I’d never heard of Benjamin Lay before reading an Aeon piece on him this evening. He sounds like a fascinating person — a religious radical, a professional tall ship sailor, a proto-abolitionist, & an anti-mercantilist who was made an outcast for his unflinching denunciations of slavery & the slave trade:
He refused complicity with any form of oppression.
Lay was thus the first to articulate a modern politics of consumption. He boycotted all slave-produced commodities, which always disguised the horrific conditions under which they were produced. Anyone who dropped a cube of sugar into a cup of tea was thereby complicit with the sugar-planters of Barbados and the tea-plantation owners in East Asia, with their violent means of creating wealth. To refuse sugar, in turn, was to express solidarity with oppressed enslaved workers in the Caribbean, and to acknowledge that sugar was made with their blood. The modern global movement against sweatshops is based on the same idea.
The eighteenth century wasn’t remotely close to my period, but even if it were, I might not have come across him in the historiography:
Historians – including eminent historians of abolition – have also played a major part in erasing Lay from our historical memory. He never really fit the story they told about the abolitionist movement: ‘enlightened’ middle- and upper-class men arrived at the rational conclusion that slavery was wrong, and hence they abolished it. Lay was from the wrong class. He was not properly educated and therefore could not be considered enlightened. His ideas were too radical and his methods were too extreme. He must have been out of his mind. In The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966), the renowned historian David Brion Davis called Lay a mentally deranged ‘little hunchback’, which draws attention to his dwarfism and disability. These too were causes of dismissal, when in fact they should have been seen as a source of empathy for others who made up the wretched of the Earth.
Robert Caro said that “the power of the historian is the power of truth.” May Lay’s life receive the powerful historical assessment it deserves.