Reconstructed and newly carved one-metre-square memorial tablet in Portland stone for Nestor, the freed slave and amanuensis to the 18th century abolitionist James Ramsay. The original tablet was so illegible that dental moulds had to be taken to ascertain the style of letterform, in concert with the professional guidance of Nigel Roche, Head Librarian of St Brides Printing Library, and Professor James Mosley of Reading University. Six months research and carving.
The original Nestor Tablet: commission information; style and historical background
Nestor: personal meditations
Who was Nestor? What is in a name? Little is known of James Ramsay's 'servant' . Yet Nestor's memorial tablet hints at much.
Six months of research and carving each letter in stone enable the time and purpose to meditate upon Nestor more than anyone has done since he was alive. It is a deep physical and temporal bond.
Before training in letterform and carving, I first read History at King's Cambridge, where the History Faculty at the time pursued a strict historicist tradition. In consequence, I am overly cautious of assumption and inference. My meditations on Nestor are equally informed by further specialising in the History of Political Thought, where I read widely on the history and philosophy of slavery from the ancient Greeks to the nineteenth century. This was a natural corollary in wishing to deepen my understanding of the concept of liberty – 'freedom' and 'slavery' are indeed cultural twins, as current affairs only continue to demonstrate.
It is also worth mentioning that my intellectual interest in slavery grew from lived experience, growing up in the Deep South of the States. The Confederate flag still flew on many houses; I remember hearing the elderly whisper conversations on verandas about how they hadn't really lost the war. I didn't know what war they meant until much later. The Black community in our town literally lived across the railroad tracks. I went to a segregated school. My mother would tell me when Black people got shot with legal impunity (which was on a regular basis). I would have rarely seen a Black person in my town but that my British GP mother would take me on her home visits and food deliveries to the Black community – a long dirt road of wooden shacks with no glass in their windows, just mosquito screens, with a cracked ruin of a white neoclassical columned house at the far end, trees growing through it. I didn't realise at the time what that was. My mother wanted me to see this place: she wanted me to see that this too was America. Enraged, she spoke of how the young and the old would die in the summer heat.
Nestor is a name of antiquity.
It would be extremely unlikely that James Ramsay was not well versed in the Classics. He was educated in 18th century Scotland, renowned for leaving schoolboys fluent in both Latin and Greek (and their most famed texts) . This assumption is all the more likely with his subsequent training in medicine at Aberdeen university, which would have required working classical languages for praxis and reading.
The Nestor of antiquity was an Homeric hero, appearing in numerous adventures, including the Trojan War. He was famed for his wise words; a trusted and respected figure.
Nestor's memorial is as lengthy as that for Ramsay. There is an inherent 'equality' in this very fact. Ramsay, alive at the time of Nestor's death, would have very carefully considered its inscription. I gained a sense that the text intended to reveal, but also conceal. At the time, I assumed it was a consequence of Ramsay subtly negotiating racial prejudice.
A master lettercarver of unusual skill was employed for Nestor's memorial : the use of perspective in the line and letter spacing, as well as the quality of the letters, bear material testament to Ramsay's high esteem for this 'servant'. No historian would perceive this in the way a lettercarver does.
Nestor's and Ramsay's memorials face each other across the graveyard. Nestor's was placed on the external furthest boundary wall of the graveyard (something of a last humiliation); Ramsay's on the church fabric itself. Nonetheless, these two tablets are intimately connected to each other: I believe the sheer physical positioning further confirms the strength of the affinity between these two figures.
I would like to provide a close reading of the text on Nestor's tablet. These thoughts occurred to me in the many months of carving.
I believe Nestor was literate and educated, hence separate from other of Ramsay's employees: 'being himself careful, he suffered not other Servants to waſte his property'.
Literate and educated, it is therefore likely that Nestor was Ramsay's active scribe and secretary – 'hating idle viſiting he was employed conſtantly in his work'. What work was this? It is known that Ramsay suffered injury at sea, and then a sort of 'breakdown' after the vicious bullying from the sugar plantation owners. Ramsay, returning to England with Nestor in 1781, spent the next three years writing his 'Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies', and subsequently engaged in a heated pamphlet war. An active full-time vicar, this would have required the energy of unusually robust health if Ramsay had written this tract and its ensuing corollaries alone. Therefore it is likely that Nestor's 'work' was specifically engaged. After all, Nestor 'attached himself to his Maſter': he actively chose to remain with Ramsay. This suggests purpose.
