Sunday, 7 January 2018

The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist Hardcover – September 5, 2017, by Marcus Rediker Verso.

“The barbarities and desperate outrages of the so-called Christian race, throughout every region of the world, and upon every people they have been able to subdue, are not to be paralleled by those of any other race, however fierce, however untaught, and however reckless of mercy and of shame, in any age of the earth”.

William Howitt: “Colonisation and Christianity: A Popular History of the Treatment of the Natives by the Europeans in all their Colonies.” London, 1838,

The just man who is resolute
will not be turned from his purpose
either by the rage of the crowd or
by an imperious tyrant.

Horace-Quoted by Lay’s biographer Roberts Vaux

It is a pretty safe bet that people reading this excellent biography of the Quaker radical Benjamin Lay will not have heard of him or his exploits. Hopefully because of Marcus Rediker’s hard work and perseverance more people will now know of this extraordinary figure.

Lay was Quaker Dwarf who took an active anti-slavery stance; he was attacked and ostracised by the early Quaker movement of which large sections not only supported slavery but made them very rich.

Rediker has campaigned for Lay’s rehabilitation. Finally, in 2017, the Abington Quakers of Pennsylvania recognised him as “a Friend of the Truth”. London Quakers followed suit by declaring “unity” with Lay’s spirit.

Rediker response to this development was “ I was, quite frankly, moved to tears. The recognition represented a profound, heartfelt act of retrospective justice because Lay had been unjustly disowned in the first place. It was a symbolic rejection of what a previous slave-owning generation of Quakers had done, and it was simultaneously an affirmation that Benjamin Lay’s values matter to the Abington and North London communities. I learned during my research that Lay dearly loved his fellow Quakers—at least those who did not own slaves—and that his exclusion was terribly painful to him. It was therefore deeply touching, 279 years later, to know that he has been brought back into the fold. This act would have meant everything to him”.[1]

Rediker continues “the significance is two-fold. First, this is a significant step by Quakers to reckon with their own slave-owning past. As such, it is exemplary for the US and the UK as nations. Second, the decision advances the process of restoring Benjamin Lay to his rightful, prominent place in the history of Quakerism. This, in turn, feeds a broader effort to restore him to his proper position in American, British, and world history.

Rediker’s book is a well written and methodically researched book. Rediker is very good at exposing the essential contradiction at the heart of the Quaker movement in that its origins came about during the English revolution. Many Quaker constituted a radical wing of the revolution and had an anti-slavery stance yet large sections of its membership did not oppose slavery, kept slaves and profited by them.

The modern-day recognition of Lay has tended to gloss over the poor treatment dished out to Lay by his peers. For instance, when Lay published his book All Slave Keepers that keep the innocent in bondage: Apostates,  He was attacked in Philadelphia by Quakers who declared ‘That the author is not of their religious community; that they disapprove of his Conduct, the Composition and Printing of the Book’.

It must be said that Lay’s book is not an easy read and you have to give Rediker his due for not only reading it but chronicling Lay’s life and struggle in this highly readable book.

Despite only measuring four foot two inches Lay was a formidable campaigner who sought the emancipation of all enslaved people around the world. One of Lay’s tactics was to perform guerilla theatre.

As Rediker states in his book “Benjamin began to stage public protests against the "men of renown," to shock the Friends of Philadelphia into awareness of their own moral failings about slavery. Conscious of the hard, exploited labour that went into making seemingly benign commodities such as tobacco and sugar, Benjamin showed up at a yearly Quaker meeting with "with three large tobacco pipes stuck in his bosom." He sat between the galleries of men and women elders and ministers. As the meeting ended, he rose in indignant silence and "dashed one pipe among the men ministers, one among the women ministers, and the third among the congregation assembled." With each smashing blow, Benjamin protested slave labour, luxury, and the poor health caused by smoking the stinking tweed. He sought to awaken his brothers and sisters to the politics of the smallest, seemingly most insignificant choices”.[2]

It would not be an overstatement to say that Lay led a diverse life. He worked as a shepherd, glove maker, sailor, and bookseller. His worldview was a complex mixture of  Quakerism, vegetarianism, animal rights, opposition to the death penalty, and abolitionism. Lay while being anti-slavery was not anti-capitalist. He did shunn the trappings of wealth that his business acumen brought him. While in America he lived in a cave with a library of two hundred books.

