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Journal of John Woolman
Digital History ID 104

Author:   John Woolman


During the 18th century Great Britain dominated the Atlantic slave trade. Exports of Africans, during the 1700s, exceeded six million, three times the number shipped between 1450 and 1700. Of these, 2.9 million were shipped by Englishmen or Anglo-Americans.

During the eighteenth century, the slave trade become one of Britain's largest and most profitable industries. By mid-century, a third of the British merchant fleet was engaged in transporting 50,000 Africans a year to the New World. But it was not just slave traders or planters who benefitted from the slave trade. American shipowners, farmers, and fisherman also profited from slavery. Slavery played a central role in the growth of commercial capitalism in the colonies. The slave plantations of the West Indies became the largest market for American fish, oats, corn, flour, lumber, peas, beans, hogs, and horses. And New Englanders distilled molasses produced by slaves in the French and Dutch West Indies into rum.

Although slavery did not create a major share of the capital that financed the industrial revolution (profits from the slave trade and New World plantations added up to about five percent of Britain's national income in the mid-eighteenth century), slaves did produce the major consumer goods that were the basis of world trade during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. These slave-grown products stimulated a consumer revolution, enticing the masses of Britain and then Western Europe to work harder and more continuously in order to enjoy the pleasures of sugar, tobacco, rum, coffee, and eventually, cotton clothing. It was New World slave labor that ushered in the consumer culture we know today. In addition, the slave trade provided stimulus to shipbuilding, banking, and insurance; and Africa became a major market for iron, textiles, firearms, and rum.

Among the people deeply implicated in the Atlantic slave system were the Quakers. Some Quakers in the West Indies owned slave plantations, while Quaker merchants in London, Philadelphia, and Newport, Rhode Island, were engaged in the Atlantic slave trade. The Seven Years' War, however, produced a spiritual crisis within the Society of Friends and inspired the Quakers to become the first religious group to actively discourage its members from owning or trading in slaves.

In the following selections from his journal, written during the Seven Years' War, the Quaker John Woolman (1720-1772) describes his growing recognition that slavery was sinful and that it threatened America's destiny. His deep misgivings over enslaving Africans sprang entirely from religious sources--especially from the Biblical precept that "God is no respecter of persons." Yet to his horror, Woolman discovered that even Quakers used the Bible to justify racial slavery.


Soon after I entered this province [Maryland] a deep and painful exercise came upon the people in this and the Southern Provinces live much on the labor of slaves, many of whom are used hardly....

As it is common for Friends on such a visit to have entertainment free of cost, a difficulty arose in my mind with respect to saving my money by kindness received from what appeared to me to be the gain of oppression. Receiving a gift, considered as a gift, brings the receiver under obligations to the benefactor, and has a natural tendency to draw the obliged into a party with the giver.....

Many were the afflictions which attended me, and in great abasement, with many tears, my cries were to the Almighty for his gracious and fatherly assistance.... Being thus helped to sink down into resignation, I felt a deliverance from that tempest in which I had been sorely exercised.... The way in which I did it was thus: when I expected soon to leave a Friend's house where I had entertainment...I spoke to one of the heads of the family privately, and desired them to accept of those pieces of silver, and give them to such of their Negroes as they believed would make the best use of them; and at other times I gave them to the Negroes myself, as the way looked clearest to me....

[May 9]. We pursued our journey.... On the way we had the company of a colonel of the militia, who appeared to be a thoughtful man. I took occasion to remark on the difference in general betwixt a people used to labor moderately for their living, training up their children in frugality and business, and those who live on the labor of slaves; the former, in my view, being the most happy life. He concurred in the remark, and mentioned the trouble arising from the untoward, slothful disposition of the Negroes, adding that one of our laborers would do as much in a day as two of their slaves. I replied, that free men, whose minds were properly on their business, found a satisfaction in improving, cultivating, and providing for their families; but Negroes, laboring to support others who claim them as their property, and expecting nothing but slavery during life, had not the like inducement to be industrious.