Considering his work was 'conſtant', one could infer that the Essay, enormously influential to the extent of being central to the slavery debate, was a collaboration .
Later experience in my own life as an unacknowledged political ghost-writer consolidated my suspicions: identity at times must be sacrificed to win an audience to good cause.
Nestor was a person of dignity, held in the highest esteem by his 'master': through his probable reading and interaction with a foreign culture, he learned the moeurs of his new country to represent himself as he saw fit: 'his neat dreſs his chaſte sober Life, his inoffensive manners subdued the prejudice his colour raiſed, & made friends of his acquaintance.' Nestor was also a person of great courage, to the extent that Ramsay implored him as high example to others: 'Reader, use thy advantages as this honeſt Negroe did his misfortunes for a ſpur to diligence in Duty' 
Nestor was a thinking person who harnessed the indigenous culture of his new country actively to engage with a larger philosophy of ontological existence, making sense through it of how to lead a moral life: 'From his humble state, he fixed his faith in CHRIST, and looked up to Heaven for happineſs.'
These were the thoughts that preoccupied me during the course of carving the reconstruction of Nestor's Tablet in 2001. Nonetheless, I remained puzzled by Nestor over the years, frustrated by the lack of information. I felt certain that Ramsay had given Nestor this classical attribution; I had a hunch I was missing something.
Then one day, fifteen years after carving Nestor's inscription, I finally read Homer's Iliad. It was an electrifying moment for me.
When Patroclus comes on errand from Achilles to Nestor's tent to discover whether Machaon  is alive after seeing him carted out of battle at a distance, Nestor replies: 'Why is it only now Achilles shows such interest in the wounded, he who failed to notice the whole army's suffering?'  Nestor in the Iliad is asking why Achilles would show concern for the life of merely one person when the lives of the whole of the Greek army are at stake.
I cannot see how this cannot be key. The reasoning is this: on freeing Nestor, this once enslaved man inquired of Ramsay, 'Why do you show concern merely for me when my people suffer?' Or, 'What is the good in freeing me when so many of my people are enslaved?'
This crucial moment in the Iliad provides powerful explanatory value for the story of both Nestor and Ramsay: it touches on their real lived relationship – who these two individuals were together. It helps explain Ramsay's enduring commitment; his prodigious literary output; the 'equality' of their facing tablets. Nestor seems more than merely that of a passive 'wise counsellor': he had active work to do.
That moment in the Iliad for me is enough to confirm my prior meditations; the paltry historical evidence is simply inadequate to conclude this hypothesis. However, 'History' as a discipline is never enough to make sense of the world: it must also be felt. . Accordingly, on Nestor's behalf, I venture a claim that Nestor was no mere freed slave: through his own merits and industry, regardless of intervening ill and good accident, I believe that he actively changed the course of history.
This is for Nestor, if I could speak to him now: 'Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus'. . I have learned a name of you; your original one is lost forever.
1. Please refer to the section below documenting the original Nestor Tablet for further information
2. I learned of this extraordinary cultural tradition while living in the Highlands myself.
3. Please refer to the section below documenting the original Nestor Tablet for further information
4. That there is any essential difference between the European and African mental powers, as far as my experience has gone, I positively deny.' James Ramsay. Quoted in The Age, Jan 2006. https://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/books/rough-crossings-britain-the-slaves-and-the-american-revolution-20060128-ge1nd9.html
5. Nb italicised 'Reader': I suspect again subtly referencing the shared - equal - literacy of both Nestor and reader
6. Again, Nestor must have been literate to read the Bible. If Nestor were literate, it seems inconceivable that anyone else other than Ramsay 'educated' him, or gave him access to books by which he might educate himself
7. A physician to the Greek army of which Ramsay would have known, being a medic himself
8. Iliad BkXI:655-761
9. To discover the repressed histories of the powerless, there is compelling moral imperative to 'read between the lines' – literally, in Nestor's case.
10. Umberto Eco The Name of the Rose. The book's last line, 'Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus' translates as: 'the rose of old remains only in its name; we possess naked names.' The general sense, as Eco pointed out, was that from the beauty of the past, now disappeared, we hold only the name. (Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Name_of_the_Rose).
The original Nestor Tablet:
commission information; style and historical background
Original large commemorative stone tablet to Nestor. In 2001, this tablet was already so decayed that it was near illegible.
The Original Tablet Survey 2001
Please refer to photographs of the original stone.
