Disability History Month Poster 3: Benjamin Lay

Benjamin Lay (January 26, 1682 – February 8, 1759) was a Quaker and an early campaigner for the abolition of slavery.  He was born in Essex, England and died in Abingdon, Pennsylvania, having followed a variety of professions including sailor and glovemaker. He achieved notoriety through his outspoken life-long protests against the enslavement of Africans. He spent most of his life in Philadelphia writing against slavery, haranguing Quaker slave-owners and attempting to get them to recognize the error of their ways.

The son of an Essex yeoman of modest means, Lay first encountered slavery when he and his wife spent two years between 1718 and 1720 living in Barbados. It was this experience that planted a deep hatred of slavery in Lay and, following his emigration to Pennsylvania in 1732, prompted his determination to speak out against it. In Philadelphia Lay kept up his opposition by a variety of means. He persuaded Benjamin Franklin to publish his anti-slavery book,  All Slave-keepers that keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates (1737). He also engaged in what might best be described as ‘guerrilla theatre’. Lay’s stunts included kidnapping the child of a Quaker slaveowner so that his co-religionist might understand what it was like as a parent to lose offspring to the slave trade. By placing a sheep’s bladder filled with pokeberry juice in a Bible, Lay also seemed to make it bleed when he stabbed it with a sword during a speech against slavery at a Quaker meeting in Burlington, New Jersey.

Lay stood at a little over four feet tall and, as his portrait shows, had a hunched-back and a protruding chest. His wife, Sarah, was also a person of short stature. His disability, along with his outspoken opposition to slavery, made him a curiosity in his time. He rejected mainstream society as much as it shunned him, and he spent the final third of his life living in a cave, making his own clothes, maintaining a vegetarian diet, and boycotting consumption of anything produced by slave labour. As Marcus Rediker has underlined with his recent biography, Lay was ‘a radical for our time’.

Suggestions for further reading: 

Marcus Rediker, The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker dwarf who became the first revolutionary abolitionist (Verso, 2017)

Richard Vaux, Memoirs of the lives of Benjamin Lay and Ralph Sandiford, two of the earliest public advocates for the emancipation of the enslaved Africans(Philadelphia, 1815)

Lydia Maria Francis Child, Memoir of Benjamin Lay, Compiled from Various Sources (New York, 1842)

Disability History Month runs from 22nd November to 22nd December

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With over forty fulltime members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from Scotland to Byzantium and the Americas to South Asia. Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching, allowing for in-depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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