"Slavery" a poem that jolted the British Empire - Hacking Abolition (3)


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For Hannah More, slavery was sin. The acknowledgement of evil and humanity's propensity to harm others shaped her view of why slavery existed in the first place.  

Understanding this part of More's worldview is essential and challenges any modern day abolitionist to consider their view of the root causes of injustice in our age. 

In Part 3 of my exploration of Hacking Abolition, I look at the origin and advent of More's poem Slavery which jolted the British Empire and pushed readers at the highest levels of influence of society to look in the mirror and look at the heart of the slave trade.

Note: Portions of this blog post are derived from my Chapter in the Palgrave International Handbook of Human Trafficking

Slavery and the preexistence of sin

Hannah More’s Slavery: A Poem (1788) was rushed, and in a letter to her sisters she describes the poem as “very imperfect” (quoted in “More’s Public Voice” 57). 

The poem was occasioned by the abolition bill that William Wilberforce was to present before Parliament and was commissioned to influence readers throughout the British Empire, and London primarily. 

More was new to the abolition movement, and likely joined the cause in 1786 when Lady Middleton—author of two antislavery pamphlets—introduced her, to, among others, Wilberforce, the British Parliamentarian who would become one of her closest friends and lead the abolition charge in the House of Commons, and Thomas Clarkson, the award-winning essayist and organizer who recently dedicated his life to the abolition cause (Stott 87). 

Without enough time to compose it to her aesthetic liking, More published it nonetheless, a decision that incarnates her conviction that she would “be judged on far other grounds than those on which the decisions of literary statues are framed” (Complete Works 19). More’s inaugural entry into the canon of abolition writing was motivated more as a social intervention and less as literary one.

More’s didactic and literary contribution, through Slavery, marked a moment in which numerous social, cultural and religious factors began to converge by 1788 to “bring about one of the most remarkable changes… in human history” (Stott 88), that is, the beginning of the end of the transatlantic slave trade.

Adam Hochschild observes numerous converging factors that contributed to this historical tipping point. 

First, in 1787 Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, an African living in London, published his book Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species which “attracted enough readers to go through at least three printings in 1787,"a book which questioned the morality of slavery and also praised the efforts of abolitionists like Thomas Clarkson who were becoming familiar to the public. 

Second, a group of activists in Manchester gathered 10,000 names on an antislavery petition to Parliament, “urging similar anti-slave trade petitions."

Third, the former slave ship captain turned minister John Newton, “a man long silent at last spoke." 

Fourth, “African voices also rang out in the London debating societies” and also “published several antislavery letters in London newspapers” (136-37). 

Finally, the public was responding to the abolition movement’s disruption with antislavery sentiment: “103 petitions for abolition or reform of the slave trade had been signed by between 60,000 and 100,000 people” (130-37).

Hochschild notes that “[s]omething new and subversive was making its first appearance: the systematic mobilization of public opinion across the class spectrum” (138) and it was at this moment, in 1788, that More “was at the height of her literary and social fame” (Jones 86).

While her 1801 preface reveals an author unwilling to presume literary status, at the time of publication her name attracted readers, and the abolitionists, especially Clarkson, were eager to appeal to “the popular affections in this slave business” (qtd. in Jones 83).

More already demonstrated enthusiasm for the cause, “urging her friends… to taboo the use of West Indian sugar in their tea. She carried about with her a copy of Clarkson’s famous plan of an African slave ship, and showed it to interested and horrified guests at evening parties” (84).

However, the movement felt an urgency before Wilberforce presented a bill that would bind Parliament to “consider the slave trade” so as to galvanize public sentiment with a “last-minute demonstration” they considered “imperative” (84). 

More wrote Slavery at “break-neck speed” (84), and despite what she considered its literary short-comings, the poem jolted society, published at a moment that Tobias Menely describes as ripe for humanitarian verse with a sympathetic appeal: 

The eighteenth-century Atlantic was the scene not only of the Middle Passage, in which human beings were remade into saleable and insurable objects, but also of the sympathetic acts by which national interests were reconfigured by way of transnational identifications. (46)

Among the era’s leading poets such as William Cowper, William Wordsworth, Mary Robinson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge who “wrote poems, informed by the rhetorical conventions of sentimentality, animadverting on the slave trade and plantation slavery” (49), Hannah More addressed the social evil of the slave trade with an argument that inherent human value not only transcends nations, but race. 

The poem’s main theme highlights the common humanity shared by white Britons and black Africans, inverting the term slavery and turning the racist tropes employed by slavers to justify their treatment of Africans to argue that the slavers are, in fact, the true slaves.

