Benjamin Lay: the first revolutionary abolitionist

I was lucky to catch a performance of ‘The Return of Benjamin Lay’ at Finborough Theatre in London, following Tariq Ali’s recommendation on Facebook.

The play is billed as “Benjamin Lay – shepherd, sailor, prophet, and the British Empire’s first revolutionary abolitionist – returns from the grave almost 300 years after his death, as feisty and unpredictable as ever.”

First revolutionary abolitionist? Never heard of him. Still …

This play is a 70 minute tour de force. A highly political script, a beautifully written monologue delivered in an exceptional performance by Mark Povinelli.  Povinelli commands our attention and engagement from beginning to end, as he slips seamlessly between characters and interacts with charm with the audience, as we become extras at a modern-day Quaker meeting. 

Mark Povinelli is the president of the Little People’s Association. Benjamin Lay was a dwarf with a hunchback. “Misshapen,” as he declares in the play. The first word he learnt. A word that rustled over his cradle.

Benjamin Lay was born and grew up in an Essex village in the late 17th Century, working as a shepherd and part of a radical Quaker family.  He became a sailor, adept at climbing the rigging, sharing cramped quarters with a multi-ethnic crew in hard graft moving cargo around the world. Despite the hardship and strict discipline, in the play Lay conveys joy in the solidarity (“one and all”) he experienced with his fellow sailors, and it was at sea that he learnt to read. He settled in Barbados with his wife and established a shop on the harbour, witnessing daily the brutality of the slave trade. Lay’s friendship with an enslaved man who killed himself rather than submit to yet another whipping led before long to a visit from the King’s men, who asked him to leave the island.

Lay and his wife were then drawn to the large Quaker community in Philadelphia, where they tried to make a new life for themselves.  Though the extent and barbarity of slavery there was less than in Barbados, nonetheless Lay was outraged by the number of Quaker elders who themselves owned slaves.  Again, he resorted to direct, public and disruptive confrontations, and was progressively barred from all Quaker meetings across the city and beyond.

The play draws out vividly a character who will not let a hint of hypocrisy or contradiction pass without speaking out, whether it’s the church, King George, the Quaker elders, or the goods eagerly sought after and consumed without regard to the cost to the slaves and labourers who produced them. Lay shoots scathing political rebukes at power wherever located across the world in the 1700s: those of old and of new money, Catholic and Puritan, feudal and commercial.  

The play is a collaboration between playwright Naomi Wallace and historian Marcus Rediker, a professor of Atlantic history at the University of Pittsburgh.  His book, “The Fearless Benjamin Lay”, provides a rich background to the play[1].

Benjamin Lay was a child of the religious radicalism that burned apace across the country, and particularly in Essex, through the 1600s, but which found its fullest force during the English Revolution.  The Quakers themselves came out of that hotbed, drawing together men and women who had been Levellers, Seekers, Ranters, and Diggers. Lay grew up with their methods: shouting down and denouncing establishment ministers during church services, performing provocative street theatre, and refusing to follow rituals of church deference such as not wearing hats during prayer. It was these methods he used to denounce slavery: direct action, and direct confrontation.  

But in the play, Lay reveals a profound and positive vision of life and society too.  The religious radicalism of the 1600s forged new ideas that reached far beyond theology, in politics concerning egalitarianism, property and democracy, and around the family, sexuality and gender.  Lay talks of the camaraderie (and sexual freedom) he experienced as a sailor, of a spontaneous bond between slaves and sailors in a ship mutiny, of the joy and simplicity of life sustained from the natural fruits of Barbados, and perhaps most touchingly, of the peace and community he had experienced in the silence of the very Quaker meetings from which he’d been repeatedly thrown-out.  Thrown-out by the Quaker elders who themselves owned slaves, and against whom Lay couldn’t help but rage.

Lay was first described as a “revolutionary” posthumously, by Benjamin Rush in 1790.  (Rush was a signatory to the Declaration of Independence.)  Lay came to be seen as prefiguring the revolutions of that decade across the Atlantic, “from Paris to Belfast to Port-au-Prince”.  Above all else, Lay confronted the inhumanity of slavery, and somehow in that moment also articulated its impact on the newly emerging capitalist society and way of life.

Why had I never heard of Benjamin Lay?  We know that school history is written by the victors, and as socialists we also know that the abolition of slavery had little to do with William Wilberforce and his liberal conscience.  Much more significant factors in the abolition of slavery must include the growing succession of slave revolts through the 1700s, the growing solidarity felt and expressed by European and American workers in the early 1800s, and the economic imperatives of a rapidly industrialising capitalist world.  We should also recognise the loud defiant voice and actions of Benjamin Lay, raised from the outset of the new world.  His was a voice of the ‘wrong class’, calling for the immediate abolition of slavery (no ifs, no buts), using confrontational methods, and lacking in gentility and polite accomplishments. Abolitionists like Lay were driven by their class consciousness, born out of hard work and genuine human solidarity. They stand in sharp contrast to the polite society abolitionists like Jefferson who were slave masters themselves.

This is a riveting play, and one which in many ways frames and illuminates our subsequent history.  If you ever get a chance to see it, go!

[1] “The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist”, Marcus Rediker, Verso 2023

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