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Cover Story March 1st, 2007

  Untitled Document

by lyle e davis


It is well documented that were it not for women the course of history would have been changed materially. For the better or worse has yet to be decided.

It was a woman, Mary “Polly” Catlett, who would influence a young man named John Newton to disregard a likely life of comfort by disobeying his influential father’s instructions, by not following other orders in life, by setting a chain of events in motion that, unbeknownst to him at the time, would ultimately wind up with him becoming a slave ship captain, and of eventually writing a poem, later to become a hymn, that has lasted through the years to today and, indeed, currently has a motion picture devoted to his life story.

Motion picture life stories tend to not be terribly accurate, however. John Newton, for example, was nowhere near as handsome as the lead actor in the film. Surprise, surprise!

John Newton is perhaps best known as the author of the world-famous hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Much of the legend about John Newton is true . . . much of it is fiction.

He was a former slave trader, he did compose one of the most moving hymns of our times, but he did not write “Amazing Grace” as an expression of his repentence - following, or during, a gigantic storm. It simply is not true.

Here’s the straight information on what really happened. If you see the movie, compare the following to what is portrayed on the silver screen. I would bet you a nickle . . . no, make that a dime, that the two stories only vaguely resemble one another.

The Facts

John Newton led an adventure-filled life as a master of a slave ship. But, it took him awhile to get there . . . and beyond. Later, Newton would become known for his work in the anti-slavery movement, which occupied part of his later life. He wrote of his experiences in his autobiography 'An Authentic Narrative' published in 1764.

Newton, born in London on July 24th, 1725, was the son of a ship's captain involved in the Mediterranean trade for the East India Company. His mother, Elizabeth, was a religious woman who attended chapel regularly. Elizabeth Newton’s influence on John was unhappily short since she died at thirty from consumption (the archaic name for pulmonary tuberculosis) when he was only six.

His father soon remarried and John went to live in Essex, at the home of his stepmother's father. Between the ages of eight and ten, he was sent to boarding school, where according to him 'instead of making progress, I nearly forgot all that my good mother had taught me ... The day I was eleven years old, I went on board my father's ship in Longreach. I made five voyages with him to the Mediterranean.'

In 1742 his father left the sea. Deciding that his son's future, too, was to be on land he wrote to his friend, Joseph Manesty, a Liverpool merchant and ship owner, asking for patronage for his son. Manesty offered young John the position of slave overseer on a Jamaican plantation with the opportunity of becoming a planter before he was thirty. He accepted the offer but fate intervened. Fate, as it happened, took the form of, you guessed it, a woman.

A few days before he was to leave, a letter arrived from his mother's cousin and close friend, Elizabeth Catlett, inviting him to stay if ever he was in Kent. The visit was a great success, all the family being warm and friendly to the 17 year-old, who was especially taken with the 14 year-old daughter of the house, Mary, known as 'Polly.' Unable to tear himself away he lingered at Chatham until the West Indies ship had sailed. After three weeks he returned to face his father, who decided that his punishment should be to sail to the Middle East as a common seaman.

On John's return home his father secured for him an officer's berth, but before sailing the boy was given permission to visit the Catletts. His father warned him that until he joined the merchantman and obtained his certificate of exemption he would be vulnerable to the press gangs operating in coastal areas. (Press gangs was the name given to impressment (colloquially, "press-ganging"); the act of conscripting people to serve in the military or navy. People liable to impressment were eligible men of seafaring habits between the ages of 18 and 55 years.) Since hostilities with France were very likely, this was a distinct possibility. (Political tension between the two countries was escalating.)

Again John overstayed his leave and by the time he finally left had again missed his ship. In disgrace he returned to his father. Initially angry, Captain Newton eventually relented and found his son another ship. Since there was a little time before sailing he went to his stepmother's home in Essex. This was near a ferry, enabling him to cross into Kent to see Polly; he could not resist the temptation and walked straight into a press gang.

