Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton
April 1, 2007
There are several poems dealing with the abolition of slavery. These were composed and published on both sides of the Atlantic in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by writers on all sides of the class and colour divides. There were famous poems by known poets, particularly in England; pieces published in America; and verses composed by enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, some of them recorded between 1793 and 1807, about which not much was generally known.
As a part of the bicentennial activities to mark the Abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade by Britain on March 25, 1807, we printed two of those 'songs' last week (March 25, 2007). One was called Freedom A Come, dating from about the time of the abolition of the trade. It sings about the approaching act and anticipates the end of slavery without making any distinction between the prohibition of the trans-Atlantic Middle Passage and the total emancipation of all slaves. The other was entitled Song of the King of the Eboes, said to be a reference to an actual uprising led by a captive African who was an Ibo king at home in West Africa. It is an extremely militant piece justifying violent revolt. Those, however, are just two of the many verses composed around that time, which included others which are quite different. Among them are dancing songs and lines joyously describing sexual encounters with "massa." While they may, at face value, be classified as counter-revolutionary, they demand closer study which could reveal other judgements. However, last week's account included no analysis of the verses, which will have to be addressed at a later date.
On the other hand, the several anti-slavery poems cover a wide range and different kinds of work. They may be added to the many slave narratives in prose written not just by the enslaved, but also by runaways and those 'freed'; in many instances they were ghost-written and published by others on their behalf or in their names. A look at the work produced by the enslaved themselves is an important and rewarding study deserving of a revisit, but this account will focus the work that came from the other side of the divide - white English and American writers. Some poems were produced by practising poets in the course of their normal artistic production expressing their antipathy to the slave trade, while others were more directly a part of or addressed to the agitation which supported the passage of the English act in 1807.
A very cursory glance at this brand of poetry will find the following, which is a small sample, neither pretending nor attempting to be exhaustive. What is very significant for the period in which they were written, is that many of these works are by women. Some of these are: A Poem on the African Slave Trade- Addressed to Her Own Sex by Mary Birkett; Epistle to William Wilberforce Esq., on the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade 1791 by Anna Letitia Barbauld; A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade by Ann Yearsley.
A look at the work of more celebrated male poets will reveal The Slave's Lament by Robert Burns; William Blake's The Chimney Sweeper, Little Black Boy and Holy Thursday; William Cowper's The Task, The Slave Trader in the Dumps, Charity and The Negro's Complaint; Peter Grimes a part of The Borough by George Crabbe, and three poems by William Wordsworth - To Thomas Clarkson, on the Final Passing of the Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. March, 1807, To Toussaint L'Ouverture and The Wrongs of Almoona or The African's Revenge.
Those by George Crabbe and two of those by William Blake are more directed to slavery within England itself. Crabbe (1754-1832) of Suffolk was a minister, a medical doctor and a writer, known for his narrative poem about the cruel fisherman-thief, Peter Grimes. Grimes purchases, ill-treats and murders white "workhouse" orphan boys sold into bondage by their guardians. Blake protests the same practice, including the plight of the chimney sweeps and other child labourers, while in Little Black Boy he turns to African slavery. These would have contributed to the activism of the abolitionists and public sentiment against the slave trade. One of Wordsworth's many poems dedicated to national independence and liberty is a direct tribute to Thomas Clarkson, who was a leading abolitionist. Wordsworth wrote and published it in 1807.
To Thomas Clarkson, on the Final Passing of the Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. March 1807
Clarkson! it was an obstinate hill to climb:
How toilsome - nay, how dire - it was, by thee
Is known; by none, perhaps, so feelingly:
But thou, who, starting in thy fervent prime,
Didst first lead forth that enterprise sublime,
Hast heard the constant Voice its charge repeat,
Which, out of thy young heart's oracular seat,
First roused thee - O true yoke-fellow of Time,
Duty's intrepid liegeman, see, the palm
Is won, and by all Nations shall be worn!
The blood-stained writing is for ever torn;
And thou henceforth wilt have a good man's calm,
A great man's happiness; thy zeal shall find
Repose at length, firm friend of human kind!
Another of Wordsworth's heroic sonnets in that group is devoted to Toussaint L'Ouverture after he achieved independence for Haiti and freedom for all its slaves in a revolution. When he defied Napoleon and refused to re-establish slavery he was arrested and detained in Paris in June, 1802. Wordsworth wrote the poem circa August 1802 and published it in the Morning Post, February 1803. The sonnet reminds us of Wordsworth's best poetry, and tells Toussaint not to die, reminding him of his great feat which will live on. "There's not a breathing of the common wind/That will forget thee; thou hast great allies" among whom is "man's unconquerable mind."
William Cowper (1731-1800) is, however, the poet most quoted in the abolition movement. In fact, he is an extremely widely quoted poet and composer of hymns. He had a long collaboration with John Newton, a repented former slave trader who became a pastor and wrote the words to the hymn Amazing Grace. Among Cowper's oft-quoted lines are "God moves in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform" (the Olney Hymns, 1779); "Variety's the spice of life" (The Task, 1785); "I am monarch of all I survey" (Charity, 1782). He was born in Hertfordshire and studied law, but for a long time was prone to depression, and broke down in insanity in 1763 while working on documents in the House of Lords. This, however, led to a prolific career as a writer.
Cowper attacked the slave trade in poems which appealed directly to English pride, nationality, sense of nobility and conscience.
From The Negro's Complaint
Men from England bought and sold me
Paid my price in paltry gold;
But, though slave they have enrolled me,
Minds are never to be sold.
Still in thought as free as ever,
What are England's rights I ask
Me from my delights to sever,
Me to torture, me to task?
Fleecy locks and black complexion
Cannot forfeit nature's claim;
Skins may differ, but affection
Dwells in white and black the same.
From The Task
We have no slaves at home - then why abroad?
And they themselves, once ferried o'er the wave
That parts us, are emancipate and loosed.
Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs
Receive our air, that moment they are free,
They touch our country and their shackles fall.
That's noble, and bespeaks a nation proud
And jealous of the blessing. Spread it then,
And let it circulate through every vein
Of all your empire; that where Britain's power
Is felt, mankind may feel her mercy too.