Legacies of Enslavement at Christ's
Key advocacy One pamphlet outlining the biblical justifications for enslavement and the slave trade
Life 1708 - 1773
Matriculation year 1728
Born and educated in Yorkshire, Thomas matriculated at Christ's in 1728. He obtained a B.A. in 1731/32, and an M.A. in 1735, before becoming a Fellow of the College in 1738. He worked as a missionary for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, first in New Jersey (between 1745 and 1750), and then in West Africa (between 1751 and 1756).
Thomas Thompson became a missionary for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts in 1745.¹ ² He left his role as a Fellow of the College in order to travel to New Jersey, where he worked for five years, attempting to reorganise the congregations of Monmouth County.² He occasionally baptised enslaved people, and the Editorial Secretary of the Society (writing nearly 200 years later, in 1937) claims that 'his missionary zeal overflowed into a special care' for enslaved people.² ³
His work apparently inspired him to travel to the West African coast, in order to proselytise amongst the kin of the enslaved people he had encountered in America.³ Lauding him as 'a Christian pioneer and hero', the Editorial Secretary in 1937 argues that Thompson was effectively 'the originator of missionary work in West Africa': at any rate, he was indeed the first Church of England missionary sent to West Africa.² ³
Thompson worked as the chaplain of the African Company of Merchants (the successor of the Royal African Company) at its headquarters at Cape Coast Castle on the Gold Coast.² He established a school there and sent three children to England to be educated.² ⁴ One of those children, Phillip Quaque, became 'the first African to receive English orders', and later returned to West Africa as a missionary.² ³
With public interest in abolition of the slave trade increasing in the early 1770s, Thompson responded by publishing a pamphlet defending the trade: The African trade for negro slaves shown to be consistent with principles of humanity and with the laws of revealed religion.² As the historian Christopher Fyfe notes, Thompson's treatise was perhaps not surprising: after all, 'he had been for five years the employee of a company [i.e., the African Company of Merchants] which was principally concerned with trading in [enslaved people]'.² Tellingly, the pamphlet was dedicated to the company's committee.⁵
The African trade for negro slaves shown to be consistent with principles of humanity and with the laws of revealed religion (1772)
Thompson's thirty-one page pamphlet draws selectively on what he regarded as the biblical justifications for enslavement and the slave trade.
He first admits that 'there is something very affecting, and disagreeable, in the appearance and notion of human creatures, even the lowest of such, being treated like mere beasts or cattle'.(6) Thompson acknowledges that it 'seems hardly capable of a defence' that Christians should purchase enslaved people on the African coast, whom Thompson characterises as 'numberless poor wretches'.(6) Perhaps, implies Thompson, it is only the 'impossibility that our plantations can be cultivated without them' that could (without regard to morality) necessitate the continuation of the slave trade.⁶
However, the pamphlet's actual line of argument is then revealed: 'as ill a face as it seems to carry', and as strong as any objection may seem, Thompson assures the reader that the slave trade 'is really as vindicable as any species of trade whatsoever'.⁷
Thompson cites Leviticus 25:39, which instructs that 'thy bond-men and thy bond-maids … shall be of the heathen'. Only 'strangers' may be taken as 'an inheritance', maintained as 'bond-men for ever' between generations.⁸ This, suggests Thompson, vindicates enslavement: 'the buying and selling of slaves is not contrary to the law of nature'. Moreover, even if 'bond-servants' '[become] proselytes to the law' - that is, they convert - there is 'no precept for [their] release'.⁸ According to the Old Testament, Thompson claims, outsiders can be enslaved and held as property.
Thompson then cites Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians, 7:20, claiming that the the exhortation to 'let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called' justifies the continued enslavement even of those who convert to Christianity.⁹ The 'sense of the words', asserts Thompson, is that a 'bond-servant' should 'content himself to remain in that state': his 'new and sacred relation' to God, upon converting, in no way releases him from his servitude.⁹ Indeed, the fact that Paul apparently happened upon an escaped bond-man, converted him, and then sent him back to his master serves as further evidence that Christianity and enslavement were not mutually exclusive.¹⁰
Thompson then embarks on a discussion of the slavery 'abstracted from circumstances', claiming that the Latin term servi alludes to the origin of enslaved people as those 'saved' at the end of a battle, rather than slaughtered. Likewise is the word 'slave' supposedly a corruption of salvus, from which the term salvage is derived.¹¹ Enslavement, declares Thompson, thus 'had its origin from a principle of humanity', as the 'milder way' to handle people captured in war.¹¹
Moreover, argues Thompson, in reality, the 'state of servitude' is 'nothing shocking'. The various 'miseries' inflicted upon many enslaved people arose 'from the injustice and cruelty of their owners'.¹² By Thompson's reckoning, 'abuse of power' is the real culprit for the suffering of enslaved people, rather than enslavement itself.¹²
Thompson concludes his pamphlet with a brief discussion of 'whether slaves [are] proper subjects of trade'. Selling a person is not, he claims, a violation of their humanity, provided that the person 'is treated according to his lawful state and condition'. If a person is already enslaved, then the legal transfer of that person - 'like all other property' - is entirely acceptable.¹³
Thompson's defence of enslavement and especially of the slave trade may have been strengthened by his academic authority, derived from having been a Fellow at Christ's. The pamphlet's title page gives the author as 'Tho. Thompson, M.A., Sometime Fellow of C. C. C. [Christ's College Cambridge]'.¹⁴
Certainly, his treatise was of a high enough profile to earn a published refutation by the abolitionist Granville Sharp, which attacked each of Thompson's biblical justifications. Sharp decried Thompson's attitude with the words 'For shame, Mr Thompson!'¹⁵
¹ Venn, J.A., ed. (1927) "Thompson, Thomas". Alumni Cantabrigienses (Part 1). Vol.4, Cambridge University Press - via Internet Archive. ² Fyfe, Christopher, 'Thomas (1708/9–1773), missionary and apologist for the African slave trade', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edition (2004), https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/27278 [accessed 25th September 2022]. ³ Thompson, Thomas, An Account of Two Missionary Voyages: Reprinted in Facsimile with Introduction and Notes (London: The Society For Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1937), p. v-viii. ⁴ Der, Benedict G., Parliament's Interest in West Africa, 1713-1785: A Study Based on Published Parliamentary Records (Ottawa: University of Ottawa, 1967), p. 145. ⁵ Thompson, Thomas, The African trade for negro slaves shown to be consistent with principles of humanity and with the laws of revealed religion (Canterbury: Simmons and Kirkby, 1772), p. 6. ⁶ Thompson, The African trade, p. 9-10. ⁷ Thompson, The African trade, p. 12. ⁸ Thompson, The African trade, p. 13-15. ⁹ Thompson, The African trade, p. 15-17. ¹⁰ Thompson, The African trade, p. 18. ¹¹ Thompson, The African trade, p. 19-21. ¹² Thompson, The African trade, p. 22-23. ¹³ Thompson, The African trade, p. 28-29. ¹⁴ Thompson, The African trade, p. 5. ¹⁵ Sharp, Granville, An essay on slavery: proving from Scripture its inconsistency with humanity and religion; in answer to a late publication, entitled, "The African trade for Negro slaves shewn to be consistent with principles of humanity, and with the laws of revealed religion." (Burlington: Isaac Collins, 1773).