Site: The original stone Nestor Tablet is set into the far boundary east wall to the graveyard of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, parish of Teston, diocese of Rochester, Kent. Teston (pronounced Teeson), a quiet and idyllic backwater in open countryside, lies south-west of Maidstone, overlooking the Medway Valley. The church itself dates from original registers in 1538; re-built in 1710.
Commission: Hand-carved reproduction in Portland limestone of original decayed memorial tablet to Nestor (†1787), the servant of James Ramsay (†1789). James Ramsay was vicar of Teston.
Reconstruction and Stonecarving: Emma Lavender. Contracted through Chris Weeks, Head of Conservation at City & Guilds of London Art School in 2001.
Physical Description of original memorial :
- Original tablet cut into east wall of churchyard, the bottom edge about a foot from ground level.
- Fine-grained oolitic limestone in poor condition
- First line just legible; upper third of inscription less legible; lower half of inscription near completely lost through decay. Last two lines faintly legible.
- Causes of decay: time, running water, frost, sulphation. Advanced lichen attack. High grasses around stone have aided decay due to damp. The lichen is a protected species and must not be removed.
- Measurements of tablet:
- Length of tablet - 953mm
- Height of tablet - 953mm
- Length inside moulding - 915mm
- Height " " - 915mm
- Depth of tablet - 42mm
- Roll moulding to groove from outside edge - 16.5mm
- " " to edge of chamfer - 17mm
- Depth of groove in moulding - 3mm
- Carved 1787 or a few years afterwards
- Eighteen lines of lettering :
- Punctuation used, although unclear full stop at end of line 2, with a definite lower case 'b' beginning line 3
- Some effort at centring lines except for line 9
- Ampersand used in line 10 (just perceptible from rubbing)
- Capital italics used for 'James Ramsay' (line 2) and 'Christ' (line11)
- Capital and lower case italics used for 'Reader' (line 13)
- Letters of line 1 larger than line 2; subtle perspective letter enlargement towards base of inscription
- Spacing indicates larger spacing between lines further down tablet for same reasons of perspective
Recording of Inscription:
1. Buried here Dec. r 1787. Aged 36.
2. NESTOR, a black. 22 Years, a Servant to JAMES RAMSAY,
3. by robbers torn from his Country and enſlaved
4. he attached himself to his Maſter, hating idle viſiting
5. he was employed conſtantly in his work:
6. being himself careful, he suffered not other Servants
7. to waſte his property;
8. his neat dreſs his chaſte sober Life,
… totally illegible from here except from rubbings
9. his inoffensive manners subdued the prejudice
10. his colour raiſed, & made friends of his acquaintance.
11. From his humble state, he fixed his faith in CHRIST,
12. and looked up to Heaven for happineſs.
13. Reader, use thy advantages as this honeſt Negroe
14. did his misfortunes for a ſpur to diligence in Duty,
15. and when thy Redeemer comes to Judgement
16. thou ſhalt hear pronounced:
17. Well done thou good and faithful Servant;
… last line legible
18. enter into the Joy of thy Lord.
Sources Used for Reconstruction :
- Style of tablet identical to James Ramsay's memorial tablet on facing church wall. Ramsay died two years after Nestor in 1789. Ramsay tablet in better condition than Nestor's (protected by ledge, facing direction and higher position) although letterform still distorted due to decay. Letterform used for Nestor tablet reconstruction: likely to be same letterer who carved both stones. Close inspection and analysis of letter forms and spacing on Ramsay's stone strongly suggest to a letter carver's eye that this is the case, as lettercarving is as distinct as handwriting when one knows what to look for.
- Inscription reproduced on brass plaque inside church, although line arrangement and letterform different. Some inaccuracies:
- Line 1: brass plaque missing lowercase raised 'r' after its 'DEC'
- Line 2: brass plaque records 'OF JAMES RAMSAY' rather than 'to JAMES RAMSAY'
- Line 10: brass plaque records 'AND MADE FRIENDS', whereas there is definitely an ampersand in the original
- Line 16: brass plaque records 'Thou', whereas in original it is 'thou'
- Syntactical errors
- Line 1: brass plaque missing lowercase raised 'r' after its 'DEC'
- Graphite rubbing taken: poor outcome due to lichen, but helpful for correcting brass plaque and general positioning of letters. Remaining form of letters significantly distorted by decay
- Dental press moulds taken of most intact letter groups (this mould doesn't damage protected lichen species). Cast in plaster from mould. Letters transferred by tracing paper from plaster for most accurate re-drawn result.
