A Slave Trader with Medway Connections

John Newton header

The brutish life of a ‘reformed’ slave trader

This is an account of John Newton (24 July 1725–21 Dec 1807) – a man who was press-ganged at Chatham, who was enslaved and then involved in trading and abusing slaves himself. Not only did he ‘work’ in the slave trade he abused the female slaves that were transported on the ships that he was captaining. Supported by his marriage to a Chatham girl he went on to seek redemption in religion and through campaigning for the abolition of the slave trade. He wrote the the words to the hymn Amazing Grace.

Text in green offers contextual detail – some of which could be distressing but is based on descriptions of what happened and was perpetrated.

Overview

The following announcement of John Newton’s marriage encapsulates the ‘young’ John Newton. However in a classic situation of where the ‘poacher turns gamekeeper’, the ‘older’ Newton mentored and provided evidence that empowered the likes of William Wilberforce and mobilised public opinion, to bring an end to the British slave trade.

Marriage Announcement

12 February 1750 – Mr & Mrs George & Elizabeth Catlett are pleased to announce the marriage of their daughter Mary (Polly) Catlett, of Chatham, to Mr. John Newton – an adventurer, naval deserter, slave trader and an incurable romantic. The couple married at St. Margaret’s Church, Rochester, on February 1st. 1750.

The young John Newton was a wild, angry, wastrel of a man. As an older man he was ordained as a priest and wrote the words to the hymn Amazing Grace (Click link to listen. The words of the hymn can be found at the end of this blog). Amazing Grace has been been recorded by more artists than any other song – including many black gospel choirs – and sung at innumerable school assembles and funerals – probably with little knowledge or appreciation of its history. But most significantly Newton used his experiences – and probably guilt – to empower those seeking to abolish the slave trade.

Early Life

John Newton, born 1725, was the son of John Newton (senior), a respected sea captain, and Elizabeth, a devout Christian who dedicated herself to the upbringing and education of her son. When John was about seven his mother developed consumption (TB) and, in a very weakened state she came to Chatham to stay with her cousin Elizabeth Catlett and, would you believe, to take Chatham’s sea air! Within a few weeks of arriving she died and John had to complete his education at a boarding school.

Despite numerous efforts by his father to secure a good position for his son, John thwarted them all through his self-indulgent behaviour. 

John Newton meets Mary (Polly) Catlett from Chatham

An event of lasting significance occurred in 1742 when John was aged 17. On the way back from Maidstone where he had been sent on business, he decided to call in to see the Catletts whom he had probably not seen since his mother’s death. The door was opened by 13-year-old Polly and ‘Cupid’s arrow’ found its quarry in John – marking the start of an eight-year courtship. Newton later wrote that the passions he felt when he first saw Polly “equalled all that the writers of romance have imagined”. {One could come to the view that he became obsessed with Polly. As will be seen his desire to see her led to some reckless actions, and when he was a priest he was very concerned that he idolised her more than God.}

What should have been a three-hour visit to the Catletts lasted three weeks. John consequently lost his job and had to take a position as a low paid common seaman. On returning from sea in January 1744 John made haste to Chatham to visit the Catletts – or more accurately to see Polly.

Chatham Pressgang ‘enlist’ John

Whilst staying with the Catletts John was warned against walking near Chatham Dockyard. True to form John ignored this advice and, surprise surprise, he was captured by a pressgang that was ‘crewing-up’ HMS Harwich which was readying itself in case the French attempted an invasion. {John was held somewhere in Chatham, probably in the dockyard, until the pressgang had secured the required number of men. He was then transported, along with the other pressed men, to HMS Harwich.}

Despite representations made by his father the Royal Navy would not release John who was a healthy young man with sea experience, as a war with France was impending.

Was it ‘love’ that caused John to desert the Navy – twice!?