shipThis time his father couldn't get him out of trouble, despite coming to speak to the Royal Navy officers himself. The French were out and shots had been exchanged. So John Newton was impressed as an Able Seaman on HMS Harwich, a 50-gun man-of-war on March 4th, 1744. A month later Captain Carteret read out the Declaration of War to his crew and shortly after Newton was summoned to the Captain's cabin. His father had asked that his son be promoted to midshipman and the Captain was glad to oblige Captain Newton, who was by now, an employee of the Royal Africa Company. Was Newton grateful that his father had yet again used his influence and enabled him to escape from the conditions existing below decks? Was Newton grateful to Captain Carteret for this chance to do his duty and serve his country with honor as a warrant officer? He was not! He overstayed his leave on several occasions, but at Christmas 1744, learning that HMS Harwich was going to the East Indies and wouldn't be returning for some five years, he prevailed upon the Captain to allow him ashore. Twenty-four hour leave was granted but Newton didn't return to his ship until 1st January. This time he had lost his Captain's goodwill completely.

In April Newton deserted. All thoughts of duty to his father, his captain, his country left him; he only thought of Polly and the long period of separation. His freedom lasted two days and then he ran into a party of marines who arrested him and marched him the 24 miles back to Plymouth. Newton was put in irons, again his father interceded on his behalf and begged Admiral Medley to exchange him to a merchant ship, but Captain Carteret refused to agree. Newton was publicly stripped and whipped, and when fit for duty again he returned not as midshipman but at the lowest rank of Ordinary Seaman. Six years later he was able to write that he had been 'degraded and punished as I well deserved' but at the time he thought himself ill-used.

Captain Carteret exchanged Newton for a different sailor with another Captain of a ship who, it turns out, also knew Newton’s father. It was on this ship that Newton would learn the slave trade.

Ships involved in the Triangular Trade took out Sheffield goods, cloth, fire-arms and trinkets to barter with the chiefs and petty kings of West Africa for slaves; this 'cargo' was taken in turn by the notorious Middle Passage to the West Indies and/or the southern American colonies and sold; the ships returned home to Liverpool, Bristol and London with their holds full of rum or sugar or tobacco. A fortune could be made by captains and mates provided they survived the tropical fevers for long enough.

When young Newton - he was just 23 - returned to England he first went to see Joseph Manesty, the Liverpool merchant owner of the 'Greyhound.' He created such a good impression that Manesty offered him a command. After consideration Newton declined on the grounds that he needed more experience of command and accepted instead the post of first mate under Captain Hardy, of the 'Brownlow,' a slaver.

He had also at this time gone to London to call on the Catlett family. It wasn't a great success. Polly now 20, was polite but not exactly overjoyed to see him and he was by all accounts tongue-tied. However, he poured his heart out in a letter and begged 'a little of your charity, one morsel for God's sake, before I am quite starved.' He ended it, 'Dear Polly, Your most faithful and ardent admirer and servant, J. Newton'.

On arriving in Sierra Leone, Newton's job was to go by open boat along the river estuaries buying slaves. This was not without risk; he buried some seven of his crew, struck down by tropical diseases, and he himself had a recurrence of fever. For eight months he went about this task in inclement weather. He wrote to Polly in March 1749,

Every day the weather grows worse: violent squalls of wind and prodigious thunder and lightning are bringing in by degrees the heavy rains which last almost incessantly from about the end of this month until August.

The voyage to Antigua posed problems. Some slaves broke out and a crewmember was killed by a marlinspike. The rest of the crew fired from the rigging, killing about four of the unarmed Africans. The mutineers were punished in the manner of the day and they sailed on from Antigua to Charleston, South Carolina. This proved a bad investment since the mortality rate among the slaves began to increase with the additional length at sea. The 'Brownlow' lost 62 out of 218.

slave deckLater, on another ship, Newton would remain on board, sailing from river mouth to river mouth collecting slaves from the 'factories' or warehouses on the coast where they had been brought from the interior. After a bout with fever and regaining his health Newton began to spend his idle time by reading. The only book he had at the time was Barrow's 'Euclid.'. He used to go to remote parts of the island to draw out diagrams in the sand.

Thus I often beguiled my sorrows, and almost forgot my feelings, and thus without any other assistance I made myself in good measure master of the first six books of Euclid.

Before long Newton went to work for a Mr. Williams, who treated him decently. During the next twelve months Newton wrote to his father asking for help and Captain Newton applied again to Joseph Manesty, 'who gave orders accordingly to a captain of his who was then fitting out for Gambia and Sierra Leone.’

