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Ramsay, James (1733-1789) (DNB00)


RAMSAY, JAMES (1733–1789), divine and philanthropist, was born on 25 July 1733 at Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire. On his father's side he was descended from the Ramsays of Melrose, Banffshire, and on his mother's from the Ogilvies of Powrie, Forfarshire. Educated at local schools, he was apprenticed to a Fraserburgh surgeon, but, gaining a scholarship in 1750, he attended King's College, Aberdeen. Dr. Thomas Reid (1710–1796) [q. v.], the philosopher, was one of his masters, and a lifelong friendship sprang up between the two. In 1755 Ramsay went to London to assist a Dr. Macaulay, in whose family he lived for two years, after which he entered the navy. While surgeon on board the Arundel, commanded by Captain Middleton [see Middleton, Charles, Lord Barham], Ramsay was called upon to assist a slaver infested with the plague, and this experience first directed his attention to the question which absorbed his later years—the abolition of slavery. An accident, by which he broke his thigh-bone, lamed him for life, and he resolved to take holy orders. After admission by the bishop of London, he returned to the West Indies to take charge of the livings of Christchurch, Nicolatown, and St. John's, Capisterre.

Ramsay immediately began to take a keen interest in the slaves, and differences arose between himself and the planters. In addition to his pastoral duties, he undertook the medical supervision of several plantations, and began a scheme for the religious instruction of the negroes. The opposition of the owners became more bitter. Pamphlets and newspaper articles were written attacking him, and his opponents succeeded in depriving him of his magistracy. Tired of the contest, and hoping that it might subside if he withdrew for a time, he returned to England and visited his home in 1777. Next year he accepted a chaplaincy under Admiral Barrington, then in command of the West Indies squadron. He also served under Admiral Rodney, and was in several engagements, particularly the capture of St. Eustatius, when he was able to render the Jews of the place valuable service. Resigning his commission, he returned to St. Christopher's, but, finding that the opposition to him was as strong as ever, he accepted in 1781 the livings of Teston and Nettlestead in Kent, offered to him by his late commander, Sir Charles Middleton. The latter and Lady Middleton were Ramsay's neighbours at Teston, and both were particularly interested in his descriptions of the condition of the slaves. The abolitionist movement had already made a small beginning, and, on the advice of his neighbours, Ramsay revised and published in 1784 ‘An Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies,’ which he had been working at for several years. In this work he discussed the position of master and slave in ancient and modern times, argued that society and the owners themselves would benefit by free labour and that under existing conditions the slave could not be benefited morally or intellectually, and finally, meeting the various objections that had been made on the ground of the inferiority of the negro, concluded with suggestions which practically meant the abolition of slavery. The publication of this essay was the most important event in the early history of the anti-slavery movement. It at once drew a number of angry replies and personal attacks upon the author; and during that year and the next the brunt of the controversy was borne by Ramsay almost unaided (Life of Wilberforce, by his Sons, i. 148). As early as November 1783 Wilberforce records in his diary a conversation which he had with Ramsay on the condition of the slaves; Lady Middleton had already become actively interested in the matter. From the interviews at Teston the anti-slavery movement was equipped with that strength which gave it its speedy success. During the remainder of his life Ramsay's pen was busy and his private influence great. Latterly he enjoyed the confidence of Pitt, and was frequently consulted by him. The attacks to which he had been subjected weighed heavily upon him and broke his spirits and health. He was specially anxious about the debate which Wilberforce opened on 12 May 1789, and both at Teston and in London was often in consultation with Pitt, Wilberforce, Clarkson, and the other abolitionist leaders. During the debate Mr. Molyneux repeated some of the most grievous charges that had been made against him, and his health suffered in consequence (letter to Wilberforce, Life of Wilberforce, i. 235). Advised to travel, he left Teston and had reached London when he died, 20 July 1789, at the house of Sir Charles Middleton. He was buried at Teston, where a tablet in his memory was placed on the church wall. He married, in 1763, Rebecca Akers, daughter of a planter, who survived him with three daughters; a son predeceased him. The second daughter, Margaret, married Major Robert Smith, R.E., and their granddaughter married the 10th Duke of St. Albans; to the duchess there passed a portrait of Ramsay painted by Mrs. Bouverie.

Ramsay published:

  1. ‘An Essay on Interest,’ 1770.
  2. ‘Sea Sermons,’ London, 1781.
  3. ‘Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies,’ London, 1784.
  4. ‘Enquiry into the Effects of putting a stop to the Slave Trade,’ London, 1784.
  5. ‘Manual for African Slaves,’ London, 1787.
  6. ‘Objections Answered: a Reply to Arguments in Defence of Slavery,’ London, 1788.
  7. ‘An Examination of Mr. Harris's Scriptural Researches,’ London, 1788.
  8. ‘Address on the Proposed Bill for the Abolition of Slavery,’ London, 1788.
He is also the author of
  1. ‘The Duty and Qualifications of a Sea Officer,’ and
  2. ‘Treatise on Signals,’ published anonymously.

[Information supplied by Ramsay's great-grandson, the Rev. P. W. Phipps; Chalmers's Biogr. Dict.; Encyclop. Perthensis; Life of W. Wilberforce by his Sons, i. 167, &c.; Clarkson's Hist. of the Abolition of African Slavery.]

J. R. M.