Monthly Archives: April 2015

Amazing Grace: Cruel Slave Trader finds safe haven in Lough Swilly

Amazing Grace – Probably the best known hymn in the English speaking world! Performed,it is estimated, about 10 million times every year, it is loved by folk singers, protest movements, church congregations, pipe bands, bag pipers and choirs the world over. Often thought to be an  African American Spiritual, it was in fact written by an Englishman John Newton, a slave trader who at one time found refuge from a storm  in the sheltered waters of Lough Swilly in north Donegal, Ireland,where he penned the first verse.

Newton_j

John Newton in later life (image Wikipedia)

John Newton was born in 1725 in Wapping,London, England, the son of a shipmaster. His seagoing career began at the age of 11 when he first sailed with his father. At the age of 18 he was press-ganged into the Royal Navy and served aboard the HMS Harwich. At his own request some time later, he transferred to the Pegasus heading for West Africa. Pegasus was a slave trader and was in all probability plying the triangular route,sailing from Liverpool towards the west coast of Africa where one commodity was traded for another – in this case goods such as textiles and rum were traded for humans. Crossing the Atlantic to the Caribbean Islands and North Americas, the so-called ‘Middle Passage’ these human ‘commodities’ were then sold, the ship reloaded with sugar,cotton, tobacco  then sailed back to its Liverpool base.

Typical triangular trade route  (Image Wikipedia licenced Creative Commons)

Typical triangular trade route (Image Commons Wikimedia)

Newton was a deeply unpopular man. He was loudmouthed and rebellious,given to profanity and heavy drinking. He was disliked so much by those on board the Pegasus that they abandoned him to a slave dealer in West Africa. Here in Sierra Leone he had a miserable time. He described his humiliating existence as being a ‘servant of slaves’. It was during this period that he began to show a passing interest in Christianity. In 1748 he was rescued  by the captain of the Greyhound, probably at the instigation of his father who had asked the captain to keep a look out for him. However,on March 10,1748, en route back to Liverpool,the Greyhound encountered a violent storm off the coast of Ireland. She was relentlessly pounded by heavy seas for weeks on end. Holed and taking on water. Newton pleaded with God to spare him and the crew. But the terror continued for a number of weeks, as the damaged Greyhound drifted helplessly and food supplies ran low. Newton later wrote in his autobiography, ”An Authentic Narrative”

‘We saw the island of Tory and the next day anchored in Lough Swilly in Ireland. This was the 8th day of April, just four weeks after the damage we sustained from the sea. Then we came into this port, our very last victuals was boiling in the pot; and before we had been there two hours, the wind began to blow with great violence. If we had continued at sea that night in our shattered condition, we must have gone to the bottom. About this time I began to know that there is a God that hears and answers prayers‘.

While her crew enjoyed the hospitality of the locals who lived on the Lough, local tradesmen set about repairing the Greyhound. Newton attended church at nearby Derry/Londonderry and it is thought that he penned the first verse of Amazing Grace while at Lough Swilly.

Amazing Grace! How Sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now am found,

Was blind but now I see.

For the rest of his life, Newton marked March 10th as the date on which he was converted to Christianity.

The Sheltered waters of Lough Swilly (Image  Boyd Gray Creative Commons Licensed for reuse)

The Sheltered waters of Lough Swilly (Image Boyd Gray Creative Commons)

However, conversion to Christianity did not divert Newton from his human trafficking trade. For the next number of years, he sailed on the slave ships working the ‘triangle’ route between Liverpool, Africa and the West Indies eventually captaining his own ships. He was not in any way kind to his captives. He reputedly had guns trained on them to maintain order,or placed them in thumbscrews to keep them quiet.He did not feel there was any conflict between trading slaves and being a christian and indeed this was the widely held belief in the 18th Century. In 1754 he had a serious health scare while at St Kitts, an island in the West Indies. This experience deepened his faith further, as he was once again saved from death. He resolved while here to enter the church.  His last captaincy was in 1754, but for years afterwards he continued to invest in the slave trade. Meanwhile,his religious convictions grew deeper until finally, in 1764, he was accepted by the Church of England and became curate for the parish of Olney in Buckinghamshire in England where he was based for the next 16 years. Newton developed a reputation as an inspirational orator and people thronged to his little church to hear him speak. It was here that he met the poet William Cowper and they collaborated in producing the world famous Olney Hymns, published in 1779. Newton’s Amazing Grace was included in the hymnal. The tune is unknown but it bears a strong resemblance to a West African ‘sorrow chant’or lament, which Newton may often have heard as the human cargo was being loaded up.