At the poem’s climax, More imagines the light of Liberty shining upon black and white bodies and minds alike, removing both physical and spiritual chains:

The giant dies! no more his frown appals,
The chain untouch’d, drops off; the fetter falls.
Astonish’d echo tells the vocal shore
Oppression’s fall’n, and Slavery is no more! (287-90)

More advances her argument about common humanity to efface the “proud philosophy” (Slavery 61) that would suggest Africans, as a consequence of their race, do not possess “the pow’rs of equal thought” (62):

[T]hey have heads to think; and hearts to feel,
And souls to act, with firm, tho’ erring zeal
For they have keen affections, kind desires,
Love strong as death, and active patriot fires. (67-70) 

More draws parallels between Englishman and African, individuals who are mutually human in mind, heart and soul.  Like the British public, African slaves are compelled by relations to fellow man and to country. 

Their propensity to “err” signals, perhaps, the most humanistic of qualities that More underscores and attributes to African slaves, and therefore, to her white, free readers.  In light of her 1801 preface, More’s emphasis on her own capacity to err marks a significant node where she connects a commonality between herself, the reading public and African slaves. 

While phrases that describe love “strong as death” and “patriot fires” do not immediately read as very English, that is, as the type of sentiment portrayed openly in fashionable society, More urges they are quintessential human traits.  She appeals to love and patriotism as the driving force of the greatest civilizations, “That self-same stuff which erst proud empires sway’d, / Of which the conquerors of the world were made” (79-80).

While More’s fixation on “erring zeal” has been read as white privilege and “complacent smugness” (“More’s Public Voice” 120) that minimizes the horrors of slavers, it can also be read as one of the more humanizing descriptions of African slaves in the entire poem. Of everything More might boast about, she could boast no illusions about the moral superiority of the England of the 1780s, especially the Church:

the benefits of slavery were enjoyed by the highest reaches of British society…. For the absentee owner [of West Indies slaves]...was not a person, and it was not a family.  It was the Church of England.  (Hochschild 67)

In fact, the activism of abolitionists like More emerged from the Evangelical movement, which was “a reaction against the entire mood of the age: the licentiousness of England” (73) whose most degrading practice was slavery. 

More’s emphasis on erring is an essential recognition of common humanity from the doctrinal perspective of original sin, and while it places African and Englishman alike on level ground with the same human propensity to assert their will, declare loyalty and to sin, most importantly for More, black and white stood on fundamentally equal ground before God. 

However, through attention to the evils of the slave trade, More emphasizes a moral inferiority of British actors in Africa, a gesture that elevates rather than diminishes Africans in her writing. 

More’s tactic is not only to centre the sentimental appeal of her poetry on abstract concepts of justice or mercy, but to hinge her argument on the human toll of slavery on families, and the black body in particular. 

Thomas Clarkson had broken through the political talking points that served as convenient ideological cover for slave traders who filled Parliament and pubs with arguments about the economic necessity of the transatlantic trade by publishing a diagram of the slave ship Brookes.

Brookes slave ship plan - Image from Wikipedia

The diagram depicts a ship with 292 slaves on the lower decks with 130 stowed underneath shelves in an area not high enough for a grown man to stand.

The drawing, which More relied on as a visual aide to convince peers for the cause of abolition, helped Britons consider, likely for the first time, the horrific plight of slaves transported in chains over the Atlantic:

packed in rows, each with less floor space than would be taken by a coffin, on a deck dimly lit by a swinging lantern or two at night and forever lurching up and down over the waves… jammed for months into a vessel less than one hundred feet long. (Hochschild 309)

Just as the diagram interrupted the social narrative, so More emphasizes relatable and horrific facts.  Near the centre of the 1788 version of Slavery, More focuses on the destruction of African families and compels the reader to witness the “fond links of feeling Nature broke” (107) as the “fibres twisting round a parent’s heart, / Torn from their grasp, and bleeding as they part” (109-10). 

The inheritance of slavery is “Transmitted miseries, and successive chains” (103) as villages burn, towns blaze, babies shriek and women, in agony are “dragg’d by hostile hands / To distant… lands” (102-103). The acts of “petty tyrant[s]” on the sovereign land of “Gambia’s coast” (216) make “millions wretched” (222).  More’s emphasis on the “carnage” that “tracks [the] crimson way” (217) of the slavers is foremost alarm at the breakage of familial bonds and the uprooting and destruction of families. 

While the original enslavement of the Gambian slaves in the poem is most likely the historical exception—the British reading public, More included, was made aware by Cugoano that he, and other slaves, were first enslaved and “taken to the coast by... African slave [dealers]” (Hochschild 135)—More insists that white Britons are directly culpable for destroying families and forcing Gambians into physical and spiritual chains. 

She collapses the supply-and-demand chain of injustices into a singular, composite injustice and lays blame on the shoulders Englishmen with language that is “uncomfortably vivid” (Stott 92).  A writer to her “own sex chiefly,” More’s attention to domestic life is significant here (Complete Works 17). 

More interrupts the discursive force of the abolition movement’s fixation on the horrific conditions of slave ships to tell an origin story: “Whene’er to Afric’s shores I turn my eyes” (95) to see the “victim torn from social life” (99)— a literary move that requires her audience not only to imagine the moment the slave was not a slave, but to see that the victim embodies the familiar: a peaceful mother in a simple village with a social world of her own.

