“The barbarities and desperate outrages of the so-called Christian race, throughout every region of the world, and upon every people they have been able to subdue, are not to be paralleled by those of any other race, however fierce, however untaught, and however reckless of mercy and of shame, in any age of the earth”.
William Howitt: “Colonisation and Christianity: A Popular History of the Treatment of the Natives by the Europeans in all their Colonies.” London, 1838,
“If money, according to Augier, “comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,” capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”.
It should be as given that this graphic novel about the early Quaker abolitionist Benjamin Lay will resonate with today’s struggles against oppression and modern-day wage slavery.
The story of Benjamin Lay’s life is long and complex. Still, it is to illustrator Daniel Lester and historians Markus Rediker and Paul Buhle credit that this graphic novel does justice to Lay’s life and brings his remarkable story to a wider and younger audience.
Benjamin Lay was born to a Quaker family in Copford, Essex, in the late part of the 17th Century. He was born a dwarf and ran away to sea from an early age. It would not be an overstatement to say that Lay led a diverse life. He worked as a shepherd, glove maker, sailor, and bookseller. His worldview was a complex mixture of Quakerism, vegetarianism, animal rights, opposition to the death penalty, and abolitionism. Lay, while being anti-slavery, was not anti-capitalist. He did shun the trappings of wealth that his business acumen brought him. While in America, he lived in a cave with a library of two hundred books. His 12 years at sea were a seminal period for him as he experienced the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade in the West Indies.
Lay saw slavery as an abomination and would dedicate his life to its abolition. His campaign was unorthodox, and his radical movement included what can only be called “guerrilla theatre” against the Quaker capitalist ruling elite who owned slaves. In a Burlington Friends Meeting House in New Jersey, he enacted one of his guerilla actions at a prayer meeting denouncing the slave owners in the room. One of his more famous actions was soaking slave owner Quakers in fake blood. Lay said, “All slave-keepers that keep the innocent in bondage, pretending to lay claim to the pure and holy Christian religion, commit a notorious sin. Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures.” Such was the class hatred of the ruling Quaker elite. Lay was only “reinstated to the fold” in 2017. The Abington Quakers of Pennsylvania recognized him as “a Friend of the Truth”. London Quakers followed suit by declaring “unity” with Lay’s spirit.
As Sabrina Jones points out, “Arriving in Philadelphia, the Lays were dismayed to find the “City of Brotherly Love” was also rife with the buying and selling of “fellow creatures” by members of their faith community. For his dogged denunciation of Quaker slaveholders, Lay was thrown out of four Quaker meetings, including Abington Friends, near Philadelphia, where he eventually settled in a cave with Sarah and his library of hundreds of books. Though largely self-taught, Lay wrote a fierce polemic of a book. All Slave-Keepers that Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates was printed by Benjamin Franklin, who discretely left his name off it to avoid offending his Quaker clients. It was published without the approval of the Quaker leaders, who bought ads in the newspaper to disavow the book and its author.”
As Markus Rediker states in his book Lay despite heavily influencing 19th-century U.S. abolitionists, was lost to history. You might say Rediker rescued Lay from the condescension of history. For most of his life, Lay led almost a single-handed campaign against the Quaker elite, who made handsome profits from slavery. His initial campaign took place in America. In Prophet Against Slavery, Rediker explains the importance of Lay. “David Lester, Paul Buhle and I created this graphic novel to recover his inspiring life for our tumultuous times,” He was a revolutionary, attacking rich men who “poison the earth for gain”. He believed that human beings and animals were “fellow creatures” within the natural world.
Honestly, I have never been a great fan of graphic novels, but artist David Lester’s book, while not an easy read, turns out to be a stunning visual experience. He keeps his storyline simple and lets his drawings give the reader a deeper insight. This graphic novel is adapted from the superb biography The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist by Marcus Rediker. Rediker did an essay for this book.
As Rediker highlights in his book Lay’s significance was that he was one of the first radicals to call an end to all slavery in whatever form it took. He refused to consume anything produced by slave labour. Lay was opposed by a significant section of Quakers, who had grown fat on slavery. As Rediker points out, these Quakers played a massive part in the bloody rise of American capitalism. The New England Puritans and Quakers became some of America’s most significant industrial leaders.
As Karl Marx wrote, “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.
Although only touched upon in Lester’s book is Lay’s acknowledgement of the importance of the English Revolution to his struggle against slavery. Lay had a deep connection to the radicals of the English Revolution. Rediker said, “I’ve identified five major influences, and the first and the most important of these was a specifically radical variant of Quakerism. Now Quakerism goes back, actually, to the English Revolution. It began as one of many radical Protestant groups.
The others were the Levellers, the Diggers, the Seekers, and the Ranters. The Quakers are all part of this. Those groups arose during the English Revolution when royal censorship broke down as the king, King Charles I, and Royalists did battle with Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentary side. These radical groups burst into print in that situation, offering from below their solutions to the day’s problems. Quakers were part of this, and there was a man named James Naylor, who was an especially radical Quaker. I basically argued in my book that Benjamin Lay channelled this early generation of Quakers. They were very activist. They performed at street theatre. They were very confrontational. He managed a couple of generations later to reach back to them in order to revive that spirit of Quakerism.”
It would appear that Benjamin Lay is many things to many people. Lester writes, “I think of this book as being an activist book. It’s meant to propel activism, and Benjamin Lay’s story is pointing activists to the importance of having a long-term view of social revolution. For Lay to do what he did for 27 years dedicatedly is inspiring. He had the integrity, fortitude and stamina needed to work in a situation where you might not live to see the results of your activism. In some cases, revolutions occur overnight. But we know that revolutions can backslide and can be full of problematic areas. So, you must be in for the long haul and know it’s a long, messy road to social progress.”
I can understand why Lay is attractive to elements within the Psuedo Left. Despite his seemingly revolutionary activism, Lay was no anti-capitalist, let alone an early Marxist. However, Lay’s life and struggle contain lessons for today’s workers in struggle and is an important introduction to students in schools and colleges and the wider public.
The return of Benjamin Lay-by Naomi Wallace and Marcus Rediker-Tuesday, 13 June – Saturday, 8 July 2023-Finborough Theatre-https://finboroughtheatre.co.uk/production/the-return-of-benjamin-lay/
 Karl Marx. Capital Volume One-Chapter Thirty-One: Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist-https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch31.htm