Listen: Marcus Rediker on "Benjamin Lay and the Surprising Origins of Revolutionary Abolitionism"
In the fall, Marcus Rediker, a Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh and Senior Research Fellow at the Collège d'études mondiales in Paris, delivered the biennial James A. Field, Jr. Lecture. His prize-winning books have appeared in 15 languages and include The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist (Beacon Press, 2017).
The James A. Field, Jr. Lecture Endowment was established by Thomas D. Jones, Jr. '53 and Vera Lundy Jones '58, in 2001, and is named after the late James A. Field, Jr., a distinguished professor of history at Swarthmore College from 1947 to 1986. Widely published in the fields of American Naval History and International Relations, Field also served four years in the Navy during World War II. He won the Bronze Star for heroism, helping in the evacuation of a small aircraft carrier that was damaged by a kamikaze attack in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The Field Endowment supports a biennial lecture by visiting scholars at Swarthmore College on the subject of the history of the United States.
Tim Burke: Good afternoon everybody. Welcome. I'm Tim Burke, I'm the chair of the history department and I want to welcome you to an important part of our annual calendar. We alternate two speaker series and we look forward to them every year and this one is a speaker series that honors the memory of James A Field Jr who was the Isaac H Clothier Professor of History and International Relations at Swarthmore College. He served on the faculty from 1947 until his retirement in 1986. He was widely published in the fields of American Naval History and International Relations. He served four years in the Navy during World War II. He won the bronze star for heroism, helping in the evacuation of a small aircraft carrier that was damaged by a kamikaze attack in the battle of Leyte Gulf which in fact was the subject of his best known monograph I think for which he was justly well known.
We're fortunate to have this series in his name. It's funded by an endowment that was established by Thomas D Jones Jr '53 and Vera Lindy Jones '58 in 2001. We're very happy to have her here along with her grandson Jack Cote who has the good fortune to be a student at Swarthmore. I think it's really the other way around. The field endowment supports this lecture by visiting scholars at Swarthmore College on the subject of the history of the United States and donations in fact to the lecture endowment would be gratefully received and could be made to Swarthmore College. Without further ado, I'm gonna ask my colleague Bruce Dorsey to introduce our distinguished guest for this lecture and welcome and we're very glad to see you here. Bruce?
Bruce Dorsey: Thanks Tim. Welcome to all of you. It's my great pleasure to introduce to you Marcus Rediker who is the distinguished professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh as well as the senior research fellow at the Collège d'études Mondiales in Paris. He's the author and editor and co author of at least 10 books if I counted right and they've been translated into 15 different languages. His books have won the most prestigious prizes in our profession. I don't even have time to list all of the awards but twice he's been the winner of the Merle Curti prize from the Organization of American Historians. He's been the recipient of the International Labor History Book Prize, the George Washington Book Prize and also the American Historic Association's James Rawley Prize which is given to the best book in Atlantic History.
Marcus inhabited the history of the Atlantic before there was even such a field as the Atlantic world or Atlantic history and now it is one of the most prominent fields of inquiry in the field of history having PhD programs in research institutions at the best universities in the world. It all started with his first book Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. The winds blew most dreadfully and the sea crackled like a continuous flame it begins. White capped waves slapped the bobbing ship and in the words of a trembling witness foam upon the deck ready to tear us to pieces. With those words he had me hooked and all my students as well. That book has been the cornerstone of my honors seminar in early American history in the Atlantic world since I first developed it.
I can not, I'm sure I probably can't convey the look on my students faces every time they gather around the seminar table ready to talk about a book in which Marcus argues that sailors and trading ships in the Atlantic ocean were the forerunners of modern factories, that seamen were the first large scale wage laborers, that capitalists imposed the division of labor and work discipline upon them but most importantly that they collectively and established a workplace of their own including pioneering and develop the form of work stoppages we're familiar with. The strike comes from sailors, the time they first struck the sails of the vessels in harbors of London to stop the empires industrial development. The size of the eyeballs that come up when you hear that these sailors were the beginning of strikers.
Don't get me started on pirates. Pirates inhabit, make their ways to center stage in at least four of Marcus's books from the first book I first mentioned to his breathtaking look at all kinds of Atlantic revolutionaries in a book called the Many Headed Hydra which he coauthored with Swarthmore alum Peter Linebaugh. If you have a hankering for something a little more than Johnny Depp and want to read more about pirates, take a look at his books, the Villains of all Nations or the Outlaws of the Atlantic to get a look at the kind of proletarian outlaws that make up pirates throughout the Atlantic world.
