The Trader, the Owner, the Slave: Parallel Lives in the Age of Slavery

James Walvin here addresses the enormity of the slave trade by looking in depth at three individuals inextricably bound up in it. His trader is John Newton, the slave ship captain who came to see the iniquity of the trade, and went on to write the hymn Amazing Grace. His owner is Thomas Thistlewood who lived, and kept a revealing diary, in a remote part of Jamaica. And his slave is Olaudah Equiano, who escaped his past to become an Enlightenment intellectual and icon of the abolitionist movement.

Nicholas Guyatt writes:

In an effort to get away from the ‘big meta-narrative’, Walvin presents biographical sketches of three participants in Britain’s 18th-century slave economy. John Newton (1725-1807) was a slave captain who became an Anglican cleric and, towards the end of his life, an opponent of the trade. Thomas Thistlewood (1721-86) was an overseer and eventually a slaveholder in western Jamaica who compiled a meticulous diary of his activities. Olaudah Equiano (c.1745-97) was a black slave who worked as a sailor in his early years until he raised enough money to buy his freedom. (Like Newton, he became an important witness against the trade.) These diverse figures give us some sense of what it meant to experience slavery at first hand.

(LRB 4 October 2007)

Available in a paperback edition

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