The ship that Manesty sent out, called the 'Greyhound', traded not in slavery but in gold, ivory, beeswax and dyer's wood (sometimes known as 'cam wood' - an ingredient used in the dying industry).

The 'Greyhound' spent nearly a year working her way south, trading. Newton could have made himself useful, keeping the occasional watch or becoming involved in the trading, but on board he idled away his time making himself thoroughly disliked. He derided anyone who had a Christian faith; he blasphemed and became adept at inventing new oaths, which even shocked the hardened crew.

Eventually with her holds full the 'Greyhound' was ready for the long journey home. To reach Liverpool meant sailing across the Atlantic to the tip of north east Brazil to pick up favorable winds which would drive them to Newfoundland Banks, and then re-crossing the Atlantic, a journey of seven thousand miles without making landfall! One of the few books on board was 'The Christian's Pattern' by Stanhope, which was based on Thomas Kempis's 'The Imitation of Christ.' Newton was reading this on the voyage home. They had set sail in early January and by March 9th a severe westerly gale was in progress. In the night Newton was awakened by a sudden jolt and water flooding into his cabin, followed by a cry from above that the ship was sinking. The ship was severely damaged and the crew set to pumping out the water and baling in another part of the vessel. Here in Newton's own words, from 'An Authentic Narrative' is an account of the ordeal.

The sea had torn away the upper timbers on one side, and made the ship a mere wreck in a few minutes ... Taking all the circumstances, it was astonishing, and almost miraculous that any of us survived to relate the story. We had recourse to the pumps; but the water increased against our efforts... We had but eleven or twelve people to sustain this service; and, notwithstanding all we could do, she was full, or very near it: and then, with a common cargo, she must have sunk of course; but we had a great quantity of bees wax and wood on board, which were specifically lighter than the water...

Towards dawn the wind lessened and they were able to use bedding and clothes to plug the leaks, nailing pieces of boards over them, the intake of water slowed and the crew continued pumping. Newton remained at the pumps until noon, waves continually breaking over his head as he worked; he and others made themselves fast with ropes to prevent them from being washed overboard. In a state of exhaustion Newton, who had been at the pumps for some nine hours, went to his bunk to rest for an hour. He was called to steer the vessel until midnight. Here he had the opportunity for reflection on 'the extraordinary turns in my life; the calls, warnings, and deliverances I had met with ... about six in the evening (I heard) that the ship was freed from water, there rose a gleam of hope. I thought I saw the hand of God displayed in our favour; I began to pray.'

The crew of the 'Greyhound' survived the gale only to realize the next morning they were in danger of starving. All the remaining livestock had been washed overboard, the casks full of provisions had been smashed and the contents destroyed. They had, according to Newton, just enough food (dry salted cod) for a week provided it was strictly rationed. Fortunately the freshwater casks were undamaged. The ship was somewhere to the west of Ireland, but would they reach port before their food ran out? The wind blew continuously for two weeks and conditions on board became increasingly difficult. Just when all seemed lost the wind changed and they were able to make progress. The next day they anchored in Lough Swilly, N.W. Ireland, four weeks after the gale that had caused such damage. They were brought safe home, Newton commenting:

When we came into this port our very last victuals were boiling in the pot: and before we had been there two hours, the wind, which seemed to have been providentially restrained till we were in a place of safety, began to blow with great violence, so that if we had continued at sea that night in our shattered, enfeebled condition, we must have gone to the bottom. About this time I began to know that there is a God that hears and answers prayer.

Newton’s religious conversion didn’t happen in a flash but in the period between March 10th, the day of the storm, and the April 8th when the 'Greyhound' came into port. Later, on May 10, 1748, Newton acknowledges formally his ‘conversion.’ From that day forward he would celebrate that date as his ‘anniversay.’ Newton was 23 years old. He did not free any of his merchandise on that 1748 trip, or on any others. Though he might have become a Christian, he did not yet allow it to interfere with his making a living.

While in Ireland Newton wrote three times to his father but fate intervened and they would never see each other again. Captain Newton had been appointed Governor of Fort York, Hudson Bay and was shortly due to sail. John was going with him if he could get to England before his father sailed but circumstances prevented this. Three years later Captain Newton drowned in a swimming accident, just a day before he was due to return home.

