Sailing with John Woolman: The Millennium and Maritime Trade

Geoffrey Plank

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    Over the course of his lifetime, the New Jersey Quaker antislavery campaigner John Woolman (1720–72) developed an increasingly comprehensive critique of the global economy, and he focused his attention ever more sharply on the worldwide influence of sailing ships. Wool-man believed that sailing carried great promise because it allowed Christians to reach out to “heathen” peoples around the world. At the same time, however, his encounters with sailing vessels repeatedly reminded him that they could serve as instruments of violence and corruption, destroying the lives of mariners and promoting a culture of extravagance, exploitation, impiety, and waste. Woolman sought to live an exemplary life and distance himself from pernicious commerce. He also wanted to travel because he believed that he had a message for the world. How, then, could he, as a good Christian, sail? Woolman struggled with this question for years, and though he boarded several ships for extended journeys, the experience increasingly tormented his conscience. His ambivalence toward sailing affected his tactics as a protestor, his vision for the future, and the content of his analysis of the slave trade.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)46-81
    Number of pages36
    JournalEarly American Studies
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 2009

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