Newton Memorial  Window at Olney Church

Newton Memorial Window at Olney Church

In 1780, Newton was transferred to the London City parish of St Mary Woolnoth. This church is in Lombard Street and was familiar to me when I worked in the City of London.It has survived a number of attempts to have it demolished, including one when the underground rail system was going beneath it. There was public outcry, and the railway company had to be satisfied with putting the lift shafts for Bank Underground station directly under the floor.  It is now a listed building.

Church of St Mary Woolnoth, in the city of London.  (Image  Wikipedia)

Church of St Mary Woolnoth, in the city of London. (Image Wikipedia)

Among Newton’s parishioners there was William Wilberforce a young member of parliament  who had been a recent convert. They became firm friends. Newton counselled Wilberforce to remain in politics and use his new found beliefs to improve the world. This Wilberfoce did with “with increased diligence and conscientiousness”. Wilberforce spearheaded the cause of  the abolition of slavery in the House of Commons from 1789, no doubt in part influenced by Newton’s 1788 publication ‘Thoughts upon the Slave Trade’ which was a hard hitting account of the misery experienced by the human cargo, in particular highlighting the dreadful conditions on the ‘Middle Passage’. Newton sent a copy of his pamphlet to every member of Parliament and it became very popular. In it he stated: ‘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‘.

Official medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (1795) Produced by Wedgewood Factory. (Image Wikimedia)

Official medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (1795) Produced by Wedgewood Factory. (Image Wikimedia)

Newton lived to see the enactment the Slave Trade Act in 1807,which declared the slave trade illegal in the British Empire, but only just. In frail health he died just months afterwards on December 21st 1807. He wrote his own epitaph which is on a plaque at St Mary Woolnoth:

JOHN NEWTON, Clerk

Once an infidel and libertine

A servant of slaves in Africa,

Was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour

JESUS CHRIST,

restored, pardoned and appointed to preach

the Gospel which he had long laboured to destroy.

He ministered,

Near sixteen years in Olney, in Bucks,

And twenty eight years in this Church.

Originally interred at St Mary Woolnoth, John Newton and his wife,who had predeceased him,were re interred at Olney in 1893, at the little Church where he began his religious life. His epitaph is also inscribed on his tombstone there. This church has  beautiful stained glass windows which portray the Greyhound – one being tossed in a wild sea, the other safely at Lough Swilly.

 

 

The island of St Kitts opened an Amazing Grace Experience in 2014, dedicated to telling the story of John Newton, who traded slaves for sugar on the island.

A newly founded  Amazing Grace Festival centred in Buncrana on Lough Swilly takes place annually to mark John Newton’s arrival on April 8th 1748. The festival features fun and uplifting events for all ages including history, music, dance, arts and crafts, exhibitions, faith stories, and  more.

Everyone has their own favourite rendition of Amazing Grace – this one by Judy Collins,  is mine.

References

http://www.johnnewton.org

http://www.culturenorthernireland.org/

https://www.awesomestories.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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To tell of times that were..

Forget-me-not. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Forget-me-not. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Recently  I had news of the death of a lady  from my home village in County Donegal. Having moved away many years ago, I had met her on perhaps two or three occasions in the past decade or so. Yet the news of her death made me feel particularly sorrowful. As the days passed and memories flooded back, I came to realize that the reason for my sadness was that her passing more or less closes the curtain on the memory of our late father’s fun-filled younger days over 70 years ago in that relatively isolated Donegal village.

Dad was born in 1921, the third of 5 children, each separated in age by 2 years. As electrification had not yet arrived, candles,oil filled Tilley lamps and blazing turf fires lit the long winter evenings of their youth. Cars too were scarce and bicycles – often the ‘high Nelly’ type were the preferred mode of transport. In a small community young folk made their own  entertainment. There were three Gallagher families in particular that forged deep and life long relationships, (although our family was not related to the other two). With others in the village they played badminton in the local hall, played golf on Logue’s 9 hole golf course, attended horse racing on the strand, played cards, kicked football on the Lee, told stories by the fireside, went out on the Mummers at Christmas and enjoyed the annual arrival of Duffy’s Circus. Touring repertory and variety players would arrive from time to time and put on shows that would be remembered for months afterwards.

Poetry was a big part of their lives and they tried to outdo one another with great recitations! Poetry came easily to them as they had to learn it by rote at school from the age of about 7 or  8, in much the same way as we learned our times tables in later years.The poems our father recited and quoted on a regular basis included

There’s a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Kathmandu,

There’s a little marble cross below the town;

There’s a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew,

And the Yellow God forever gazes down.

(The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God , by J Milton Hayes)

And..

No stir in the air, no stir in the sea,

The Ship was still as she could be;

Her sails from heaven received no motion,

Her keel was steady in the ocean.

