Tag Archives: Abolitionists

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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Filed under Ireland, Irish Heritage, Irish History

Mother’s Day and The Battle Hymn of the Republic

John Brown Song. Image from Library of Congress

John Brown, an abolitionist determined to destroy the slavery system in America, led 21 supporters across the Potomac river from Maryland to Virginia, in October 1859. The aim was to seize weapons held at an arsenal in Harper’s Ferry that would  help further their cause to rid America of slavery. Brown’s mission came to an end two days later when the arsenal was stormed by U.S. troops, led by Colonel Robert E. Lee. Ironically,the first person killed by Brown’s men was a free black man named Heywood Shepherd and, of interest to us here in Ireland, the second person to die was an Irishman,Thomas Boerly, a native of County Roscommon who had arrived in the USA in 1844 in search of a better life. John Brown was seriously wounded in the fray and he was tried, found guilty of treason and hanged on December 2 1859. Very soon after his death his memory was preserved by the addition of new lyrics to an already established popular tune that became known as the John Brown Song. The John Brown Song was played in public for perhaps the first time on May 12, 1861 at a flag raising ceremony at Fort Warren, near Boston, very shortly after the start of the American Civil War. The song, better known as ‘John Brown’s Body‘, quickly became a hit in the Union army. New verses were added as its popularity grew, some of which were full of humour and mockery  – such as:

”We’ll feed old Jeff Davis sour apples/’til he gets the diarhee ” was a sung version, which in print became ‘We’ll hang old Jeff Davis /from a sour apple tree”. Apparently social niceties of the time meant that hanging was much more acceptable than mention of bodily functions.

In November 1861, Julia Ward Howe, a writer, poet and herself a social reformer and abolitionist, visited  Washington D.C. to meet with President Abraham Lincoln. While there, she attended a public review of troops at which the John Brown Song was sung. Julia’s companion asked her if she could improve on the rather ‘coarse’ lyrics and pen some words that would be more appropriate for fighting men.

The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Published 1862

Julia recalled:

‘I went to bed that night as usual, and slept, according to my wont, quite soundly. I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight; and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to myself, ‘I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep again and forget them.’ So with a sudden effort, I sprang out of bed, and found in the dimness an old stump of a pen which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper‘.

And so, on the night of November 18th 1861, the words of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’, full of biblical references, were composed by Julia in a room in the Willard Hotel, Washington D.C . They were first published in the Atlantic Monthly in February of the following year. The song was highly acclaimed and quickly became the anthem of the Union army and the best known song of the Civil War. It has survived down the years  as a very stirring and moving patriotic hymn of the United States, and much loved by people beyond their shores.

Julia had witnessed first hand the horrors of the civil war. As a member of the Sanitary Commission, set up to promote healthy and clean conditions in the camps of the Union Army in an attempt to reduce the numbers dying from infection, she had witnessed the terrible results of conflict – death, disease, maiming, bereavement, poverty, destruction of towns and infrastructure.  She also worked to support and raise funds to help the widows and orphans on both sides.

At the same time, Ann Jervis, a devout church goer and social activist, was also actively involved in bringing relief of suffering to those affected by the war. She had worked tirelessly to try to mend the rift between both sides of the conflict, and when the war ended the tensions between the returning Confederate and Union soldiers in Virgina where she lived were running high. In 1865 she organized a Mothers Friendship Day to bring together soldiers and families of both sides. The event, to the surprise of many who had expected fighting to break out, was a great success and was repeated on an annual basis for some years.

Julia meanwhile used her celebrity status to promote  pacifism and women’s suffrage. As a much sought after speaker she  had a forum for the promotion of peace. In 1870 at the outbreak of another war between France and Prussia  and influenced by the work of Ann Jarvis, she called on women everywhere to come together to oppose war and to seek peaceful resolution of conflicts. Julia issued her Mother’s Day Proclamation and proposed an annual Mother’s Day, honouring Peace, Motherhood and Womanhood. The idea was taken up and the day was celebrated in some cities across the nation for many years, but it was not the great success that she had hoped.

After the death of Ann Jarvis, her daughter Anna Jarvis decided to commemorate her own mother’s memory and began a crusade to have a national day for all mothers. The first such day was celebrated in a church in 1907 where Anne Jarvis as a young woman, had taught Sunday school. The idea spread and soon was being celebrated in 45 states.

Julia died in 1910, at the age of 91. While she is best known as the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, she is also recognized as a significant contributor to the establishment of a Mother’s Day.

Just a few years after her death, in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson declared the first National Mother’s Day and signed a Congressional Resolution declaring that the second Sunday in May would henceforth be a day to honour all mothers.

Julia Ward Howe c. 1861. Image Commons.Wikimedia.Org

Happy Mother’s Day to all readers who celebrate this day in May.  To see my post about Mothering Sunday in Ireland, click here.

References

Eyewitness to History – John Brown

James Fould, 2000. The Book of World-Famous Music: Classical, Popular, and Folk

About.Com Women’s History: Julia Ward Howe

Joseph Barry. The Strange Story of Harper’s Ferry. Accessed at Project Gutenberg 

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Filed under American Civil War, Irish American, Irish Diaspora, Mother's Day, Social Change, Suffrage