My final set of first year poetry classes for the term will fall one day after the 200th anniversary of Parliament passing the act abolishing the slave trade. We are set to look at poems about the topic by Southey, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the poems of Phillis Wheatley. I have James G. Basker’s Amazing Grace: an Anthology of Poems about Slavery 1660-1810 (Yale, 2002): surely the most important collection of historical witness ever compiled in the form of a poetry anthology.
These will be interesting sessions. My son’s recent glancing contact in his school history lessons with the subject of the slave trade does suggest that even in history taught empathetically (‘What was it like being a slave?’) there is still some evasion of the facts about Britain’s ghastly dominance in 18th century slave trading.
But Basker’s verse-writers are 99% on the side of the angels: women writers, churchmen, transported felons, witnesses to slavery, and, of course, freed slaves variously condemn, or dramatise the iniquities of the trade. The former slave ship captain, John Newton, provides the titular poem, the Olney hymn recovering its dignity and proper meaning in this context (for anyone who remembers its appearance as a best selling single).
But here, I post from Basker, for the convenience of my students, and for its inherent (if repulsive) interest, extracts from James Boswell’s piece of anti-abolition verse polemic, and a couple of Boswell’s own astonishing notes on his performance:
‘No Abolition of Slavery; Or the Universal Empire of Love’
Noodles, who rave for abolition
Of th’Africans improved condition*
At your own cost fine projects try;
Don’t rob – from pure humanity.
Go, Wilberforce, with narrow scull,
Go home, and preach away at
No longer to the Senate cackle,
In strains which suit the Tabernacle;
I hate your little wittling sneer,
Your pert and self-sufficient leer,
Mischief to Trade sits on thy lip,
Insects will gnaw the noblest ship;
Go, Wilberforce, be gone, for shame,
Thou dwarf, with a big-sounding name.
What frenzies will a rabble seize
In lax luxurious days, like these;
THE PEOPLE’S MAJESTY, forsooth,
Must fix our rights, define our truth;
Weavers become our Lords of Trade,
And every clown throw by his spade,
T’instruct our ministers of state,
And foreign commerce regulate…
… He who to thwart God’s system** tries,
Bids mountains sink, and valley’s rise;
Slavery, subjection, what you will,
Has ever been, and will be still:
Trust me, that in this world of woe
Mankind must different burthens know;
Each bear his own, th’Apostle spoke;
And chiefly they who bear the yoke ….
Lo then, in yonder fragrant isle
Where Nature ever seems to smile,
The cheerful gang! – the negroes see
Perform the task of industry:
Ev’n at their labour hear them sing,
While time flies quick on downy wing;
Finish’d the bus’ness of the day,
No human beings are more gay:
Of food, clothes, cleanly lodging sure,
Each has his property secure;
Their wives and children are protected,
In sickness they are not neglected;
And when old age brings a release,
Their grateful days they end in peace.
But should our Wrongheads have their will,
Should Parliament approve their bill,
Pernicious as th’effect would be,
T’abolish negro slavery,
Such partial freedom would be vain,
Since Love’s strong empire must remain
O ------! Trust thy lover true,
I must and will be slave to you…
* That the Africans are in a state of savage wretchedness, appears from the most authentic accounts. Such being the fact, an abolition of the slave trade would in truth be precluding them from the first step towards progressive civilisation, and consequently of happiness, which it is proved by the most respectable evidence they enjoy in a great degree in our West-India islands, though under well-regulated restraint.
** The state of slavery is acknowledged both in the Old Testament and the New.
I only give one of his personal lampoons on the abolitionists, that on Wilberforce himself. Boswell casts his polemic as a defence of trade, but he really means a general defence of property, of private ownership of all kinds, including ownership of other people. After his blasé account of the pleasures of plantation life, he frivolously segues away into the assertion that slavery cannot ever be abolished while hearts like his are enslaved by love. I suppose he meant to sound charming and witty, and he liked this crass idea enough to build it into his sub-title. The assertion of the perpetuity of ‘love’s strong empire’ lets him try to cloak what the
“After supper I accompanied him to his apartment, and at my request he dictated to me an argument in favour of the negro [i.e. Joseph Knight] who was then claiming his liberty, in an action in the Court of Session in
I have always thought that William Empson’s 1964 essay on Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’ was New Historicism decades before Greenblatt. Marina Warner summarises:
“William Empson linked the Ancient Mariner to Coleridge's anti-slavery stand in the years he was writing the poem: the extreme, anguished guilt the Mariner feels arises from Coleridge's view of the personal effects of public wrongdoing. The Ancient Mariner, Empson wrote, is "the great ballad of maritime expansion and empire".
which links to a text of the 1807 act:
The image is Sir Richard Westmacott's memorial for Fox, in Westminster Abbey, with the (white marble!) African kneeling to the expiring abolitionist.