In December 1744, whilst HMS Harwich was anchored off Deal, John was granted one day’s shore leave. Although he would have known it was impossible to get to Chatham and back in a day, he set off to visit Polly – and thus turned one day’s leave into ten! On returning to the Harwich John was extremely lucky not to have been severally punish. Sources say he was either admonished or demoted – probably both. He certainly was not flogged nor was he threatened with a court martial that could have sentenced him to death. To the contrary, shortly after, and following representations made by his father, John was promoted to the rank of midshipman – a trainee officer position.

Four months after taking ‘unauthorised leave’ John learnt his ship was to be sent on a deployment that would take him away from Polly for five years. Rather than face a separation of this duration John deserted. He was soon captured, and was flogged and demoted back to the ‘ranks’. {How many strokes of the Cat he } {Click on this link for an account of a Rochester MP’s role in regulating then ending flogging in the military.}

At one level Newton was lucky as he could have been sentenced to death. However he had been so arrogant and unpleasant to the ‘ranks’ when he was a midshipman, the crew made life very unpleasant for him when he was demoted. Newton consequently felt great indignation about his treatment and became a very difficult crew member. 

John ‘traded’ for two pressed-merchant seamen

An established way a ship’s captain could rid himself of troublesome seamen was to exchange them for ‘better-disposed’ merchant seamen. Spotting an opportunity to escape the miseries of the Harwich, John pleaded with the officers to include him in an exchange. Newton though was so unpopular amongst the crew he could not expect any favours. However he must have been so much trouble the captain was keen to be rid of him and approved the exchange. Unsurprisingly John soon managed to make himself unpopular on the merchant ship that was heading for Africa – to such an extent that he risked being ‘exchanged’ back into the Royal Navy!

Newton becomes ‘involved’ in the slave-trade

Newton arrived on the Guinea Coast in 1745, and fearful of being ‘traded’ back to the Royal Navy managed to persuade Amos Clow, who he had previously met, to purchase his release from the merchant ship. Here his life deteriorated into one of gambling and drunken whoring, and eventually led to him being enslaved and sold as a slave, before becoming a slave trader and rapist himself.

{Amos Clow at this time was known as a ‘factory owner’ – but the factory had no connection with manufacturing. The ‘factory’ was a collection of “barracoons” in which captives were held until they were ‘traded’ in exchanged for goods. Captivity in a barracoon was horrific but probably nothing compared to the extreme brutality the captives experienced when sold to a trader. They were separated from family, stripped naked and branded before being locked in chains. Whips were used to ensure ‘compliance’. The captives then spent up to eight weeks in appalling conditions on a slaver before being presented for sale in the slave markets of the West Indies and America. During the voyage torture, such as the  use of  thumbscrews, was inflicted }

What started in Newton’s mind as a ‘promising career’ on the Guinea Coast turned ugly when Clow’s mistress, a black woman whose connections with native chiefs helped Clow establish his slave business, took against him. Accepting her word that Newton was dishonest Clow had Newton put in chains and secured to the deck of a boat. He was provided with no shelter and the minimum of rations, and was made to work on the plantations along with other slaves. From his captivity, that lasted months, Newton managed to smuggle letters out to Polly and to his father asking to be rescued.

Newton becomes a slave owner and trader

In 1746 Chow sold Newton to another slave trader who also ran ‘factories’. A trusting relationship developed between Newton with his new employer. He was soon ‘rewarded’ with shares in the ‘factories’ – which effectively meant he was allowed a number of captives who he could trade.

Despite his own experience of being held and abused as a slave, Newton treated his slaves / captives cruelly.

Newton tricked into being rescued

A letter sent by Newton to his father eventually led to John Newton Snr. mounting a rescue. When Newton was found he was no longer captive and had no desire to be rescued – he was living well and ‘living with’ a female slave. However Captain Swanwick who had been charged with rescuing Newton, told a lie. He told Newton there was a large fortune waiting for him to claim in England. Believing this fortune would enable him to marry Polly, Newton agreed to return. 

