By Adam Hochschild
Last updated 2011-02-17
On 27 November 1759, a slave ship in West Indian waters approached a group of Royal Navy vessels and asked for help. An epidemic of dysentery had killed many of the slaves and crew, including the ship's doctor. The only navy doctor who volunteered to go on board was James Ramsay, of the 24-gun HMS 'Arundel'.
Ramsay treated a hundred or so victims, and was profoundly shocked by the sight of the slave decks covered with faeces and blood. Soon after, he left the sea and became an Anglican minister. As a clergyman on the Caribbean island of St Kitts for more than a decade, he enraged local sugar planters by preaching to enslaved people and teaching them the bible in his home.
After a few years back in the navy, he then settled in Britain where his former commander from 1759, Sir Charles Middleton, arranged a position for him as a country parson near Middleton's home.
Ramsay wrote several influential books attacking slavery and the slave trade. He also testified before parliament and worked closely with Clarkson, Wilberforce, and the other abolitionists. Because he had lived for a long time in the West Indies and could not be dismissed as an armchair radical, he particularly infuriated the slave interests. Pro-slavery members of parliament and pamphleteers attacked him with great personal venom.
Ramsay suffered greatly under their assaults. Friends believed them partly responsible for his early death at the age of 55.
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