It was the logical next step for him to move from seamen and trading ships to the horrific history of the most valuable cargo carried across the Atlantic, human beings, which he addresses in his magisterial book The Slave Ship, A Human History which tells the tale of the Atlantic slave trade from the point of view of the people on the ships. Not just the captains and the white sailors but from the vantage point especially of the enslaved Africans. It's shockingly relevant to the history of today. The history that hasn't yet ended. Marcus describes the slave ship as the key to the origins of global capitalism, it could also be argued that the slave ship was the birthplace of white supremacy. It's the place where sailors became white men and enslaved Africans became blacks for the first time. It's a century long history which we've yet to escape the consequences of and you know the stories.
The heroic slave rebels became the topic of Marcus's next book The Amistad Rebellion telling us more Stephen Spielberg might possibly tell us about it. Let me give you a quick plug as well for Marcus as a film producer because following his book the Amistad Rebellion, he produced a documentary a few years ago called the Ghost of Amistad which is an amazing story of his journey back to Sierra Leone to find out and to talk to the elders of the villages from which the rebels of the Amistad ship came from to find out what local memories exist of the first successful slave ship rebellion where they returned back to Africa rather than a lifetime of enslavement in the Americas after they won their successful case in the United States Supreme Court as well.
Let me stop now. I've told you about his amazing books but he's written one more about an amazing historical figure named Benjamin Lay. I'm not gonna tell you about that book. I'm gonna let him tell you that story because that's what he's here for. Join me please in welcoming Marcus Rediker.
Marcus Rediker: Greetings everyone. Hello. It's a great pleasure to be back at Swarthmore and I say back at Swarthmore because a great deal of the research that is central to this book, the Fearless Benjamin Lay was done here. I'm very happy to thank Chris and Pat and Cecilia, people who have helped me in various ways in making this book and I do have a signed copy I'd like to present to you after this meeting. It's also a special honor to give this lecture named for Professor Field in Naval History. I've studied seafaring most of my life. It's especially a great honor to be here with Benjamin Lay. Here he is in case you wonder what he might look like. I guess I have to begin with his most famous act of guerrilla theater which is well known here but please, it's so good for those who haven't heard it.
September 1738, Benjamin walked about 20 miles from Abington where he lived to Burlington New Jersey for the annual meeting, the big meeting of Philadelphia Quakers. A great many people were there, especially the [weighty 00:09:07] Quakers and Benjamin has a message for them. In preparation for this moment, he dressed in a military uniform which of course was meant to shock his fellow Quakers who are all pacifists. He strapped a sword to his waist and then he took an animal bladder and filled it with bright red pokeberry juice, tied it off and then put it inside one of those books that has a secret compartment, you've seen those? Closed it and then threw an overcoat so as to hide everything. Then he went into the meeting and took a strategic position. The meaning of that will become clear in a moment.
Since Quakers have no formal minister, people speak as the spirit moves them and Benjamin was a man of very great spirit and at a certain point, he stood up and in a thundering voice, he was a small man but he had quite a voice, the voice of a prophet. He announced to everyone that slave holding was the greatest sin in the world. He throws off the overcoat and the uniform is visible and there's an audible gasp that fills the hall. Then he raises the book and he pulls out the sword and he says "God will take vengeance on those who oppress their fellow creatures." He runs the sword through the book and the blood comes gushing down and he spatters the slaveholders who are sitting nearby. Folks, they were surprised. You think you're surprised at hearing this story, how do you think they felt? A group of Quakers who were committed to non violence grabbed Benjamin up, it wasn't very hard to pick him up and they threw him out of the building, into the street. He did not resist his eviction. Apparently, he never resisted his eviction but he had made his point.
This event happened only about three weeks after the publication of his book, All Slave-Keepers Apostates in which he detailed his struggle within the Quaker community especially against some very wealthy and powerful Quakers to abolish what he considered to be an evil institution. That's a brief introduction to this extraordinary man, Benjamin Lay. One of the things that I wish to honor about Benjamin is that he was one of the first people to demand an immediate uncompromising and unconditional end to slavery all around the world. Now he said that he became an abolitionist in the year 1718 and I would have you note that this is a good two and a half, almost three generations before an anti slavery movement begins to emerge. He's a man who is far ahead of his time. I want to talk about him, not just as an abolitionist, there he is. This is based on an engraving that was based on this painting from around 1758.
I want us to think about him in this meeting as a revolutionary abolitionist. Now this issue of whether the abolition movement was revolutionary has actually been a very interesting debate. It's been recently revived by Manisha Sinha who has argued for the revolutionary quality of abolition. I want to say that Benjamin is a very particular kind of revolutionary abolitionist because he not only imagined an end to slavery, he imagined a completely different way of living, outside the marketplace of capitalism. We'll talk about that in more detail a little later. Let me tell you how I got involved in this project.
