Royal Naval Museum

James Ramsey (1733-1789) Naval Surgeon

Heroes of the Squadron

James Ramsay


James Ramsay


1733 - 1789


Naval Surgeon and later Naval Chaplain, West Indies.


Ramsay was a Surgeon from 1757 – 1761 and served aboard the Arundel in the West Indies, before the creation of the West Africa Squadron.  He briefly returned to the Navy as a Chaplain in the West Indies in 1788.


During his naval service on board the Arundel, Ramsay witnessed the suffering of many enslaved Africans who had been kidnapped from their homes and brought across the Atlantic to be sold for labour upon colonial plantations.  In November 1759, the Arundel intercepted a British slave ship, the Swift, and, on boarding the vessel, Ramsay found over 100 slaves living in the most terrible conditions. This incident had a lasting effect on him.

Ramsay fell whilst serving onboard ship and fractured his thigh bone. He was disqualified from future service and remained lame for the rest of his life.  On leaving the Navy in 1861, Ramsay joined the Anglican church and was ordained as a priest.  He chose to return to the West Indies and acted as both a priest and a doctor to the enslaved Africans living on the Caribbean island of St Christopher (now called St Kitts).  He saw firsthand the horrific living and working conditions in which the enslaved Africans lived, and the cruel and often brutal treatment they suffered at the hands of the plantation owners.  Ramsay vowed to do everything he could to stop it.   His views were very unpopular with the plantation owners and even with many of his peers and countrymen of the time.

On returning to England in 1781, Ramsay began to work on an essay that argued for the abolition of slavery, called An Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies.  This essay brought the terrible conditions of enslaved Africans in the colonies and the bigger issue of the slave trade to the public’s attention, and Ramsay wrote several more essays on the same subject.  Later, he recorded his firsthand experiences of the slave trade and this was the first time that the public had read an anti-slavery work by an Anglican writer who had personally witnessed the suffering of the slaves on the West-Indian plantations.

In connection with his work to end the slave trade, Ramsay met several leading figures of the time, including the Prime Minister and William Wilberforce.  He played a key part in the campaign to end the slave trade, and is said to have inspired the creation of the Committee for Abolition of the African Slave Trade after a meeting with Thomas Clarkson.


James Ramsay is best remembered for his role as an abolitionist, although, sadly, he did not live to see the fruition of the campaign. It has been said that the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807 owed a huge amount to James Ramsay's arguments, proposals and personal integrity.

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