Poets Against Slavery in the 1600's and 1700's

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More than a century before "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (1852) shook up American sentiments, an astonishing array of poets on both sides of the Atlantic were writing about the horrors of slavery. "The Wretches they to Christian climes bring o'er, / To serve worse heathens than they did before," wrote Daniel Defoe of trans-Atlantic slavetraders in 1702. In 1695 "Oroonoko", a popular London play, depicted plantation life and a bloody slave insurrection with striking sympathy: "If you saw the bloody Cruelties, / They execute on every slight offence . . . / Your heart wou'd bleed for 'em." In 1703 the Boston Puritan Samuel Sewall wrote against slavery in "The Selling of Joseph", and as early as 1667 his predecessor, Michael Wigglesworth, had contended that God was color-blind: "Although Affliction tan the Skin, / Such saints are Beautiful within."

By 1800, huge epic poems and verse diatribes were pouring forth — more than ninety in the 1790s alone. Slavery was taken on by the first generation of self-consciously American poets, among them Joel Barlow, David Humphreys, Timothy Dwight, and Philip Freneau, all of whom saw it as anathema to America's future. In 1778 Barlow predicted that with American independence, "Afric's unhappy children, now no more / Shall feel the cruel chains they felt before." A few years later Freneau felt haunted by the continuing presence of slaves: "Half hell is in their song / And from the silent thought? — 'You have done us wrong!'"

These and some 400 more poems about slavery are among the lost writings restored to view by my recent book, "Amazing Grace: An Anthology of Poems about Slavery 1660-1810" (Yale University Press). Together they show the degree to which slavery was part of the shared consciousness and literary imagination of an era often thought to have been universally approving, or at least accepting, of what would come to be known as "the peculiar institution."

Twenty of the poets are black, including relatively familiar figures such as Phillis Wheatley, Olaudah Equiano, and Jupiter Hammon. Others are more surprising: Francis Williams, a free black from Jamaica who studied at Cambridge University in the early 1700s; George White, a former slave from Virginia who only learned to read at age 42 yet became a preacher and published author; and the anonymous "Sable Bard" of 1797 who tells his story in verse, from enslavement as a child in Africa, transport to America, and service in the Revolutionary War, to manumission and the struggle to survive as a freeman. Most mysterious of all is "Itaniko," the pseudonymous black poet of 1802 who identifies himself only as "A Person Confined in the [New Jersey] State-Prison."

At least six of the poets are former slave traders, including John Newton, the slaver turned evangelist amd abolitionist whose famous lyrics about God's "amazing grace . . . That saved a wretch like me" originated as a song of thanks for his deliverance from the sinfulness of slavetrading. Another former slave dealer, James Stanfield, composed an epic of several hundred lines entitled "The Guinea Voyage" (1789), in part of which he depicted the birth of a baby in the wretched squalor of the slave decks. (Art and life were not so distinct: the black poet Ignatius Sancho, who later became a figure in literary London, was born aboard a slave ship en route from Africa to the Spanish West Indies in 1729.) In 1805 the Irish immigrant and repentant slaver Thomas Branagan published two huge epic poems against slavery, including the autobiographical "Penitential Tyrant; or, Slave Trader Reformed," and boldly sent copies to Thomas Jefferson, then President, who responded guardedly but kept the poems in his library.

A surprising number are canonical poets: Dryden, Johnson, Cowper, Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, among others. The eclipse of their anti-slavery writings is hard to understand, especially because some, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, wrote against slavery from their college days to the end of their lives. More than 40 women poets turn up, ranging from Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire, to Anne Yearsley the milkmaid poet and other servant girls on both sides of the Atlantic. They give voice to powerful feminine perspectives on a topic that might have been seen as suitable only for the governing male elite. And they touch on themes — interracial romance, sexual violence, children — that deepen the pathos within the broader historic sweep.

Not all the poets are anti-slavery. An anonymous English lady thoughtfully composed songs for plantation slaves to sing while working: "Bless the fields we dig and plant! / Lord! supply our ev'ry want: / Give our souls and bodies food, / And grateful hearts for ev'ry good." James Boswell took time out from finishing the "Life of Johnson" to write an excruciatingly bad (and long) poem defending slavery, "No Abolition of Slavery," a work that until now has not been republished for some 210 years.

But the overwhelming preponderance of the 400 poems depict slavery as ugly, evil, despicable — which in turn raises other questions. How could slavery persist so long? Were these writers merely marginalized social critics, powerless to change things? Perhaps the answer lies with Percy Bysshe Shelley, the British poet, who wrote in 1820 that "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." Perhaps all these writers shaped attitudes and sensibilites in the general public that eventually reached a critical mass, a tipping point that led — by both peaceful and violent means — to emancipation.


James Basker is Ann Whitney Olin Professor of English at Barnard College, Columbia University and President, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. His books include "Tradition in Transition" (1996) and he is curator of the exhibition "Freedom: A History of US"  in Washington, D. C., at the Decatur House Museum through March 15.