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