Without either sign or sound of their shock,

The waves flow’d over the Inchcape Rock;

So little they rose, so little they fell,

They did not move the Inchcape Bell.

(Inchcape Rock by Robert Southey )

And, from  Tennyson’s ”Charge of the Light Brigade”:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
(My father was still reciting this poem to my son, almost 80 years after he learned it).

In the 1920s and 1930s these young folk had a small band that played at dances in the local hall. Much of their musical  inspiration came from a crackly valve wireless that was run off a wet battery,like the one that filled the deep sill of our kitchen window.

I recall my father telling me how good a badminton player Annie was, but it was her reputation as a pianist that was second to none. He often spoke of their great music sessions. He played drums that were still in our house decades later. He had the full kit – snare drum, cymbals, drumsticks, drum brushes, the wooden block and the big base drum with pedals that operated the wooly beater. ”Top of the Pops” was different back then  –  if they heard a song or tune on the wireless that they liked, they sent away to McCullough Pigot in Dublin for the sheet music.

Wind up gramophone

Wind up gramophone (Image Wikimedia commons)

Shellac gramophone records were ordered to play on their wind up gramophone players so they all learned the melody and the lyrics. Dad was a good singer and he sang away to himself for all of his life! One of his favourite songs  was Abdul Abulbul Amir. We children were totally mesmerized by the exotic sounding names and the incomprehensible words, – such as Mameluke, skibouk, and truculent sneers, but that only added to our glee on hearing him sing! Written in 1877 by Percy French, one of Ireland’s most prolific songwriters, what appeared to be a light-hearted ditty was in fact a skit on the war between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire and was a deadly serious tale! The great thing about Abdul Abulbul Amir was that  it sounded equally impressive whether spoken or sung,  and we delighted in either!

On his last visit to his home village in 2005, just eight months before he died, Dad and I  called to see his long time friend Annie. To the best of my recollection her piano had pride of place in her home, but the abiding memory of the day was how they both laughed and laughed as they remembered singing and playing Abdul Abulbul Amir. And so, the reason for my sadness is the evocation of beautiful memories that I saw a decade ago, remembering times stretching  back into the mists of time some 70 years before.

Annie’s love of music was honoured at her funeral with the singing of her favourite song from way back then – not the skittish Abdul Abulbul Amir, but the more appropriate and beautiful Tennessee Waltz that she loved.

Our father had several phrases that he repeated very often.When thinking back on events in his life and on those who were no longer with us, he would say – ”Ah! To tell of times that were…God rest them all.”

God rest them all indeed.

Listen here to ABDUL ABULBUL AMIR sung by Frank Crumit in 1927

Abdul Abulbul Amir Lyrics

The sons of the Prophet are brave men and bold
And quite unaccustomed to fear,
But the bravest by far in the ranks of the Shah,
Was Abdul Abulbul Amir.

Now the heroes were plenty and well known to fame
In the troops that were led by the Czar,
And the bravest of these was a man by the name
Of Ivan Skavinsky Skavar

One day this bold Russian, he shouldered his gun
And donned his most truculent sneer,
Downtown he did go where he trod on the toe
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.

Young man, quote Abdul, has life grown so dull
That you wish to end your career?
Vile infidel know, you have trod on the toe
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.

Quoth Ivan, “My friend, your remarks, in the end,
Will avail you but little, I fear,
For you ne’er will survive to repeat them alive,
Mr. Abdul Abulbul Amir!”

So take your last look at the sunshine and brook
And send your regrets to the Czar
For by this I imply, you are going to die,
Count Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

Then this bold Mameluke drew his trusty skibouk,
With a cry of ‘Allah Akbar!’
And with murderous intent he ferociously went
For Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

They fought all that night ‘neath the pale yellow moon;
The din, it was heard from afar,
And huge multitudes came, so great was the fame,
Of Abdul and Ivan Skavar.

As Abdul’s long knife was extracting the life,
In fact he was shouting, “Huzzah!”
He felt himself struck by that wily Calmuck,
Count Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

The Sultan drove by in his red-breasted fly,
Expecting the victor to cheer,
But he only drew nigh to hear the last sigh,
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.

Czar Petrovich, too, in his spectacles blue
Rode up in his new crested car.
He arrived just in time to exchange a last line
With Ivan Skavinsky Skivar.

There’s a tomb rises up where the Blue Danube rolls,
And graved there in characters clear,
Is, “Stranger, when passing, oh pray for the soul
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.”

A Muscovite maiden her lone vigil keeps,
“Neath the light of the pale polar star;
And the name that she murmurs as oft as she weeps
Is Ivan Skavinsky Skivar.

(many more verses are sometimes quoted)

 

 

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