Lay’s significance was that he was one of the first radicals to call an end to all slavery in whatever form it took. He refused to consume anything produced by slave labour.As Rediker outlines in the book Lay was opposed by a significant section of Quakers, who had grown fat on slavery. As Rediker points out, these Quakers played a massive part in the bloody rise of American capitalism. The New England Puritans and Quakers became some of America's most significant industrial leaders.

As Karl Marx wrote “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.[3]

Early Capitalism

Rediker has made his name writing popular histories of mutinies, pirates, slaves and revolts at sea. The majority of his work has examined the rise of early capitalism and the part played by the merchants and workers. He correctly states that the rise of early capitalism owed a massive debt to the movement of trade around the world.

As Rediker brings out in his book the treatment of slaves by the early capitalists Quakers  reminds one of Marx’s famous phrase “If money, according to Augier,  “comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,” capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”. [4]

We owe a debt to Rediker in that he life has sought to establish the correct place the sea has played in the rise of early capitalism. As the Russian Marxist writer Isaac Rubin elaborates “Mercantilist policy, which accelerated the breakup of the feudal economy and the guild crafts, corresponded to the interests of the commercial bourgeoisie and merchant capital. Its main objective was to foster rapid growth of foreign trade (together with shipping and such exporting industries as woollen textiles), striving, in particular, to reinforce the influx of precious metals into the country, which in their turn accelerated the transition from a natural to a money economy. It is therefore understandable that mercantilist literature focused its attention primarily on two, closely inter-related problems: 1) the question of foreign trade and the balance of trade, and 2) the question of regulating the circulation of money. We can distinguish three periods in the way the solution to these problems was approached: a) the early mercantilist period, b) the period of developed mercantilist doctrine, and c) the beginnings of the anti-mercantilist opposition”.[5]

This opposition took many forms, but the most striking came from the early stirrings of the working class for better working conditions and social equality.Most of these stirrings took the form of strike action.

These strikes as Rediker points out were not in factories but on ships, “the first strike was not in a factory or an office. It was not even on land. In 1768 sailors “ went from ship to ship and took down the sails. That is called striking the sails. Out of that collective action, the term strike was born ”.The ship and the sea are dynamic places of struggle,”. “These people were on the cutting edge of developments between capital and labour in the 17th and 18th centuries. These ships were a precursor of the factory. The ship itself was the most important machine of its day. One of the primary experiences of people who worked on ships was collective cooperation. This was a place where waged workers were assembled in a complex division of labour. “Once they were assembled they began to define their cooperation in different collective ways. So we get a very rich and still not fully understood the history of mutiny, piracy and desertion. “Sailors were in many ways the first international labour force”.

The Enlightenment

That Lay was an enlightened figure for his time goes without saying. What connection Lay had with other figures of the Enlightenment is a complicated subject, and it is one hopefully Rediker explores at a later date.

 According to Anthony Comegna, “Benjamin Lay and other radicals were vectors of connection and causation in the world’s great unknown Enlightenment. Beneath the gilded lush layers of philosophes and statesmen that litter our history books were the slave rebels, the servile insurrectionists, the outcasts and arsonists, the common rabble out of doors and on the docks, and even the lone Quaker dwarf abolitionist. These people and much more built their own kind of Enlightenment from below”.[6]

This theme of history from below runs through all of Rediker’s books. In his book Outlaws, he describes a  figure like Henry Pitman whose journal was the basis for Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe. Defoe’s book despite being a ripping yarn also glorified Britain's slave trade.
As Rediker explains “One of the things about my research that continually delights people is to find out about how democratically pirates lived. There is history from below of democracy that has many sources other than the philosophers of the enlightenment.

The English Revolution

Another theme that runs through Rediker’s books is that of the English Revolution. This theme also runs through his biography of Lay.Rediker explains Lay’s deep connection to the radicals of the English revolution.

“I’ve identified five major influences, and the first and the most important of these was a specifically radical variant of Quakerism. Now Quakerism goes back, actually, to the English Revolution. It began as one of many radical Protestant groups. The others were the Levellers, the Diggers, the Seekers, the Ranters. The Quakers are all part of this. Those groups [00:06:30] arose during the English Revolution when royal censorship broke down as the king, King Charles I, and Royalists did battle with Oliver Cromwell and Parliamentary side. These radical groups really burst into print in that situation, offering from below their own solutions to the problems of the day”.