I first discovered Benjamin Lay a little more than 20 years ago when I was working on a book that Bruce mentioned, the Many Headed Hydra which I wrote with Peter Linebaugh. We were interested in the way in which the Atlantic had these moments of intensified resistance. We called them cycles of rebellion and you'll find them in the 1650s, the 1690s, the 1730s, the 1760s, the 1790s, the 1830s. It's almost like every 30 or 40 years, there's this kinda explosion of resistance. Well, the 1730s were one such moment. There were a great number of [inaudible 00:14:39] and conspiracies throughout the plantation societies of the New World and Peter and I were interested in how those struggles from below generated anti slavery documents. One of these is Benjamin's book which it says 1737, it was actually published in August 1738. Why it's misdated is an interesting question, we'll talk about that.
Here's my point. I want to make it very clear from the outset that in my view, enslaved people are always the first abolitionists. In the course of their struggle, they acquire allies. They had a very important ally in Benjamin Lay but the proximity that he had to that struggle in Barbados from 1718 to 1720 was really the turning point in his life. I want to foreground the cycle of rebellion. That in a way is what made Benjamin Lay an abolitionist. Okay. For today, what I want to do is pose a question. It's actually a fairly simple question and despite all the work and some very good work that's been done on Benjamin Lay I don't think anyone has posed it quite this way. The question is how did an ordinary working man, okay? He was a shepherd, he was a sailor, he was a glover, really kinda nasty craft making gloves of animal skins. He was a petty merchant on the waterfront, kept a little shop. He was a bookseller. He did a lot of different things but he is in no way an elite. How did this man arrive at the conclusion that slavery must be abolished?
We normally think of abolition in relation to the enlightenment of the later 18th century. That is a very important association. What I want to submit to you is that Benjamin Lay had a kind of enlightenment from below, a kind of set of experiences that enabled him to imagine a world without slavery. Now, many many thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people found themselves encountering slavery in the New World from Virginia to South Carolina to Barbados to Jamaica to San [inaudible 00:17:31]. Folks, the overwhelming majority of those people made piece with it one way or another. Some of em had tremendous economic interest, others simply looked the other way. We're talking about somebody who refused to make peace with it and refused to look the other way so the question is how did he do it? How did he break through to this very unusual position for his day and age?
I'm gonna suggest that there are five main sources of his radicalism. This is treated in the book. First is not just Quakerism but a very radical variant of Quakerism, okay? This is really the core of Benjamin Lay. He's a radical Quaker more than anything else but that in itself is not sufficient to explain why he did what he did. A second element is seafaring, the culture of the sea, an ethic of solidarity at sea. This is significant to him. Worldly experience. Third is his direct contact with and involvement with the struggles of enslaved people in Barbadoes. This in some ways is the catalyst but a really crucial thing in which slavery is terrifying real to him. It's not an abstraction. Fourth, there is a kind of commoning radicalism that Benjamin Lay takes up a little later in his life probably beginning in the 1730s, this is when he becomes a vegetarian, in which he champions animal rights. We want to talk about that as another strand of his radicalism. Finally, I think maybe the most surprising discovery in the course of this research, Benjamin Lay was a serious student of ancient philosophy. He drew upon the writings of a group of very radical philosophers in ancient Greece and Rome called the Cynic philosophers who were epitomized by a man named Diogenes. We'll come back to him in a moment.
What I offer is a kind of intellectual history from below and I will tell you that there is a specific Swarthmore connection. Some of you already know about it to be sure. Let me begin by giving you a brief outline of Benjamin Lay's life. I'm gonna emphasize in this his work experiences because his work experiences really help to form his ideas. He was born in 1682 into a humble Quaker family in the region of Essex about 60 miles northwest of London. He's a third generation Quaker. His grandfather and grandmother had converted to Quakerism. His father was quite active in a Quaker community in a little town called Copford which is not very far from Colchester which was quite a big textile city, industrial city. Benjamin himself would live there. Early in his life he performed farm labor and one of the beautiful things in this book is to see how he remembers having worked as a shepherd and he loved this work. He felt that this was really the proper work for human beings. He loved animals.
Even though Benjamin was in line to inherit a family farmstead, he turned his back on it. I actually discovered this in the Essex record office where I got his father's will. Benjamin was gonna inherit the farm that his father owned but he turned his back on it, ever the rebel, and he went to London. We don't know exactly why but we do know what he did when he got there. He signed on board a ship and he went to sea. This is a little counterintuitive for somebody who was this size but I have an explanation. First for why he did it, he wanted to test himself. He wanted to prove himself. It turns out, a smaller and agile sailor can do a lot of things that a sailor of average size can't do, scuttling around in the tops of the ship. He could get into places other people couldn't get. He is a sailor and it wasn't just a once off thing where he went on one voyage. He worked as a sailor, we don't exactly how long, but probably around a dozen years. Having worked in maritime archives all my life, I felt sure I was gonna be able to find him in a ship's manifest but lo and behold I was defeated in this quest. We do know from his own record that he worked at sea for probably a dozen years.