With emphasis on women slaves, More describes white “felon hands” (107) on black female bodies, and her focus on contrasting skin colours startles the passage with a fresh sensation of injustice. She achieves this in part, by the repeated use of weighty consonance that reenacts and suggests the sounds of violence: “burning village, “blazing town,” “shrieking babe” (98-100). The village thus ablaze, an “S” sound, repeated almost twenty times in the following four lines accentuates the disruption of the African woman’s home life:

She, wretch forlorn! is dragg’d by hostile hands,
To distant tyrants sold, in distant lands!
Transmitted miseries, and successive chains,
The sole sad heritage her child obtains. (101-104)

Combined with end rhyme—“hostile hands / distant lands / successive chains / child obtains”—the alliterative strategy of the short passage accelerates the lines only to be stridently interrupted by the continual use of exclamations. More sounds the alarm with six instances of the punctuation marks in just fourteen verses, a sonnet of “Horrors” (96), breaking the poem’s natural rhythm mid-line to agonize over wretched female victims (101) and to hold murderers to account (111).

The syntax embodies the violent interruption of village life.  Like the burning, blazing town, More’s passage is alight with alarm as white hands are twice described, first as “hostile” (101) and then “felon” (107).  It is both manly and womanly honour that are here transgressed as the rootedness of family, the “domestic intimacies” (Wilson 95) are not only infringed upon but “torn” from the “grasp” of black hands, an act of aggression that sheds blood (110).

The breach of trust, of humanity and of justice is defined by More as a breach of rightful “heritage” (104), of “Nature” (108), and tragically of both a parent and her child’s heart (109). 

By establishing a link between the domestic, the personal and Nature, More not only makes a sympathetic appeal to her readers, but also sets up her moral argument that slavery is not an unavoidable, practical result of empire-building, but contrary to Nature and domestic life which, unarguably to More, were God-ordained.

More's tactics, when considered together, give a glimpse at the strategy writers might consider to engage readers in justice-focused writing.

The next blog post will move beyond sentiment to underscore More's conviction that appeal to emotion in writing about gross injustice is not enough.

 

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Hacking Abolition is a blog series that derives lessons from the original abolition movement that worked tirelessly to bring an end to the transatlantic slave trade. The series begins with a close look at the life and writing of Hannah More and is an adaptation of Andrew's work for his MA Thesis in English and Transitional Justice at Western University entitled, "Bonds and Bondage: Intimacies and Enslavement in Hannah More’s Abolition Writing."

The aim of the series is to explore and discover successful tactics champions of faith and abolition employed in the past and consider ways we might learn from them for the pressing work of abolition in the present.

For a full bibliography of my research and further reading on More's life, visit this page.

Andrew Kooman

About Andrew Kooman: Andrew is a Canadian writer and producer. His work has been published and viewed around the world and translated into more than 10 languages. Andrew strives to tell powerful stories that make real-world impact.  { Learn More }

 

Works Cited (in this post)

Demers, Patricia. “Hannah More’s Public Voice in Georgian Britain.”  Women, Morality and Advice Literature Manuscripts and Rare Printed Works of Hannah More (1745-1833)  and her Circle, Clark Library, Los Angeles, www.ampltd.co.uk/collections_az/Women-More-1/editorial-introduction.aspx. Accessed 18 July 2018.

Eger, Elizabeth. “Introduction: The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain. In: Bluestockings.” Palgrave Studies in the Enlightenment, Romanticism and the Cultures of Print. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230250505_1. Accessed July 24, 2018.

Hochschild, Adam. Bury the Chains Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves. Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

Jones, M. G. Hannah More. University Press, Cambridge [Eng.], 1952.

Menely, Tobias.  “Acts of Sympathy: Abolitions Poetry and Transatlantic Identification.” Affect and Abolition in the Anglo-Atlantic, 1770-1830, edited by Stephen Ahern, Ashgate Publishing, 2013, pp 45-67.

Metaxas, Eric. Seven Women: And the Secret of Their Greatness. Nelson Books, 2015.

More, Hannah. The Complete Works of Hannah More, vol. 3, T. Cadell, Strand 1830, https://archive.org/details/workshannahmore42moregoog/ Accessed 18 July 2018.  

Myers, Mitzi.  “Hannah More’s Tracts for the Times: Social Fiction and Female Ideology.”  Fetter'd Or Free?: British Women Novelists, 1670-1815, edited by Mary A. Schofield and Cecilia Macheski. Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio, 1986.

 

Stott, Anne. Hannah More: The First Victorian. Oxford University Press, Oxford [England], 2003.

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Note: Portions of this post were adapted for Andrew's chapter in Palgrave International Handbook on Human Trafficking (2019). The chapter is entitled "Aesthetic Whistleblowers: The Importance and Limitations of Art and Media in Addressing Human Trafficking" and is available here.

Photo by maxime caron on Unsplash

 


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