After some further conversation I said, that men have power too often misapplied it; that though we made slaves of the Negroes, and the Turks made slaves of the Christian, I believed that liberty was the natural right of all men equally. This he did not deny, but said the life of the Negroes were so wretched in their own country that many of them lived better here than there. I replied, "There is great odds in regard to us on what principle we act"; and so the conversation on that subjected ended. I may here add that another person, some time afterwards, mentioned the wretchedness of the Negroes, occasioned by their intestine wars, as an argument in favor of our fetching them away for slaves. To which I replied, if compassion for the Africans, on account of their domestic troubles, was the real motive of our purchasing them, that spirit of tenderness being attended to, would incite us to use them kindly, that, as strangers brought out of affliction, their lives might be happy among us. And as they are human creatures, whose souls are as precious as ours, and who may receive the same help and comfort from the Holy Scriptures as we do, we could not omit suitable endeavors to instruct them therein; but that while we manifest by our conduct that our views in purchasing them are to advance ourselves, and while our buying captives taken in war animates those parties to push on the war, and increase desolation amongst them, to say they live unhappily in Africa is far from being an argument in our favor....

Soon after, a Friend in company began to talk in support of the slave-trade, and said the Negroes were understood to be the offspring of Cain, their blackness being the mark which God set upon him after he murdered Abel his brother; that it was the design of Providence they should be slaves, as a condition proper to the race of so wicked a man as Cain was. Then another spake in support of what had been said. To all which I replied in substance as follows: that Noah and his family were all who survived the flood, according to Scripture; and as Noah was of Seth's race, the family of Cain was wholly destroyed. One of them said that after the flood Ham went to the land of Nod and took a wife; that Nod was a land far distant, inhabited by Cain's race, and that the flood did not reach it; and as Ham was sentenced to be a servant of servants to his brethren, these two families, being thus joined, were undoubtedly fit only for slaves. I replied, the flood was a judgment upon the world for their abominations, and it was granted that Cain's stock was the most wicked, and therefore unreasonable to suppose that they were spared.... I further reminded them how the prophets repeatedly declare "that the son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, but every one be answerable for his own sins." I was troubled to perceive the darkness of their imaginations, and in some pressure of spirit said, "The love of ease and gain are the motives in general of keeping slaves, and men are wont to take hold of weak arguments to support a cause which is unreasonable"....

Many of the white people in those provinces take little or no care of Negro marriages; and when Negroes marry after their own way, some make so little account of those marriages that with views of outward interest they often part men from their wives by selling them far asunder, which is common when estates are sold.... Many whose labor is heavy being followed at their business in the field by a man with a whip, hired for that purpose, have in common little else allowed but one peck of Indian corn and some salt, for one week, with a few potatoes; the potatoes they commonly raise by their labor on the first day of the week. The correction ensuing on their disobedience to overseers, or slothfulness in business, is often very severe, and sometimes desperate.

Men and women have many times scarcely clothes sufficient to hide their nakedness, and boys and girls ten and twelve years old are often quite naked amongst their master's children. Some of our Society, and some of the society called Newlights, use some endeavors to instruct those they have in reading; but in common this is not only neglected but disapproved. These are the people by whose labor the other inhabitants are in a great measure supported, and many of them in the luxuries of life. These are the people who have made no agreement to serve us, and who have not forfeited their liberty that we know of. These are the souls for whom Christ died, and for our conduct toward them we must answer before Him who is no respecter of persons. They who know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he hath sent, and are thus acquainted with the merciful, benevolent, gospel spirit, will therein perceive that the indignation of God is kindled against oppression and cruelty, and in beholding the great distress of so numerous a people will find cause for mourning.

Source: The Journal and Essays of John Woolman, ed. Amelia Mott Gummere (New York: Macmillan, 1892), pp. 188-95.

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