- St Bride Printing Library, Bride Lane, London. Head librarian, Nigel Roche. Very helpful with 18th century letterform.
- Professor James Mosley of Reading University. Specialist in late 18th century letterform
Lettercarving was a local trade in the 18th century: therefore a fragmented tradition. The style towards the end of the 18th century had greater austerity than the period before it, due to the influence of neo-classicism :.
Letterform in this period still more closely followed a handwritten script rather than a printed one. This changed after the Napoleonic wars, where carved scripts took on more of the characteristics and rationalisations of the printed with the general movement towards standardisation :.
- There were longer serifs in this period
- There is a judicious use of capitals and italics
Ligatures, that is joined letters, were used, eg line 3, 'enſlaved'
- The long 's'(ſ): 18th century usage is often at the end of the first element of a compound word, but it varies and there is no strict rule of use particularly by the end of the 18th century; by 1815 it was dropped altogether.
- The size of letter and line spacing in the Nestor tablet varies for both the purpose of meaning (content) and of overall aesthetic composition (form of whole text block). It is an intricate and complex arrangement. Variation can depend on
- The number of letters in the line
Where a line falls on the stone: words and letters were sited for balance
- Privileging more important lines by using greater size
Mirroring the rhythms of the spoken word. The use of caesura (slightly larger gaps) was another practice of the time. eg 'Reader, use thy advantages [caesura] as this honeſt Negroe…'
- Compensating for perspective (parallax). The letters grow larger towards the base. In the case of the Nestor tablet, it is set into the wall about a foot off ground level, thus readers would be close enough to read the text, and due to their proximity, perspective would create a bottom-heavy text if not adjusted.
- The number of letters in the line
The same features apply to the James Ramsay tablet: the letters vary to fit the line, but no way to confirm parallax alteration: the stone is too high up.
This style of lettering must be hand-drawn (not stencilled) for all the above reasons. Each letter has its own individual proportion to fit the whole. It is altogether different from 'font', which has its formal origins in the standardisation inherent to the printing industry. It makes a successful reconstruction all the more a time-consuming challenge: one must try to discover the original idea of the now nameless lettercarver.
Research on Nestor
My partner at the time, artist Gerald Laing :, was keen to help me find out more about Nestor. He wrote to many people, as he felt they were more likely to reply to him than to me.
This is an incomplete list of the emails:
- I wrote to Mr C Davies, Secretary to the Teston Historical Society in 2003 to find out more about Nestor. No reply.
- The Centre for Kentish Studies, Kent County Council, Maidstone, kindly sent me an article on James Ramsay written by Ian Bradley. Kent Life, August 1969. They had no information about Nestor.
- I contacted the Kent Registry of births, marriages and deaths. They said that they had no record of Nestor's death.
- Gerald contacted the editor of blackbritain.co.uk in 2003 to make enquiries about Nestor. No reply.
- Gerald wrote to Professor Walvin :in 2003 about Nestor. He received a brief acknowledgement, but no further communication.
- I contacted blink.org.uk in 2003, [then] a news and interactive website for the black community in the UK to make enquiries. No reply
- I contacted Mohsin Zulfiqar at blackbritannica.co.uk in 2003 to make enquiries. No reply.
- Gerald wrote to Simon Schama in 2006 who had much to say on James Ramsay in his book Rough Crossings :, but nothing on Nestor. No reply.
- I wrote to Robin Blackburn, an eminent historian who has published celebrated books on the history of slavery :. No reply.
- I wrote to Gretchen Gerzina in 2015 who wrote Black England; Life Before Emancipation :to enquire about Nestor. No reply.
With the dearth of supplementary information on Nestor himself, that on James Ramsay at least provides context and some clues.
James Ramsay (1733 – 1789)
Information quoted from https://www.brycchancarey.com/abolition/ramsay.htm and the Kent Life article :among other sources in its reading list addenda.
Of Scottish birth, he was educated at King's College, Aberdeen 1750-1755.
Whilst serving as a surgeon in the Navy, he suffered an injury that disqualified him from further service; apparently he spent the rest of his life with a limp.