Newton ‘sees the light’ and finds God

The voyage home was highly eventful – and surprise surprise Newton fell out with his shipmates. Details of this voyage are not particularly edifying as far as this blog is concerned – other than one particular storm. The storm was so ferocious that all on board believed their ship would be wrecked. Fearing for his life Newton reconnected with the beliefs / teachings of his pious mother and prayed to be saved. The ship and crew survived the storm, and Newton found his faith in God to whom he had prayed for deliverance. However rather than improving matters on board ship it only made things worse as it further alienated Newton from the crew. The crew were sure that the previous foulmouthed blasphemous drunken Newton was mocking God with his new found faith, and was therefore likely to further invoke God’s wrath and thereby further endanger them and their ship.

Course of true love never runs smooth

On retuning safely Newton discovered he had been lied to – there was no fortune which he believed would have enabled him to marry Polly. What he did not know was that his father and Polly’s family had agreed to the marriage. Not knowing this Newton asked that Polly be told that the romance was off. Perhaps in the hope of earning a sizeable sum of money Newton agreed in 1748 to take the position of Mate on a slave ship from Liverpool – clearly no scruples from his new found religion. During the voyage to America via Africa to purchase slaves, Newton lost and re-found his religious beliefs. 

On returning to Liverpool Newton was advised that the prospects of marrying Polly remained – so he headed for Chatham to propose to her. When they met he was apparently so nervous that Polly had to take the initiative – perhaps showing how much in awe of her he was?

On 11 February 1750 the couple married at St Margaret’s church, Rochester, about two miles from Polly’s home.

St Margaret Church Rochester

St Margaret’s Church, Rochester, 1807. The church was rebuilt in 1823 so the church today looks somewhat different to the one in which Johne Newton and Polly Catlett married.

Newton returns to sea – as a lustful captain of a slave trader

John intended to give up slave-trading on his marriage to Polly but with debts from gambling and the need to support his wife, he left Polly in Chatham which he felt would be better for her health, and returned to Liverpool. Here he secured a position as First Mate and Master on a slave ship – The Duke of Argyle. This ship could carry 200 slaves “packed”, as he said in letters to Polly, “like sardines”.

During the slave-transport voyages the female slaves were further humiliated & degraded by being sexually abused by the crew. Newton was pleased (on this occasion) that he remained faithful to Polly – by placing himself on a diet of water and vegetables. However, he appears to have done nothing to prevent the abuse of the slaves by members of his crew – abuse that he claimed to abhor. 

Newton captained a number of other trade voyages before retiring from the trade in 1754 age of 29. 

Newton reinvents himself 

Newton’s decision to retire from the sea was undoubtedly brought about his and Polly’s poor health. He apparently had no objection to the slave-trade – although he was concerned about the inhumane way it was conducted.  Polly’s deteriorating health led Newton to seek emotional and spiritual support from the Church. 

In 1755, leaving Polly in Chatham Newton returned to Liverpool to take up a shore position in the port – a port that was the base for over a hundred slave ships. Although Newton appears to have been oblivious to the evils of the slave-trade he was concerned about the low moral standards of the people of Liverpool. This further fuelled his commitment to preaching the Bible – causing him to travel miles in the quest of receiving spiritual teaching from many churches as he could reach.

Call to Ordination

In 1758 Newton felt he had received ‘the calling’ – a view that was not unanimously held by those in the Church – perhaps because he was too earnest. It was not until 1763 that he was ordained by the Church of England. He proved himself to be a good parish priest and preacher, and received many lucrative offers from other parishes – including one from America which was turned down because Polly was fearful of the Atlantic crossing.

Between 1764 and 1780 Newton was curate at St Peter & St Paul’s church at Olney, Buckinghamshire. As an inspirational curate Newton trebled the local congregation with people attending his services from nearby parishes, and some even travelling from London to hear him preach. His success as a preacher was put down to his language not being ornate, and him speaking sound sense. (London City Press, 17 Oct. 1868.)

