Robert Lawson was a gay quaker. Unlike his more sober brethren, Robert enjoyed a programmed meeting where he could sing hymns loudly and lustily. He also enjoyed a pot of rum, a pipe of tobacco and, before bed, a warm cup of cocoa. He didn’t feel that these little pleasures distracted him from The Truth; in fact, he felt that they made him a better man. A warmer companion. A kinder husband. A more doting father. He had attended unprogrammed meetings but had always felt uncomfortable. He had never felt the urge to speak and was always embarrassed when the spirit took hold of a congregant and sent him into a jerky spinning dance. Perhaps his spirit wasn’t as fully developed as some others but he didn’t care. He had plenty of friends who also enjoyed the more worldly lifestyle. That is what he liked about Quakerism. You could live your faith in the way you wanted. No doctrine. No edicts. Only an understanding between you, Jesus and your fellow man. His mind wandered to an image of George Fox sitting on Pendle Hill over eighty years ago. Fox’s vision had started it all. Robert imagined himself going through the trials and tribulations that George had faced. Would he have been so brave? Probably not. But that was in the old days. Cromwell. The Restoration. A time of superstition and horror. Now it was 1736. In Lancaster, in London and in the colonies, Quakers were accepted and were even flourishing. This year the witchcraft laws had been repealed. Over one hundred years too late for the poor women who were accused on the very hill where George had his vision. That was the past. The modern world was one of commerce, industry and opportunity. He still believed in opportunity, even though he had declared bankruptcy eight years earlier. He’d built an out port at Sunderland Point where ships could unload or wait for the tide to carry them into Lancaster. At first, trade had been good. Ships arrived with cotton, mahogany, rum, sugar, cocoa and coffee but soon other ports had opened in Liverpool and Preston and then directly across from Sunderland Point at Glasson. But one failure didn’t put an end to Robert’s enthusiasm. He had joined a syndicate which now owned three ships. Today their agent was arriving from Barbados and Robert was looking forward to their meeting.
Although he was the eldest, Robert was the junior. His bankruptcy had left him without capital but his extensive business experience had bought his partnership. His share of the profits was less than the others but, being Quakers, all the partners thought of themselves as equals. At least before God. Robert had arranged the meeting and acted as host in their well-furnished offices on China Street. His partners were more like customers than merchants. Gilroy used the mahagony in his furniture factory, Touchet the cotton in his Manchester mill, Cadbury the chocolate and sugar, and of course Satterthwaite took the rum.
After the sherry had been passed around the table, the agent, John Powers, was asked to give his report. He seemed nervous. Hesitant. Robert’s heart sank. His past failures cascaded through his mind.
“Do you have a loss to report?” he asked.
Powers sat up straight. “No Sir.” he replied. “In fact, profits are greater this year than last.”
Robert was relieved. Although he tried not to let commerce rule his life he knew that it controlled a large part of it. His bankruptcy had taught him how capricious capitalism could be and how vulnerable a man without capital is. Hard work didn’t always buy the same results. A man could go from prince to pauper in minutes. He’d seen it happen.
Powers gave his report. Fine cargos. Good prices. Fast passage. No catastrophes. Robert felt, although he would never say it, that God had been on their side. Their provident God. Their gentle God had rewarded their piety and righteousness.
Powers finished. He stood up and looked at them all frankly. “Gentlemen,” he said “This will be my last report. I’m afraid I must resign my position.”
There was consternation. Powers was their eyes and ears in Barbados. He made sure that their ships were full, and their cargos sold for the best price, and their debts were collected. He was invaluable. Cadbury was the first to speak. “And why is that Mister Powers?”
In a strong voice Powers replied. “Sirs. This year, you began the trading of slaves. This is an evil and odious business and I will not be a part of it.”
Satterthwaite was confused. “But we don’t own slaves. We transport them.”
“Yes.” Powers responded. “In your Lancaster offices, these lives are journal entries. In Barbados I see the results. I see inhumanity and cruelty. What right has any man to own another? What right has he to coerce him through violence into servitude?”
The partners were alarmed. Their business was thriving. They had taken risks and so a profit was deserved. This was their first year in the triangular trade. Before, they had been content to send supplies to the colonies and ship back the planter’s products. Of course they had qualms about the slave trade but , then again, they had had qualms about dealing in the goods that the slaves produced. Perhaps “slave” wasn’t the right word. Maybe “worker” was a better word. Even if they were slaves, the partners hadn’t enslaved them. They were already slaves when they bought them in Gambia. The partners hadn’t changed anything. They had only transported them. Anyway, they were heathens. Once on the plantation, their masters would treat them kindly and lead them to The Lord. Once they were Christians, they would be freed. Once they were Christians and had worked off their cost, they would be freed. Their capture advantaged them. In Africa, they lived lives of violence and fornication. They were slaves to sin and Satan. Once they saw The Light and The Truth, they would be free.
Powers was silent. “Isn’t it true,” said Cadbury, “that blacks are heathens by nature? Isn’t it better for them to be instructed in Christian morals? Not that we could ever trust them enough to set them free and to allow them to live amongst us. I fear they would slit our throats. I believe that they are God’s children just as we are. Their path to heaven is the same as ours. Perhaps not the same path. A similar path.”
“It is an evil and corrupting business,” said Powers. “I will take no part in it and you should beware.”
James felt both hot and cold. The pain had stopped or he was now used to it. As he drifted in and out of consciousness, he saw them standing above him. Laughing. He saw Barbados. He could feel the hot sun and see the bright light. And then the wind. The piercing cold wind. The dank smell and the drunken talk in the brew house. His father had told him to stay on the ship but after three weeks at sea he couldn’t. Without his father’s presence his shipmates had lost respect for him and now he was laying on the floor of the brew house with blood oozing from his side. He groaned and wrapped his brown arms around himself. He could see his mother. She was sitting outside their small house. It had never made sense to him that his father lived alone in the large house. His father visited them and James visited the big house where he learned his lessons and read the Bible. His father had made him his clerk and this was his first voyage. His first voyage to this cold place that he had heard about all his life. He’d expected heaven but it was gray and quiet. Perhaps it was different in Lancaster where his father had gone, alone. James had wanted to go but his father had said no and told him not to leave the ship. He’d gone to the brew house with the captain and a few of the men. They’d called him Sambo and told him to dance. Their nonsense angered him and he struck the Captain, who in his consternation, stabbed him. And now he lay mortally wounded on the brew house floor. He closed his eyes and thought, “Father, why have you forsaken me?”
The Captain said to the men, “You’d better get rid of him before his dad gets back.”
They picked him up and carried his lifeless body down The Lane.