James Ramsay was born in Fraserburgh, Scotland. He witnessed the suffering of the enslaved people as a ship's doctor in the Navy. In 1759, his ship, HMS Arundel, was stationed in the West Indies when a slave ship, the Swift, approached seeking help. The ship had been struck down with dysentery. Many of the slaves and crew were dead. Ramsey treated over 100 victims gasping for air and packed close together in the most inhuman and filthy conditions.
As he re-boarded the Arundel, he slipped and broke his thigh. Unable to continue his naval career, he became an Anglican minister. He chose to work on the Caribbean island of St Christopher (St Kitts). He welcomed both black and white parishioners into his church and was appointed surgeon to several plantations. He strongly criticised the harsh conditions and the brutality of the overseers and suffered personal attacks from the enraged sugar planters. He told friends that he saw enslaved people whose hands were chopped off with axes, when they got tangled in the sugar presses. Others were beaten to death by angry masters. He left St Kitts in 1777, exhausted by the conflict.
He briefly rejoined the navy in April 1778 but returned to Britain in 1781. During the following three years he worked on his Essay on the 'Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies'. He also published 'An Inquiry into the Effects of Putting a Stop to the African Slave Trade', in 1784. These were the first anti-slavery works by a mainstream Anglican writer who had personally seen the suffering and were, therefore, very influential.
Ramsay met with William Wilberforce in 1783 and Thomas Clarkson in 1786. He encouraged Clarkson in his efforts to obtain firsthand evidence of the trade. When Ramsay published 'An Address to the Publick, on the Proposed Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade' in 1788, new attacks were made on his character in the House of Commons. Ramsay, deeply upset, became ill and did not live to see the abolition of the slave trade, dying in 1789.