In 1718, he did two important things. He married Sarah Lay who like him was a little person. He also moved to Barbados, this was partly because he was fighting with Quaker congregations in London. I think he wanted a fresh start. He and Sarah opened a little shop on the waterfront. This is where they were quite seriously radicalized. He left Barbados under pressure, more about that to come, moved back to Colchester where he began fighting with the Quaker community there and in 1732 primarily because I think of a network of Quaker women in which Sarah was embedded, connected especially to a woman named Sarah Morris, they decided to migrate to Philadelphia.
They came to Philadelphia in 1732. They moved to Abington in 1734. Sometime soon thereafter, they began living in a cave. Sarah alas died in 1735. Benjamin lived to the ripe old age of 77, died in 1759, the year after Quakers took the first big step towards abolition. This book that Benjamin published is a very strange document I must say. A lot of people cited and a lot of historians of abolition cited and I am convinced that almost none of them have actually read it, almost none. I'll tell you one reason why. It's a hard book to read because Benjamin did not adhere to the conventions of writing books. He was not educated to do that. I suspect he got most of his education at sea, literate sailors would teach lesser literate or illiterate sailors how to read. Throughout his life he called himself a poor, common sailor. 25 years after he left the sea, that's what he calls himself. He calls himself this in the book. His identity is really as a sailor.
This book is partly a Biblical kind of polemic against slavery. There's a lot of very learned knowledge of the Bible but it's also partly a biography. He would do other things like he would just copy passages of things he's reading and then he'll comment on them which is, there's something called a commonplace book which is very common in those years but it's a great thing for a historian, right? Here's what I'm reading and here's what I think about it. An annotated bibliography? He did that. Just a word about this book, when he finished it, he took it to his friend, Benjamin Franklin, and Benjamin Franklin saw this box of papers and it was a total wreck and he had no idea how he was gonna publish this. He expressed his worries to Benjamin and Benjamin supposedly said to him "Oh, put it together however you want." There is actually some evidence that Franklin did try to edit it because a lot of the sections of the book are dated in terms of when he composed them but they're not assembled in that order. Franklin tried to bring some order to this stream of consciousness book but I think he had limited success.
Okay, so let's talk now about, let's think of it this way. Those five things that I mentioned, let's think of those as five strands of a rope that will represent Benjamin Lay's radicalism. Each strand coming from a different place. The first as I've said is radical Quakerism. Now, are there Quakers here? Are some people here Quakers? Okay. I'm always compelled to say that Quakers have become so extraordinarily respectable that you have all forgotten just how wild you used to be.
Speaker 4: Not all of us.
Marcus Rediker: I published an op ed on Benjamin Lay in the New York Times, they gave it the title You'll Never Be as Radical as This 18th Century Abolitionist Dwarf. The Marion Quaker Congregation wrote a two word response challenge accepted. I love that, it sounds like you've accepted it too. If you go back to the origins of Quakerism. In the late 1640s and late 1650s, and the English revolution, now you gotta remember, this is really one of the world's first great revolutions. You have a tremendous struggle between Parliament and King, King Charles the first. Parliament is led by Oliver Cromwell. This actually becomes a war. The Parliamentarians execute King Charles the first in 1649. Then they establish a Republic. This will play out until 1660 when King Charles the second comes back to reestablish the monarchy but here's the important thing especially important thing for the history of Quakerism.
As the Kingship falls into chaos, censorship broke down and publishing pamphlets in that day and age was pretty cheap and pretty easy. Into print rushed all kinds of radicals who could never express their ideas previously. I'm talking about groups called the Levelers, the Diggers, the Seekers, the Ranters and the Quakers. The Quakers come out of the same very radical mix. This group of radicals actually make, according to John Donahue, a dear friend of mine and a former student, the first real critique of slavery is made in this era by these radicals. Slavery isn't yet racialized. They're criticizing a lot of different things. Impressment in to the army and navy, the loss of the commons, forced labor, indentured servitude, racial slavery, all those things. This is the cauldron into which Quakerism is born, from which it's born I should say.
When Charles the second comes back to power, all of the revolutionaries are in trouble because especially those who executed his father. There's a tremendous amount of oppression, a lot of people are banished, a lot of people and especially Quakers are persecuted and persecuted severely. One of the key figures in this early most radical phase of Quakerism is a man named James Nayler. James Nayler and George Fox, everybody here probably knows about George Fox, right? George Fox is the father of Quakerism but back in the 1650s, Nayler and Fox were really pretty much coequals as leaders of this movement. Nayler was actually the leading theologian, much more sophisticated than Fox and also much more given to radical action including very elaborate street theater of the kind that Benjamin Lay will act out later.
