James Ramsay (abolitionist)

James Ramsay(1733–1789) was a ship’s surgeon, Anglican priest, and leading abolitionist.


Early life and Naval service

Ramsay was born at Fraserburgh, Scotland, the son of William Ramsay, ship’s carpenter, and Margaret Ogilvie. He was apprenticed to a local surgeon and later educated at King's College, Aberdeen from 1750 to 1755. He obtained his MA in 1753 and went on to continue his surgical training in London under Dr George Macaulay.

He entered the Navy in 1757, and served as surgeon aboard the Arundel in the West Indies, under the command of Sir Charles Middleton. In November 1759, the Arundel intercepted a British slave ship, the Swift and, on boarding the vessel, Ramsay found over 100 slaves living in the most inhumane conditions. Such was the scene of filth and degradation he witnessed, that this incident was to have a lasting effect on Ramsay. While serving at sea he fell and fractured his thigh bone, and was disqualified from future service, remaining lame for the remainder of his life.

Ministry in the Caribbean

In September 1762 Ramsay left the navy to take holy orders. He was ordained into the Anglican church by the Bishop of London, choosing to work amongst slaves on the Caribbean island of St Christopher (now St Kitts), where he was appointed to St. John’s, Capisterre in 1762, and to Christ Church Nichola Town, the following year. In 1763 he married Rebecca Akers, by whom he had a son and three daughters.

Ramsay set out by welcoming both black and white parishioners into his church, with the aim of converting the slaves to Christianity. As well as pastoring the members of his church he practised medicine and surgery, providing a free service to the poor of the community. Having been appointed surgeon to several plantations on the island, he was able to see firsthand the conditions under which the slaves laboured and the brutality of many of the planters.

He strongly criticised the cruel treatment and punishment meted out to the slaves, and became more convinced of the need to improve their conditions. This led him into involvement in local government, but he was the target of much antagonism and personal attack from the planters, who resented his interference, because of his measures to ameliorate the conditions of the slaves. His letters to the bishop of London illustrate the attitudes of the American colonists in the late 18th century.

Ramsay left St Kitts in 1777, exhausted by the continuing conflict with influential planters and businessmen. He returned to Britain and briefly lived with Sir Charles Middleton at Teston, Kent where Lady Middleton joined the cause of the campaign against the slave trade.

He briefly rejoined the navy in April 1778, accepting a chaplaincy in the West Indies with Admiral Barrington, where he was engaged in intelligence gathering against the French. He returned to Britain in 1781 at the suggestion of Middleton, by then comptroller of the navy, with the intention of helping his radical reform of the Navy Board and as his personal secretary. He was installed as vicar of Teston and rector of Nettleshead, Kent, these valuable positions being the gift of Middleton.

Abolitionist activity

During the following three years Ramsay worked on his most significant Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies, published in 1784. It was this essay which influenced Beilby Porteus, Bishop of Chester and later Bishop of London, in his campaign to improve the conditions of slaves held by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, as well as bringing to public notice the debate about the slave trade. He contributed several further publications to the campaign, including An Inquiry into the Effects of Putting a Stop to the African Slave Trade, published 1784.

Ramsay became part of the group of influential politicians, philanthropists and churchmen based at Teston, and was persuaded by Lady Middleton, the wife of Charles Middleton and others to publish his account of the horrors of the slave trade. They met at Barham Court[1]. This was the first time that the British public had read an anti-slavery work by a mainstream Anglican writer who had personally witnessed the suffering of the slaves on the West-Indian plantations.

Again he was severely challenged by the plantation owners in England who were threatened by his anti-slavery works and who attempted to refute his allegations, in many cases with vitriolic attacks on Ramsay’s reputation and character, leading to a pamphlet war between the parties.

He met with William Pitt the Younger, the Prime Minister, on several occasions and with William Wilberforce in 1783 and played a significant part in the establishment of the campaign against the slave trade. It was his meeting with Thomas Clarkson in 1786 which encouraged the latter in his tireless efforts to obtain firsthand evidence of the trade, and indirectly led to the formation of the Committee for Abolition of the African Slave Trade the following year.


Hugely influential in the growing anti-slavery movement, Ramsay did not live to see the fruition of the campaign, and died in 1789 and was buried at Teston. It has been said that the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807 probably owed more to James Ramsay's arguments, proposals and personal integrity than to any other influence.



  1. ^ BBC film about the abolition of slavery

External links

  • [1] James Ramsay from Brycchan Carey's listing of British abolitionists


  • MacDonald, J.R. James Ramsay in Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: University Press, 1896)
  • Shyllon, F. James Ramsay: the unknown abolitionist (Edinburgh, Canongate Publishing, 1977)
  • Carey, Brycchan. British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility: Writing, Sentiment,and Slavery, 1760-1807 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) 109-124.
  • Hochschild, Adam. Bury the Chains, The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan, 2005)
  • Watt, J. James Ramsay in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: University Press, 2005)