank, Newton volunteered to be exchanged to a slave ship. After getting into trouble on that ship as well, Newton deserted once again on Plantain Island off the coast of Sierra Leone.

John Newton the Fugitive and Slave

Newton first went to work for a white trader in Africa, but his poor people skills resulted in problems ashore as well as aboard ship. Working as a middleman between African slave dealers and European slave ship captains, Newton’s new boss had little patience with Newton’s independent thinking. Newton was chained, beaten, and generally mistreated.

Although he considered himself a slave and described himself in later writings as “depressed to the lowest degree of human wretchedness”, he did eventually find his way back to England on the slave ship Greyhound after having been lured aboard with the news that an inheritance awaited him in England. Surviving a terrible storm at sea, Newton eventually arrived broke in Liverpool determined not to return to Africa. But his resolve didn’t last long.

John Newton Slave Ship Captain

In 1749, he was offered the opportunity to captain a ship by a friend of his father’s — Joseph Manesty’s slave ship. Feeling he lacked experience, he agreed to make the voyage as first mate to learn the ropes. Following his turn as first mate, he went on to captain three voyages of his own before retiring from the trade for health reasons in 1754. Like all slave-ship captains, John Newton engaged in the depravities inherent to the trade, including terrorizing and torturing both enslaved Africans and his crew. It was part of the slave-ship captain job description. John Newton’s Christianity was a fundamental part of his life even while participating in the slave trade.

A writer of many hymns, John Newton wrote “Amazing Grace” in 1773, almost twenty years after his retirement from the slave trade. While the word “lost” in his hymn is often understood to refer to being “lost” in the slave trade, Newton himself had a different view. According to Rediker, he “considered his role as slave-ship captain to be a godly calling and was “upon the whole satisfied with it, as the appointment Providence had marked out” for him. Based on Newton’s own writings in 1752 where he uses the words “lost” and “found” in the context of his own slavery and then elevation to slave ship captain, Rediker implies that this is more likely the origin of the famous lyrics. Newton saw his own elevation in status as the result of Divine Intervention.

Knowing first-hand the “abject state of servitude and sickness” he was inflicting on others, John Newton voluntarily participated in the African slave trade. While he may have been less depraved than many slave ship captains, there were no kind and gentle ones. Toward the end of his life, Newton came out publicly against the slave trade, testifying before the House of Commons in 1789 and 1790. His writings provided much documentation regarding the horrors of the trade.

Source:

  1. Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-67001823-9
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