In his most famous act, James Nayler reenacted the return of Jesus Christ to Jerusalem with women laying flowers and singing Hosannah in his path. The English government, the Parliamentary government, this happened in 1656, saw this as an opportunity to get rid of one of their most dangerous enemies so they had a debate for several sessions of Parliament and the debate was shall we kill James Nayler or shall we just torture him nearly to death? They decided for the latter. James Nayler as you can see here had a hot metal bar drilled through his tongue. He was branded with [inaudible 00:31:50] for blasphemer on this forehead and he was taken all around Bristol and London and given hundreds of blows by the executioner. He never really recovered from that. He died, you might say, a broken man. They nearly killed him and finally they took his life.
The reason I want to emphasize Nayler is because Benjamin Lay clearly is doing things that Nayler and the other extremely radical Quakers were doing in an earlier period. He studied the history of Quakerism very carefully. One thing he would do and many Quakers did this including Fox, they would go into a Church of England religious service and in the middle of the service, they would stand up and start denouncing the minister to disrupt the religious service because they thought this was an unGodly and an unholy faith. They were the pure version of Protestant radicalism. Benjamin Lay does this his entire life. He goes to all different churches. He's something of a religious anthropologist. He wants to hear what everybody is saying and he will almost always stand up and have something to say. This did not always go well for him because one time a minister was ready for him and chased him from the church with a bullwhip.
This is a direct continuity from the early Quakers to Benjamin Lay. A second one which is very important, a man named John Perrot, another very radical Quaker took one of the Quaker ideas to it's most extreme end. Quakers, many of you will know, did not acknowledge social class. In other words, one of the most fundamental things Quakers refused to do was to doff their hats when a poor person met a wealthier person. They kept their hats on because that was a statement of equality. We are the same as you, we are not taking our hats off for you and John Perrot took this really much further. He said "Truly pious Quakers should not even take off their hats when they pray to God." Why? Because we have God within us. We're just talking to another equal. This drove George Fox mad. This was a persistence of that old Nayler type heresy, this ultra radicalism. Fox is trying to stamp this out everywhere. Nobody is to keep their hat on during services or during praying but guess what folks? Benjamin Lay is doing and he did it throughout his life as far as we can tell. When he did not approve of a minister, he kept his hat on.
Then a third thing, this street theater which I've mentioned. What reason why this connection to Lay is forgotten is because George Fox who was an extraordinarily brilliant man and a very charismatic speaker. I mean historians are asked, what would you like to do if you could go back to the past? I'd like to hear George Fox preach because he was absolutely spellbinding and he had these really strange eyes. A lot of people would say they would like scream out "Don't look at me." It's like he can bore into your soul. Anyway, he was an organizational genius and he really remade the Quaker faith. He implemented a whole series of resolutions, almost all of which in the 1660s and 1670s were designed to root out people like Nayler and Perrot. These regulations remained in placed. What Fox really did was to take a revolutionary group and turned it into something of a sect by getting rid of the ultra radicals. There are these continuities. I was able to trace out some of the ways in which ... I mean it is a good question, right? Nayler is dead and gone. His works actually weren't republished until 1716 so how do these ideas of the early Quakers make their way to Benjamin Lay?
I discovered a couple of ways, one of which is through a kind of antinomian cell in his native Essex, the Furley family. We also know that Benjamin studied these early radical writers. I'll have more to say about that in a moment. This is to say that Benjamin is a throw back to that early radical phase of Quaker history and that he is in some ways the last radical of the English revolution. It's actually been over for 22 years by the time he's born but he still channels a lot of those ideas and just as importantly a lot of their shocking tactics. You might be surprised to know now that back in those days Quakers, in order to emphasize the power of the inward light, might stand on a street corner and set a Bible on fire. That's merely a human creation, kinda shocking, but Quakers were into this kind of confrontation and so was Benjamin Lay.
Okay, so that's one strand of the rope. The second strand of the rope is seafaring. One of the arguments of the Many Headed Hydra was that there is a multi ethnic tradition of radicalism at sea that dates from the 17th century and lasts really well into the 20th if not the 21st century. Benjamin lived at sea for many years. He sailed around the world, he never sailed on a slave ship as far as we know. I'm quite certain he didn't do that because he would have mentioned it. He was extremely honest. He would have felt guilty about it if he had. Here's what seafaring did for Benjamin Lay. Sailors and this is a painting by a 17th century sailor named Edward Barlow, I give it to you for two reasons. First of all because it's painted by an actual sailor and this is his view of what a ship in a storm looked like with its mast being damaged and its sails being torn apart. Have you ever seen those beautiful maritime paintings of the 17th century? Van de Velde. Have you noticed a lot of them don't have any people on board the ships? People everywhere on board this ship.
