1500-1799 | Slavery | Torture


The Reverend John Newton –
Royal Museums Greenwich – public domain

11 December 1752

Today, John Newton is revered as the author of ‘Amazing Grace’ and other well known Christian hymns, but as a young man he earned an enviable income for several years as a captain of a slave ship. Even after his realisation that God had ‘chosen’ him, Newton remained committed to the slaving business for some time, and in his later years, he made no reference to the financial rewards when recalling the heavy spiritual burden of his former career.

‘The restrains under which I was forced to keep my prisoners,’ he explained, ‘were not suitable to my feelings, but I considered it as the line of life which God, his providence, has allotted me and a cross which I ought to bear with patience and thankfulness till he should be pleased to deliver me from it.’1

One such disagreeable task was having to torture his ‘prisoners’ with the thumbscrew. On 11 December 1752, Netwon noted in his diary: ‘By favour of Divine Providence made a timely discovery today that the slaves were forming a plot for an insurrection. Surprised 2 of them attempting to get off their irons, and upon further search in their rooms, upon the information of 3 of the boys, found some knives, stones, shot, etc and a cold chisel… Put the boys in irons and slightly in the thumbscrews to urge them to a full confession.’2

In later years, after he had retired from the slavery business, Newton added his voice to those calling for abolition of the trade, recalling how he had ‘seen them ( slaves ) agonizing for hours, I believe for days together, under the torture of thumbscrews; a dreadful engine, which if the screw be turned by an unrelenting hand, can give intolerable anguish.’ He did not however mention that he himself had ordered the device to be deployed on several occasions.3


  1. John Newton cited in James Walvin, The Trader, The Owner, The Slave, Jonathan Cape, London, 2007, p. 51.
  2. John Newton’s diary 11 December 1752 cited in James Walvin, op. cit., p. 5.
  3. John Newton, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade cited in James Walvin, op. cit., p. 51.

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