In 1772 Newton wrote the words to “Amazing Grace” to illustrate a sermon he was to give on New Years Day 1773. The words were put to music in 1779. The hymn went on to become one of the most recognisable songs in the English-speaking world, and has been recorded by more artists than any other song. The words contain the message that forgiveness and redemption are possible regardless of the sins committed – perhaps written by Newton more in hope than expectation!?

John Newton’s life as a clergyman is not for the telling here but amongst the people travelling from London to hear him preach was the Wilberforce family – that included the young schoolboy William Wilberforce who in adult life would lead the movement to end the slave trade.

Abolition of Slavery

Again not for detailing here – but William Wilberforce’s candid friendship with Newton

Wilberforce

William Wilberforce

helped sustain him through the trials and set-backs he experienced between 1786 and 1789 as he actively led the anti-slavery campaign.

Probably inspired by a day spent with Newton, Wilberforce wrote in his diary:

God Almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manner [Morals]”. 

In 1788 Newton ‘came-out’ as an abolitionist by publishing a paper “Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade” – previously he had only spoken privately. Newton’s testimony proved to be of vital importance in gaining public support for the abolition of slavey.

In addition to his own campaigning Newton continued to provide moral and spiritual support to Wilberforce. When Wilberforce unexpectedly lost the vote in Parliament in 1795, that was to end the Slave Trade on 1 January 1796, Newton once again provided motivational encouragement. 

Brotherhood

Evidence of growing public support: “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” medallion created as part of anti-slavery campaign by Josiah Wedgwood, 1787

Newton also forcefully gave graphic detail of the slave trade and the cruel degrading treatment the slaves received – without revealing he was party to some of these abuses!

Legislation was eventually passed. The Slave Trade Act 1807 prohibited the slave trade in the British Empire, but it did not abolish the practice of slavery – that had to wait until the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. This Act made the purchase or ownership of slaves illegal within the British Empire – with the exception of “the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company”. 

Deaths

Polly died in October 1790 at the age of 61 of breast cancer – “with a tumour that grew until it was half the size of a melon“. Despite being very low and in severe pain, for almost twelve months, it is said that she maintained a quiet ministry to all who came to see her.

John Newton died on 21 December 1807 aged 82 after a long and deteriorating illness, but after ‘seeing’ legislation passed that ended the trading of slaves – if not the ownership of a slaves. John Newton wrote his own epitaph:

“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, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy.

Final thought

It is only with hindsight that we can condemn John Newton’s involvement in the slave trade – it was at the time an accepted business. Indeed Joseph Williamson who left £5,000* in his will to establish a school, that went on to become the Maths School, may have gained a considerable part of his wealth through involvement in the slave trade, and possibly impressment – the running of pressgangs. A mercantile / trading company of which Williamson was a member, was established in 1660. This company was granted a charter by Charles II that effectively gave the company a monopoly over the trading arrangements with Africa. The group was first known as the Royal Adventurers and later became the Royal African Company.

Having made some excuse for Newton and perhaps Joseph Williamson for their involvement in the slave trade, I cannot find it in me to excuse the infliction of unbelievable cruelty on another person. The pain, anguish and distress caused to the people he was party to enslaving must have been blatantly evident to John Newton as he cited it as a reason for getting out of the ‘business’; not only did he not do something about it – he also perpetuated and inflected it.

Geoff Ettridge. 10 February 2018 updated 15 June 2020

Main sources

John Newton – From Disgrace to Amazing Grace. Jonathan Aitken. 2007.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (www.oxfordnb.com).

DVD: Amazing Grace. 2006.

Kent and the abolition of the slave trade: A county study, 1760s-1807. David Killingray. (Archaeologia Cantiana, Vol CXXVII 2007 pp 107 – 126.)

*£5,000 could have been worth about £400,000 in today’s money.

Lyrics of Amazing Grace

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.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.