Remember that, ” he only is free whom the truth makes free.” You are no longer slaves, but free men…

Anonymous authors of St Thomas in the East

It is a time-tested truth that biographers develop strong imaginary ties to the people they study. I am no different. Benjamin spoke to me across the centuries. I have learned a lot from him and I have enormous respect for the way he chose to live his life. In writing the book I have even tried to act on advice he gave. In the margin of one of the two hundred tomes he kept in his cave, Benjamin wrote, “Dear souls, be tender hearted.” He loved tender-hearted people and always tried to be one himself in order to feel compassion for all living creatures. When he described someone as “tender-hearted,” he was paying that person his highest compliment, invoking his most cherished ideal. In these pages I have offered what I hope is a “tender-hearted” history of a deeply principled and often impossible man.

Rediker, M. (2017) The Fearless Benjamin Lay


There is no such thing as a self-made enquiry.

A huge thanks and debt of gratitude is owed to the endless passion, skill and effort put in by those involved in the unforgettable Historical Association’s ‘Legacies of British Slavery’ fellowship in March 2019. I will remain eternally grateful for the wonderful curation by Katie Donnington, Nicholas Draper and Rachel Lang as part of the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership crew. The boundless enthusiasm and sagacity of Abdul Mohamud and Robin Whitburn from the IOE in making it happen. The insight of fellow teachers on the weekend and afterwards in our weekly online discussions (shout out particularly to the amazing Lucy Capes).

I hope the enquiry is something like what you imagined it could be.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the digging done by countless historians – some of whom are mentioned above and many more of which are used and uploaded. In using and sharing their work I hope to make their research accessible to my students. That is all. But in a broader sense I want their labour to be appreciated by A Level students who are only beginning to understand the historian’s craft. I have sought to credit and reference properly and any omission made is not intended.


But beyond this there is a group of people who I want this enquiry to be dedicated to. And I don’t know any of their names…

In August 1865 a placard was found, posted up on a tree in St-Thomas in the East, South East Jamaica. The placard read…

Remember that, ” he only is free whom the truth makes free.” You are no longer slaves, but free men…

The picture above is tragically not the tree in which the placard was posted. Instead, as the labeling of the photo so plainly tells us, it is the tree in which ‘eighty rebels’ were buried next to. Rebels who were likely killed summarily on the orders of Governor Eyre.

Lucy Capes first introduced me to Rediker’s description of solidarity across centuries – in his case with the Quaker Abolitionist Benjamin Lay. In a similar – if far less prestigious sense – in constructing this enquiry I felt a responsibility to ask the question that these petitioners were brave enough to place in the open at a time of continued colonial violence. How much really had changed?
In seeking to remind their neighbours of changes that had occured, they reveal to the historian an answer that in fact not much had.

As such, and with humility (this is only a set of history lessons for god’s sake), I want to dedicate this enquiry to the work of these anonymous rebels who took a chance and made history.

The hundreds who were massacred in the Morant Bay War (of which we do have some names) and the millions of others that the archive haven’t accounted for who laboured and resisted under colonial violence.

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