On November 20, 1759 the Arundel approached an unknown ship in the waters off the West Indies. The tense, tanned sailors stood by their guns as Captain Charles Middleton sent a boarding party to investigate. The Swift proved to be a slaver bound for Guinea. It carried the plague.
Middleton summoned his surgeon, James Ramsay, a young man he had led to Christ. The doctor clambered aboard the Swift and reeled in horror. The holds were jammed with naked slaves, chained row upon row, writhing and groaning and sweating and dying of the plague. The stench was unbearable, the filth unbelievable. Ramsay left the Swift vowing to do his utmost for slaves.
Shortly afterward he retired from naval service and became pastor on the West Indies island of St. Kitt. He purchased ten slaves from tyrants, and Ramsay became their servant, teaching them Scripture and treating them medically. His hatred of slavery grew as he visited nearby plantations, treating wounds inflicted by whips and branding irons. Owners threatened him when he advocated humane treatment of slaves; and when Ramsay called for the abolition of slavery, he was attacked in the local papers, censured by the citizens, and driven from the island.
Ramsay took a pastorate in the English countryside of Kent. Though only 48, he looked old and drawn. Day and night, the cries of slaves haunted him, and the memories of November 20, 1759 never left him. He put his feelings into print and braced himself for another storm. It came, but this time he had an ally—his old captain, Charles Middleton, now a member of Parliament. Middleton joined Ramsay’s crusade, but looked around for a younger, more eloquent member of Parliament to be leader. He chose William Wilberforce.
Wilberforce’s lifelong crusade to abolish slavery in Britain is well known. But few remember that it can be traced back to a quiet Christian doctor who made a vow on a November’s day in 1759.
Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Nov. 20.