Benjamin goes to sea and he becomes a citizen of the world. The thing that seafaring does for him, one of the things is it gives him a rich cosmopolitan experience and this is really important to the way he writes his book because he will say, he will pronounce on a given subject and he'll say "I know because I have sailed around the world and seen people of all colors and all nations and therefore you must listen to what I say." That's part of it. Another important part of this seafaring experience is that he first learns about slavery through sailor stories. The sailor's yarn is a really important international means of communication. Sailor's have a great story telling tradition. Benjamin heard all these stories and in All Slave-Keepers Apostates, he tells you some of the stories that he's heard. What's interesting is that they involve several kinds of slavery. Some of the sailors who were his shipmates had been enslaved and worked in Turkey. It was also common in North Africa for European sailors to be enslaved.
They told their stories of slavery and he also talked to sailors who had been on board slave ships. This, I think, was the most powerful thing of all. What was that experience like? He emphasized the extreme sexual violence committed women. He heard these stories, they moved him. This was part of his education on the ship. I'm convinced that the multi ethnic experience that Benjamin had on board these ships was related to the ways in which he tried to combat the racism of the day because what he did. First of all, he never talks about race. Race is a concept that in Benjamin's lifetime is rapidly dividing up humanity. He never talks about it. He uses more neutral terms like colors and nations and peoples. Even more importantly, he uses Biblical passages which are essentially an anti racializing rhetoric. For example, that famous line in the Bible, God created all people of one blood. In other words, we're not different people, we are all the same people. This is a very consistent part of his rhetoric. The experience of work was also important. He knew people on board the ship and off the ship, people from many different parts of the world.
He also, as a sailor, learned the fundamental truth of seafaring which is you put your life into the hands of your fellow sailors. Therefore, seafaring is an occupation that has a very high level of solidarity. You must trust your fellow sailors, right? Sailors developed a phrase that reflected this solidarity. They would say "One and all, we are one and all together." This came up in mutinies, in strikes. One and all, we are all together. Well, this I think, it's hard to be absolutely certain because Benjamin doesn't talk about it very much but what I think happened is that the sense of solidarity that he gained at sea, he transferred to other oppressed people. He has a sense of empathy for enslaved people which grows I think directly out of his work experience.
Let me mention just one last thing that grew out of his experience as a sailor. Benjamin was one of the first people to say that the slave trade represented organized murder. He didn't mince any words about this. He actually addresses merchants. In his book, he's talking to Quaker merchants who are involved in the slave trade. He says "You have killed a lot of people." He said "For all I know, you've killed thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people." You know folks? If you go to the slave trade database and look at the numbers who had been transported from West Africa to the Americas in the year that Benjamin wrote those words, more than 500,000 Africans had died as part of this organized commerce. Benjamin would not agree that this was just an unfortunate occurrence. He says "Death is part of the slave trade and you are all murderers." Those are strong words. Okay, so that's the second strand of rope.
The third is that contact I mentioned in Bridgetown Barbados with enslaved Africans. When Benjamin arrived in Bridgetown where he set up this little shop, he saw things that were just astonishing to him. He saw enslaved people literally staggering into his shop. I mean just almost dying of hunger, so weak they could hardly stand. He saw people who were also tortured. Tortures were a very common part of life in a place like Barbados. In fact, Sarah Lay, Benjamin accounts an experience that Sarah had. She went to visit Quakers in Spikestown, just up the coast from Bridgetown. She was walking to their home and she's just shocked to see an African man hanging by a chain, suspended in air with a big pool of blood below his body on the ground. She's just beside herself. She goes inside to the Quakers and she said "What is happening here? What is this?" They explain that this man had run away from their slave plantation and that now he must be taught a lesson. She was very rattled by this but they saw this kind of thing all the time. Executions, tortures, and they were moved by it. They allowed themselves to be moved by it.
Their hearts were not hard. He saw the production of sugar. These iron furnaces of hell he called them. He saw that people got their body parts caught up in the machinery of the sugar mill and he wrote "Your sugar is made with human parts and excrement and all these things." This will forecast a major phrase of the abolitionist movement later that sugar is made with blood. He was particularly moved when a man he knew, an enslaved man who was a cooper, a very skilled person, told him about his master who was a very cruel man. That every Monday this man whipped all of his slaves no matter what they had done. This man told Benjamin that he wasn't gonna take it anymore. On a Sunday night, he committed suicide, an ultimate act of resistance. I will not be your slave anymore. Benjamin and Sarah respond to these horrors in a way that was really probably quite unprecedented in Barbados.