On returning to Liverpool Manesty offered Newton a command for the next sailing season, which he now accepted. He wrote to Polly and accepted an invitation to visit. He was received in the usual friendly way and managed to summon up the courage to propose. Polly refused him not once but twice, finally accepting him when some days later he proposed for the third time. They were married on February 1st, 1750. They had no children.

The Duke of Argyll was a Snow, which is a variation on a Brig. The full-rigged Brig is a vessel with two masts, fore and main, both of which are fully square-rigged. A Snow is a brig with an auxiliary mast attached to the back of the mainmast for a fore-and-aft sail.

When Newton sailed as captain on the 'Duke of Argyll' in August 1750, he had charge of some 30 sailors. He was determined to set a good example, taking care to be abstemious in food and drink. As Richard Cecil writes:

I have heard Mr. Newton observe, that, as the commander of a slave-ship, he had a number of women under his absolute authority: and knowing the danger of his situation on that account, he resolved to abstain from flesh in his food, and to drink nothing stronger than water, during the voyage.

Was marriage to Polly having an effect on his behavior at sea? The implication is clear that on the previous voyage on a slave-ship his behavior was not so moral. He had, in fact, several “African wives.” If this is the case, it is hardly surprising. Apart from normal young male libido at work, crews were actively encouraged by the owners and captains to have sexual relations with the female slaves. The reason was simply the profit motive. Pregnant slaves would fetch a higher price at auction: two for the price of one. Particularly this was so if it were obvious that the child had been conceived at sea since a mulatto baby would fetch a higher price than a darker skinned one. Lighter skinned slaves were prized as house servants, which fetched higher prices than field hands.

brigThe voyage was not uneventful, some 20 slaves had managed to get free and it took until the next day to secure them. Newton punished them by using thumbscrews on the ringleaders. Despite this his treatment was, in the context of the period, humane. Below decks were cleansed regularly and the slaves also brought on deck to be washed.

He buried only six slaves at sea, a remarkable record. The middle passage ended in July 1751 when he anchored in Antigua, a British island in the West Indies. He returned to Liverpool in November of that year.

He next sailed in a new ship, appropriately called 'The African' in July 1752.

During his time in African waters he managed to put down an attempted mutiny by some members of the crew as well as an insurrection by the slaves - the crew 'was much menaced by our cargo.' It was August 1753 when 'The African' returned to homeport and only six weeks later sailed again for West Africa. The trading was poor and Newton carried only 87 slaves to St Kitts (St. Christopher's) in the West Indies, instead of the usual 220. However the increased room below decks meant an increased survival rate and the entire voyage passed without a single death, amongst either crew or cargo.

It was while in St. Kitt's that Newton met someone who had a profound effect on him. Alexander Clunie was a sea captain who was not involved in the Triangular Trade. They soon became friends; Clunie was a Scot and belonged to the Independent chapel in London. Under the influence of Clunie, Newton's understanding of his faith became more focused.

I was all ears and what was better, he not only informed my understanding but his discourses inflamed my heart.

slave list For nearly a month the two met alternately on board each other's ship. Although Newton had read and re-read the Bible and other religious books, meeting Clunie turned an intellectual exercise into a more outward expression of his faith. With encouragement Newton began to pray aloud. Clunie also gave him addresses of others from whom to seek further instruction. Newton lost no time and began, in June 1754, a series of letters to Dr David Jennings. He also kept in touch with Clunie; his letters between 1761 and 1770 were later published as 'The Christian Correspondent', in which Newton paid him this tribute:

Your conversation was much blessed to me at St. Kitt's, and the little knowledge I have of men and things took its first rise from thence.

The voyage back to England was uneventful apart from storms in the Western Approaches and when 'The African' docked in August 1754 Newton was unaware that he would never go to sea again.

Following retirement from the sea, Newton became Surveyor of the Tides (a form of Customs Officer charged with searching for contraband and paid with half the swag taken from others) in Liverpool from 1755 to 1760, during which time he studied Greek, Hebrew and Theology. Newton, who converted to evangelical Christianity in 1748, was ordained as a priest in the Church of England in 1764.