He undertook holy orders in the Anglican Church, and settled into a living on the Caribbean island of St Christopher . It was an island of sugar plantations worked by slaves, where the majority of the latter were forcibly expatriated from Africa. Twenty-five percent died during the journey to the West Indies; a further thirty to fifty percent died within three years of their arrival. Ramsay was keen to improve the quality of the lives of the slaves as an aspect of his missionary work: he strongly criticised the planters for their cruel treatment and initiated many efforts to ameliorate the conditions in which they lived . His activity brought him into direct conflict with the plantation owners, who accused Ramsay of disrupting their work, instigating a vicious campaign of bullying, harassment and boycotting against their vicar.
Exhausted by the animosity of the planters, Ramsay returned to England after nineteen years on St Christopher, bringing Nestor with him. He became rector of Teston and Nettleshead in 1781. Ramsay became a friend of numerous political radicals of the day, including Doctor Johnson, Hannah More, and William Wilberforce, regular visitors of Sir Charles Middleton who lived at the Barham Court manor house at Teston, the latter an old friend of Ramsay from his days in the Navy.
Wilberforce first met Ramsay in 1783 when the vicar was still writing his Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African slaves in the British Sugar Colonies . This work by Ramsay was the first widely published and most influential exposition on the case for the abolition of the slave trade to date. It initiated the public debate and agitation that led to the 1807 Act ending the trade in the British Empire. Ramsay, with the encouragement of Lady Middleton, inspired Wilberforce to take up the cause in parliament , although it has been reported that he was initially reluctant [evidence?]. Ramsay became embroiled in a pamphlet war with those supporting the status quo of the West India Interest, and contributed further publications benefitting the anti-slavery movement until his untimely death in 1789, the year Wilberforce first proposed abolition of the slave trade in parliament. Ramsay's political agitation brought him renown at the time, to the extent that his portrait, painted a few months before his death, now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London .
Wilberforce became celebrated for his political and legislative work towards the abolition of slavery; Ramsay is now treated as a minor figure. However, it could be argued that Ramsay should be equally known today; after all, Wilberforce did not receive rocks in the post . In addition, there has been much misreporting. For example, some have attributed Thomas Clarkson as the main figure who inspired Wilberforce . At times, the ignorance about this extraordinarily courageous, tenacious and modest man of the cloth seems willful. I hope for Ramsay's sake that this may change.
1. See my separate Meditations on Nestor
The 'Physical Description' was supplied by Chris Weeks, Head of Conservation at City & Guilds of London Art School in 2001. The following measurements were his own, confirmed by a second measurement by Emma Lavender
3. Surveyed by Emma Lavender
4. By Emma Lavender
5. As advised by both Nigel Roche and Professor Mosley
6. ibid footnote 5
7. Most known for his 1960's Pop paintings and his angry return to that medium in 2004 in response to the horrendous images of torture at Abu Ghraib.
8. O.B.E., B.A. (Keele), M.A. (McMaster), D. Phil. (York), D.Litt. (York St. Johns), Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, Fellow, European Academy, F.R.H.S. James Walvin's published work has been largely in the field of slavery and modern British Social History. In 2019-20 he held the position of Distinguished Fellow in the History and Culture of the Americas, at the Huntington Library. He previously held fellowships at Yale University, The University of the West Indies, the Australian National University and the University of Edinburgh.
For twenty years he co-edited the journal Slavery and Abolition.
9. Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution. Simon Schama; BBC Books 2005
11. Published 1999. ISBN 10: 0749003138 ISBN 13: 9780749003135 Publisher: Allison & Busby
12. James Ramsay of Teston by Ian Bradley; Kent Life August 1969
13. Now known as St Kitts
14. Ramsay’s manuscript journal, not only documenting his involvement in the abolitionist movement but also crucially a detailed first-hand account of slavery conditions in the West Indies, is held at Rhodes House in the Bodleian Library of Commonwealth and African Studies. ‘We are all brethren’ article by John Pinfold; Oxford Today; Hilary Issue 2007 pg 13.
15. London: J Phillips, 1784
16. One of Ramsay's pamphlets was presented to each member of both Houses of Parliament
18. The plantation owners not only launched a fierce public assault on Ramsay's character on the publication of his Essay, but would send him parcels of stones on which he had to pay the postage
Eg. The Economist, Slavery; Breaking the chains article February 24th 2007. Here, the writer does not mention Ramsay at all, but names Thomas Clarkson, through his founding of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of Slavery in 1787, as the key activist who inspired Wilberforce to take up the cause. This makes no sense when Wilberforce met Ramsay in 1783; equally, it rather typically writes out Lady Middleton (a woman) and her enormous influence from the historical account.