They begin simply by feeding the hungry. They invite them for meals. They come to their home. The word gets out and more and more people begin to show up for these meetings and of course at these meetings, Benjamin will denounce the source of their misery. This gets back to the planters who run this island. People began to harass Benjamin. He's pressured to leave but in truth, he and Sarah had already decided that they wanted to leave because they felt that simply by existing in a place like Barbados where Quakers had encouraged him to buy slaves which he refused to do, they left. They went back to Colchester and eventually then migrated to Philadelphia. But when he got to Philadelphia, it's almost like a trauma of Barbados was re triggered. Philadelphia in those days, in 1732 was not like Barbados but about 1 in 11 people were enslaved and there was violence and there was this institution of slavery and so Benjamin was absolutely furious about this. That this wonderful community of Quakers in Philadelphia would be doing this. Okay, so that folks is the third strand of radicalism.
The fourth actually emerges a little bit later. This is what we call commoning. Benjamin and Sarah decided that they wanted to live their principles and of course they embraced the Quaker plain style but they also took it to extremes. They wanted to be living examples of equality. It wasn't just equality with human beings. They wanted equality with all living things. Benjamin used the telling phrase, he said "We want to live on the innocent fruits of the earth." What he meant by that, you want to subsist with no human exploitation and no animal exploitation. The innocent fruits of the earth, a vegetarian. Of course this harks back to the garden of Eden, doesn't it? Before the fall, innocence before the fall. That's the kind of utopian vision in the background. My argument is that Benjamin who's pictured here in front of his cave, which by the way I should just interject two Quakers in Abington I think have found the cave. This has just been a very recent search. Part of it has been based on folklore passed down within that congregation of elders who were taken to this place when they were very young and someone said "This is Benjamin Lay's cave." I think they've probably found it.
Anyway, my argument is that Benjamin was essentially a pantheist. He believed the divinity was in all living things. He therefore grew his own food. He ate only fruit and vegetables. Here's a blow up of what's in the foreground of the previous painting. You can see there are melons, pears, squash, apples. Over here, Benjamin's favorite food, turnips. He drank water, pure water, he made his own clothes. When he made his own clothes, he didn't use wool because that would imply violence against sheep. He used flax. He spun it himself. As in other respects, his vegetarianism, this is another radical idea that had not only deep ancient roots but also roots in the English revolution. One of the many radical ideas then current and then we do have a direct connection through the book that Benjamin is holding and this book is in the display at the [inaudible 00:51:43] Historical Library, Thomas [Triand 00:51:45] is considered by many to be the founding father of modern vegetarianism. He wrote this big fat book which is all about how we have to learn to live in harmony with nature. Benjamin Rush, the signer of the Declaration of Independence and the first biographer of Benjamin Lay, said that Lay loved this book so much he would take it with him where we went and no doubt sit down and read to people from it.
Lay was also, as far as we know, the first person to consciously boycott all slave produced commodities. He would not eat sugar. He would not consume tobacco. He would not touch anything produced slave labor and that actually included tea which is grown by plantation workers in India. I want to pause here and just emphasize this insight, the insight that he had because it's a very modern idea. What he's saying is that this innocent thing like a cube of sugar which you drop into your tea is not innocent at all because we must imagine the circumstances under which that sugar is produced. Folks, this is exactly the same idea as the modern anti sweat shop movement. Benjamin Lay had this idea almost 300 years ago, that the commodity hides the horrors of it's production, the dark secrets of the marketplace and this is why Lay wanted to live outside that marketplace so he did not participate in the exploitation of other people. This folks is a very modern idea about the politics of consumption. He's one of the first, one of the very first. Okay, so that's the fourth strand. This kind of commoning radicalism.
Then the fifth is this ancient philosophy. This, to me, is a fascinating part of the story. Two different people, one of whom is Benjamin Franklin, actually called Benjamin Lay a Christian Cynic philosopher. I got very interested in that because it didn't happen just once. Another man, a Quaker from New Jersey used the exact same phrase some years later and I began to look into this and I discovered that that's a very precise reference to a school of philosophy and antiquity in which philosophers like Diogenes conceived of philosophy as public action. In other words, your ideas of philosophy must be acted out in confrontational ways in public all the time. You must live your principles. Your principles must be expressed in everything you do. You must live life according to nature. Okay? That's very important and you must always, if there's one single idea that's central to cynic philosophy and to Diogenes, it is an idea, it's called in Greek parrhesia and essentially means speaking truth to power. You must always speak truth to power. You have a moral imperative to stand up to powerful people and speak the truth.