He continues “Quakers were part of this, and there was a man named James Naylor, who was an especially radical Quaker. I basically argued in my book that Benjamin Lay channelled this early generation of Quakers. They were very activist. They performed street theatre. They were very confrontational. He managed a couple of generations later to reach back to them in order to revive that spirit of Quakerism.

 “In any revolutionary situation there are always people who want to go further,” he said. “Often there are retrenchments where those who had originally made the revolution are excluded. In the American revolution slaves and urban protests involving mixed racial crowds created the momentum and some of the ideas of the revolution.

“But around 1773-74 the elites like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson got control and started to define notions of citizenship that would exclude the motley crew. Citizenship then was based to a large extent on property rights, with all the links that have to race, class and gender. The people who had actually destabilised society in the new world were left out. That is what I call the American Thermidor. It is a process that many revolutions go through.”

History From Below

Sometimes it is difficult when reading a well-established historian to hear the buzzing of the bees. This is not the case with Rediker, who manages to write of complex historical processes with a style of historical writing that is easy on the eye without dumbing down the history.

Having looked at and read some of Rediker’s books he has adopted the “history from below” genre and has rescued some exciting and important figures from what the British historian E.P. Thompson called the "enormous condescension of posterity," and restored to their proper place in the historical record. EP Thompson is an apparent influence but then so is the historian Christopher Hill. Hill wrote of the 17th-century English revolution. From a historiography point of view, Rediker is closer to Hill than Thompson.

Hill was extremely complimentary of Rediker’s work.In this review of another historian Hill wrote, “Rediker describes the transition in the early eighteenth century to more capitalist relations in merchant shipping—wage labor replacing profit sharing, stricter discipline brutally enforced, cost-cutting by merchants at the expense of the living standards of seamen—and the growth of organized resistance by seamen, from collective protests, strikes, and mutinies, with piracy as the ultimate resort. The relative egalitarianism and democratic organization of pirate ships was a logical outcome of this situation: so were the utopian pirate communities established on Madagascar and elsewhere, where traditional hierarchical deference was forgotten. Defoe in his History of the Pyrates (1724) made much of such points in order to criticize aspects of English capitalist civilization that he disliked. Defoe “wrote a great deal about buccaneers and sided with them,” says Ritchie, making the same point rather differently. He “had a dyspeptic view of the new financiers and the world of stocks, bonds, and jobbers.” But Defoe had spent a good deal of time talking to retired pirates”[7].

Rediker like Hill not only wrote about radicals who had largely been forgotten by historians if not history itself but also Rediker wrote a period that was defined by Hill as-as a critical stage in the transition from feudalism to capitalism—a stage that Rediker would also research and evaluate throughout his career.

"I intended to apply the bottom-up approach to doing history that had been pioneered by Thompson and Hill to other contexts," and along with Peter Linebaugh, my colleague and writing partner since [graduate] school, I wanted to update our understanding of radical activity past where Christopher Hill had left the subject in The World Turned Upside Down—both in chronological terms, past the English Restoration, and, in geographical terms, encompassing the entire Atlantic."

Like Hill Rediker’s writing still has a contemporary feel to it. The Many-Headed Hydra (2000), which he co-authored with Linebaugh found its way into the discussion of the 2000s Occupy movement.


Despite Lay being of small stature, being only 4 feet 7 inches and suffering from a congenital growth disorder he was a giant of a man in many other ways. Thanks to Rediker’s book Lay can be an inspiration to today’s generation struggling against oppression and social inequality.

As Rediker states “We have now a very big historical debate going on. It's going on in the streets, it's going on in publications, it's going on around dinner tables: Who deserves to be called a hero of American history? We’ve had a lot of direct action with Confederate generals, we've had armed battles over this matter in Charlottesville. I think Benjamin Lay shows that there are people, frequently unknown, who embody higher ideals and reflect some of the better possibilities for example, within American life, so that someone like Benjamin Lay, someone like Frederick Douglass, someone like Harriet Tubman. This is a real value of history from below”.[8]

[2] Excerpt from Chapter Three, “Philadelphia’s ‘Men of Renown’”
[3] Capital-Karl Marx
[4]Capital -Karl Marx  Chapter Thirty-One: Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist
[5] A History of Economic Thought. Conclusion-Isaak Illich Rubin 1929-
[7] Success Story-Christopher Hill-