John Newton - amazing grace

By Jan Payne

My name is John Newton and I want to tell you my story.

I am an old man of eighty, which is a good age to reach, but when I look back on my life...well, I’m not happy about some of the things I’ve done. People who know me now, think of me as a good man...but if they had known me when I was young...well, perhaps they would think differently...

Let me start at the beginning...

I was born in 1725 in the busy streets of London. It was a time when life was hard and often cruel. Most children didn’t go to school but instead were sent to work for twelve hours a day, sometimes longer. My mother died when I was just six and my father was very strict. When I was eleven he said I was old enough to be a sailor and go to sea. I didn’t want to go, but I had no choice.

A sailor’s life was a brutal one. The work was difficult and if you made a mistake you were punished severely. To survive I had to get tough like the other sailors. I became a bully and treated people badly, as though they weren’t people at all but just objects with no feelings. I started disobeying orders, and to teach me a lesson the captain sent me to work on a ship transporting Africans to other countries, where they were bought by landowners to work as slaves.

Life on board the slave-ship was worse than anything I had ever experienced. The slaves were kept in chains below deck and spent the voyage in appalling conditions. It wasn’t much better for me: the tiny amount of food I was given wasn’t enough to keep a bird alive let alone a man. I fell ill that even the slaves felt pity for me. I didn’t deserve their pity. I had never shown any to them.

I wrote a letter to my father asking for help and he immediately sent a ship, called the Greyhound, to rescue me. There was a fierce struggle before I was freed, but once I was on board the Greyhound I began to feel safe.

The feeling didn’t last long. On the journey back to England we sailed into a massive storm. The sky became completely dark...the wind strengthened to gale force...and whipped up the sea into a turbulent tempest.

The Greyhound was tossed about like a child’s toy boat. Torrents of water crashed over the deck and anything that wasn’t lashed down was washed overboard. I was ordered to steer the ship and they tied me to the helm with strong rope so that I didn’t go over the side. But it was an impossible task.

The wind ripped the sails to shreds and the waves lifted the Greyhound high and tossed her like an old coat onto jagged rocks. Over and over it happened...until, above the noise of wind and rain, I heard the sound I had been dreading...the splintering of the ships timbers as the rocks ripped them apart!

The Greyhound went over on her side and water began pouring in. I knew it wouldn’t be long before she disappeared under the waves, taking me with her. Tied to the helm, soaked and battered, I suddenly felt alone and very afraid.

I was about to die and I was ashamed of the cold-hearted man I had become. I bowed my head in despair and suddenly, out of nowhere, words came into my head that my mother used to say when I was a child...

'God forgive me and have mercy on my soul!'

I lifted my head and stared out across the raging sea. And I shouted into the wind, not knowing who or what would hear me:

'God forgive me and have mercy on my soul!'

As my words died away, a strange feeling of comfort came over me. Hope filled my heart, and suddenly I wanted to make amends for all the things I had done wrong and try and be a better person...

I must have passed out, because when I opened my eyes the wind had dropped and the sea was calmer. Waves had lifted the ship off the rocks and it was drifting in the open sea. A sailor came to untie me with news that the cargo in the hold had shifted during the storm and was now plugging the hole in the side of the ship. Somehow, the Greyhound had been some kind of miracle. And I vowed then that in future I would lead a decent kinder to people, whoever they were and wherever they came from.

I arrived back in England a changed man. I married and settled down to have a family. And I spent much of the rest of my life trying - with the help of others - to put an end to the trade in African men, women and children. It wasn’t easy, but eventually a law was passed which abolished the slave trade altogether.

Truly I had done something of which I could feel proud.

Play next:

The Mayflower mastiff
Jam jar children
The story of Saint George