Of course this was agreeable to Benjamin who really did think of himself as a prophet. One story about Diogenes which illustrates this. He became very famous in ancient Greece. He actually coined the word cosmopolitan because somebody asked him if he was a member of the Greek nation. He said "I'm not a member of the Greek nation, I'm a citizen of the cosmos, I'm a cosmopolitan. I reject your nationality." Anyway, one day he became so famous, no less a person than Alexander the Great sought him out. Diogenes was taking his repose in the garden, lying down in the sunlight. Alexander the Great sweeps in and says "Oh great Diogenes, if there is anything that I might do for you, please ask. It would be my great pleasure." Diogenes looks up at him and says "Yes, there is something you could do." "Anything, anything at all." Diogenes says "Get out of my sunlight." This was a very typical sort of story. Like Diogenes who was a vegetarian, who walked everywhere he went, he has his walking stick just like Benjamin Lay and like Diogenes about whom most everything we know comes from stories told about him, Benjamin Lay became that kind of person.
Rush once said he was the best known person in all of Pennsylvania in his day. You know why? Because people told stories about him and the things he did. Diogenes was exactly the same. Now the more I dug into this idea of cynic philosophy, it turns out there's an interesting connection there because a lot of Biblical scholars think that cynic philosophers actually influenced a lot of the early Christians including Jesus. This phrase the love of money is the root of all evil, that is a cynic philosophy phrase. Benjamin actually wrote that phrase in the margin of one of his books. The love of money is the root of all evil. What Benjamin does is to take this very radical ancient Greek and by the way pagan, this is a pagan set of ideas. These are not Christians, right? He's a free thinker and he combines this with his own reading of the Bible especially the prophetic strand, especially prophets like Jeremiah who also lived in a cave, Ezekiel and Isaiah and he created his own blend of the pagan and the Christian.
Okay, so to conclude, no not yet, not yet. Okay. This famous painting for many many years was believed to have been done by an artist named William Williams. We do know that it was commissioned by Benjamin Franklin's wife, Deborah, as a gift for Benjamin Franklin, who admired Benjamin Lay and later in life would brag about having published his book back in 1738. I found documentation to suggest that a certain man born in Swarthmore actually painted at least part of this painting and that happens to be Benjamin West. A Quaker named William [Dillwen 00:59:26] who grew up in this area and moved to London later wrote a letter in 1815 in which he said "Yes, that portrait of Benjamin Lay, I remember it well, Benjamin West painted it." It's quite possible that he didn't paint all of it. He was William Williams' apprentice at this time but this goes back to Swarthmore. It turns out Benjamin West was born here in the year of the pokeberry juice incident, 1738, right? Was his father a Quaker? I think Benjamin West's father was a Quaker so he grew up with the stories of Benjamin Lay, no doubt in my mind. So we think that he has a part to play in this painting.
Okay, so my final thing I want to talk about is this extraordinary man, why is it that we don't know anything about him? I mean why is he so unknown? He's not unknown among Quakers. He's certainly not unknown among Quaker historians but he's not known among most historians and I'd say that the general public knows almost nothing about him. Why is that? Okay, now Quakers are partly responsible for this because Benjamin was repeatedly disowned. He was probably the most disowned Quaker in the 18th century. He was denounced. He was vilified. He was scorned. He was laughed at and he suffered a lot of official oppression by very powerful Quakers who were slave owners. The marginalization of Benjamin Lay began in his lifetime, right? That's one reason why he became something of a hermit. I don't accept that argument entirely but he did live on his own at some distance from others and the Quaker hierarchy is one of the main reasons why.
Historians, I think, subsequent historians, including very good abolitionist historians have also to answer for this. Benjamin never really fit their story. The story of abolition as we've been told it was basically that of enlightened middle class men of the enlightened who basically arrive at the rational conclusion that slavery is wrong. Benjamin was from the wrong class. He didn't fit well. His actions were too extreme and because his actions were extreme and because nobody knew that his actions had this eminent logic out of the English revolution, it was very easy for people to say he's crazy. The famous history, David Brion Davis, called him "a deranged little hunchback." Folks this is a very common attitude. Now thanks to more recent work and let me just add one more thing. I also think that the perception of Benjamin as someone who was deranged and the perception of him as a dwarf is also part of his marginalization, right? Until very recently, people could never imagine little people as anything other than comedic. I've had some experiences with that in talking about this book.
Relatedly, I'm also convinced that the persecution that Benjamin suffered and the oppression that he suffered as a little person was also part of his empathy for enslaved Africans. These things are not disconnected. He didn't talk about it much though so we can't say a lot about that. But anyway, I think Benjamin made the breakthrough, to come back to the main question, he made the breakthrough because of the combination of these radical experiences. The radical tradition of the Quakers, seafaring, knowing firsthand the struggles of enslaved people, this commoning radicalism, all shaped by his understanding of Greek philosophy. This is what helped to make Benjamin Lay a revolutionary far ahead of his time. Thank you very much.