Just 4ft but known as ‘the liv­ing stick of dy­na­mite’

BI­OG­RA­PHY JOHN PRE­STON

Irish Daily Mail - - It’s Friday! - By Mar­cus Rediker (Verso)

IN Septem­ber 1738 a very un­holy in­ci­dent took place at a meet­ing of Quak­ers in Burling­ton, New Jer­sey.

Shortly af­ter pro­ceed­ings be­gan, a man strode into the meet­ing-house, opened his coat and took out a large book which he bran­dished above his head while be­rat­ing the con­gre­ga­tion for their treat­ment of slaves.

He then plunged a sword into the mid­dle of the book, punc­tur­ing a sack of red poke­berry juice which he had hid­den in a hol­lowed-out com­part­ment.

The ef­fect was ev­ery bit as dra­matic as he had hoped. What ap­peared to be blood ran down his arms, caus­ing women to swoon.

What made an even greater im­pres­sion on the ap­palled Quak­ers was that the man in ques­tion was only 4ft tall.

Ben­jamin Lay may have been a dwarf, but he was far from a shrink­ing vi­o­let. Through­out his life he railed against the in­iq­ui­ties of slav­ery — much to the em­bar­rass­ment of his fel­low Quak­ers, many of whom were slave-own­ers them­selves.

The more they tried to shut Lay up, the more he glee­fully ex­posed their hypocrisy with what his bi­og­ra­pher Mar­cus Rediker calls ‘guer­rilla the­atrics’. Born in 1682 in Es­sex, Lay started his ca­reer as a glove-maker, but in 1718, along with his wife Sarah — she too was a dwarf — he set sail for Bar­ba­dos, ‘the world’s lead­ing slave so­ci­ety’.

There, he be­friended one slave, who told him that his owner used to whip him ‘very se­verely’ ev­ery sec­ond Mon­day so as ‘to keep him in awe’. Soon af­ter­wards, the man took his own life, un­able to face an­other beat­ing.

As well as hold­ing anti-slav­ery meet­ings in their house, Lay and Sarah went around lo­cal churches de­nounc­ing min­is­ters they con­sid­ered to be un­godly.

When af­ter 20 years they de­cided to move to Philadel­phia, the Quak­ers of Bar­ba­dos heaved a col­lec­tive sigh of re­lief. Although Philadel­phia may have been known as ‘the City of Brotherly

Love’, Lay — once again — saw only degra­da­tion ev­ery­where he looked. To draw at­ten­tion to his cause, he steadily re­fined his guer­rilla the­atrics.

On one oc­ca­sion he stood bare- legged in deep snow out­side a Quaker meet­ing-house. When the Quak­ers begged him to put some trousers on in case he caught his death of cold, Lay told them to show some com­pas­sion ‘for the poor slaves in your fields, who go all win­ter half-clad’.

Not sur­pris­ingly, word soon got about that Lay, de­spite his size, was some­one you messed with at your peril — ‘a liv­ing stick of dy­na­mite’, as one Quaker re­ferred to him.

He went on hunger strike at the drop of a hat, keep­ing a loaf of bread be­side his bed in or­der to test his re­solve; he trav­elled by foot as a protest against the ex­ploita­tion of horses and made all his own clothes so he wouldn’t ex­ploit any liv­ing crea­ture.

Af­ter Sarah’s death, Lay spent his last 30 years liv­ing in a cave. Per­haps age had turned him a bit soft be­cause it seems to have been quite a comfy one, with enough space for a li­brary. When he died, aged 80, in 1759, he was buried in an un­marked grave and for­got­ten about — un­til Rediker res­cued him from the swamp of his­tory.

At times here I was re­minded of the episode of Black­ad­der in which Ed­mund’s aw­ful Pu­ri­tan cousins, the Whitead­ders, come to stay. Like them, Lay’s favourite dish was boiled turnips, washed down with spring water, or — on spe­cial oc­ca­sions — milk.

But while Rediker has done a valu­able ser­vice in res­cu­ing Lay from ob­scu­rity, I wish he hadn’t been quite so po-faced in his ac­count of his sub­ject’s many ec­cen­tric­i­ties. There’s also no sense of what life was like at the time for a dwarf — or ‘lit­tle per­son’, as Rediker in­sists on call­ing him.

Even so, I sus­pect there will be few read­ers who won’t want to boil a cel­e­bra­tory turnip to salute what Ben­jamin Lay achieved in the course of his long and re­mark­able life.

Pocket rocket: Ben­jamin Lay

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