Initially, he was given the curacy at Olney, Buckinghamshire, England. Newton's church became so crowded during services that it had to be enlarged. He preached not only in Olney but in other parts of the country. In 1767 the poet William Cowper settled at Olney, and he and Newton became friends. Cowper helped Newton with his religious services and on his tours to other places. They wrote poems and hymns together.

It is believed that ‘Amazing Grace’ was probably written in 1772, as one of the hymns written for a weekly service. It was not, however, known as “Amazing Grace.” It was titled originally “Faith's Review and Expectation,” the subject of a sermon. It appeared along with a reference to First Chronicles, Chapter 17, Verses 16 and 17.

Newton eventually became Rector of St Mary Woolnoth in London. Here, again, his services were packed with congregants.

Newton began to express regrets about his part in the slave trade only in 1780, thirty-two years after his conversion, and eight years after he wrote 'Amazing Grace.' In 1785 he began to fight against slavery by speaking out against it, and he continued to do so until his death in 1807.

Newton's storm-driven adoption of Christianity hadn’t changed him all that much; he continued to make his living from the slave trade for many years afterwards and only left the trade when his wife insisted upon their living a settled life in England. (Indeed, less than a year after his storm-driven conversion, Newton was back in Africa, brokering the purchase of newly-captured blacks and taking yet another "African wife" while there. He was hardly the poster boy for the truly penitent, at least at that point in his life.)

Newton did eventually grow into his conversion, so that by the end of his days he actually was the godly man one would expect to have penned 'Amazing Grace.' But it was a slow process effected over the passage of decades, not something that happened with a clap of thunder and a flash of lightning.

At the age of seventy-seven Newton reflected again on these events:

My Gracious Lord, Thou hast preserved me to see another anniversary of that great, awful and merciful day, when I was upon the point of sinking with all my sins and blasphemies upon my head into the pit which has no bottom, and must have sunk, has not Thine eye pitied me, and preserved me in a manner which appears to me little less miraculous, than all the wonders Thou didst perform for Israel in Egypt and at the Red Sea.

I have now cause to praise thee for that terrible storm, which first shook my infidelity, and made me apprehensive that death was not, as my corrupt heart had persuaded me, an eternal sleep.

I thank Thee, likewise, for the subsequent month, when we expected to be starved, or reduced to feed upon one another and it not been for this protected season of distress, my first impressions might have worn off, but Thou fixed and increased them, so that by the time we arrived in Ireland, I was no longer an infidel. Not one of my fellow sufferers was affected as I was. Well I might say with wonder and gratitude, Why me O Lord, Why me?

(MS note in annotated copy of Newton's 'Letters to A Wife', Cowper & Newton Museum)

The Hymn:

Amazing Grace

(These are the original six stanzas that appeared, with minor spelling variations, in both the first edition in 1779 and the 1808 edition, the one nearest the date of Newton's death.)

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav'd a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev'd;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ'd!

Thro' many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
'Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promis'd good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call'd me here below,
Will be forever mine.

The familiar, traditional melody most often used for this hymn was not original (nor was Newton a composer). As with other hymns of this period, the words were sung to a number of tunes before it became linked to the current tune in American hymnbooks of the 1830s. The melody is believed to be Scottish or Irish in origin; it is pentatonic and suggests a bagpipe tune; the hymn is frequently performed on bagpipes and has become associated with that instrument.

Newton's lyrics have become a favorite for Christians of many Protestant denominations, largely because the hymn vividly and briefly sums up the Protestant doctrine of Divine grace. The lyrics are based on 1 Chronicles 17:16, where King David marvels at God's choosing him and his house. Newton apparently wrote this for use with a sermon he preached on this passage on New Year's Morning 1773, for which he left his sermon notes. (He entitled the piece, "Faith's review and expectation".)

The hymn was quite popular among both sides in the American Civil War. While on the "trail of tears", the Cherokee were not always able to give their dead a full burial. Instead, the singing of "Amazing Grace" had to suffice. Since then, "Amazing Grace" is often considered the Cherokee National Anthem.

Newton continued to preach until the last year of life, although he was blind by that time. He died in London December 21, 1807, at the age of 82. Infidel and libertine turned minister in the Church of England, he was secure in his faith that amazing grace would lead him home.





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