Girls Interrupted - Hacking Abolition (5)


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In my last post, I focused on Hannah More's move beyond sentiment in her abolition writing, and especially through her famous poem Slavery, toward social action.

Here, I pick up where I left off, continuing the exploration of how her abolition poetry was written to urgently stimulate people, women especially, toward action.

There's some great lessons that we can glean as we look to address modern day slavery today through writing and other creative outlets.

Girls Interrupted 

Part of the Slavery’s strategy is to interrupt the emotional appeal of the verse with rhetorical questions like those in the previous post and prosaic appeals to the intellect through direct addresses to the reader. More brings together her discourse of body and soul with a footnote to supplement the line: “When the sharp iron wounds his inmost soul” (173).  The footnote reads:

This is not said figuratively.  The writer of these lines has seen a complete set of chains, fitted to every separate limb of these unhappy, innocent men; together with instruments for wrenching open the jaws, contrived with such ingenious cruelty as would shock the humanity of an inquisitor.

More defines the physical cruelty as a wound to the soul of the man.  The prosaic interjection underscores More’s concern in Slavery to measure the sentimental appeal of her verse and integrate affect with an appeal to intellect.

More utilizes the metaphor of disease to recommend an antidote to the cruelty slavery. Mercy must enlighten the nation and spread: “From soul to soul the spreading influence steals, / Till every breast the soft contagion feels” (266-67). 

More conjures the recent memory of the great plague of 1655 that spread through London and decimated the population: “Everyone knew what plague meant—Europe had been wasted by the Black Death repeatedly since the Middle Ages" as Cynthia Wall notes: “And it spread so terribly quickly—more and more deaths...until the burial pits were full, there weren't enough deadcarts to haul the corpses away, and the houses and streets became open tombs” (xviii).

The collision of the abstract concept of mercy with the concept of “spreading” disease proves a powerful metaphysical conceit. Mercy needs be more rampant in order to outpace the infectious evil of slavery, and is more all-consuming than slavery is insidious.

More’s use of the word contagion, which evokes images of the havoc wreaked upon bodies by disease is a strong metaphor for mercy, and reframes the concept of mercy with a violent trope, the necessary virus that can stave off destructive disease. The paradox is a call to mobilization, and a loaded metaphysical conceit that heightens the allusion.

Just as English hands place African hands in chains and so the disease of slavery is transmitted from body to body, so human souls will be set free through the transaction of mercy from spirit to spirit.

As she wrote in Practical Piety, women, an engaged and influential demographic that shaped taste and influenced society, are both “virtuous and correct…so formed to give the tone to Christian practice, as well as to fashion” (qtd. “More’s Public Voice” 120).

With her emphasis on mercy, the passage reads as an appeal to the virtue More believed her target audience embodied and suggests More considered the spiritual work of emancipation would be driven by her sex.  British society was increasingly primed for such mobilization.  In fact, More might be the unnamed woman who was reported to honour an audience “by a circumstance never before witnessed in a Debating Society” (Hochschild 137), which could further underscore her influence and underscores the growing public influence of women among men:

A lady spoke to the subject with the dignity, energy, and information, which astonished everyone present, and justly merited what she obtained, repeated and uncommon bursts of applause from an intelligent and enraptured auditory. The question was carried against the Slave Trade. (Hochschild 137)**

More’s strategy, to appeal to the sentiment of woman in Slavery and other writings, was not her only tactic.  More published work anonymously and when she adopted a pseudonym, wrote as a man, a publishing strategy that locates her in a time when women writers were rare and a masculinized pen name would allow her public thoughts to be taken more seriously. 

When she first published her essay Hints towards forming a bill for the abolition of the White Female Slave Trade in the cities of London and Westminster in the March 1804 edition of The Christian Observer, she published the essay under the anonymous “An Enemy of All Slavery” (Christian Observer 159). The editors of the publication exude a certain anxiety that further informs the time in which More wrote. Celebrating its success and the “handsome patronage” they experienced from the reading public, the editors underscore the criticism levelled at the publication from all sides, criticism that touches on loyalty to the Crown and orthodoxy toward the Church:   

When the publication of this work was first undertaken, we declared ourselves to be firmly attached, both as loyal citizens and sincere members of the Church of England, to the constitution of the kingdom, ecclesiastical and civil.  In conformity with these pretensions we have been forward to defend the doctrines and discipline of the Establishment, and have uniformly opposed the language and the designs of the disaffected and factious.... Some of our correspondents have complained of our manifesting too great mildness and conciliation towards Dissenters and Separatists; interpreting a language without bitterness into blameable partiality, and misconstruing our reluctance to irritate, and give needles offence, into want of zeal, or defect of courage.  On the other side, some Dissenters have charged us with being bigoted persecuting Churchmen, and have not only treated us as adversaries of the dissenting interest, but as the enemies of Christianity itself. (vi-vii)

Patricia Demers notes that “despite what strikes the contemporary readers as the limitations of her colonializing, imperialistic, orthodox blending of affairs of church and state, the influence of More’s work in her own day spread far and wide” (“More’s Public Voice” 61). 

A temptation for contemporary scholars is to overlook that More wrote against powerful colonial ideals that were the status quo and to posit that her literature and worldview “presuppose and promote subalternism,” a “class-based, hereditary hierarchy [that is] immutable” (118).

More’s pedigree as a middle class woman who came from the non-intellectual world of Bristol, outside the elite London circles is amplified through her use of self-effacing tropes, a literary tactic she frequently depends on in her public and private writing.

The politically volatile nature of the times, when set alongside the moral and social power of the Establishment that cast a long shadow over More’s humble standing in society, are reason enough for More to undersell her literary abilities.  Her self-deprecation proves an effective strategy that pays dividends by the end of Slavery, when she, as self-described literary and social underdog, takes on the establishment.

Because the benefits of the transatlantic slave trade were reaped by Britons at the highest levels of political and religious society, including the Church of England whose mission arm, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, branded the seal of its estate onto black bodies “with a red-hot iron” (Hochschild 68), More’s argument against the spiritual and physical nature of slavery implicates the very institution whose express aim ought to be to loose, not bind, such bonds. 

When she pejoratively decries slavers by the poem’s end naming them as “White Savages” (211) after a careful deconstruction of the common myths of black lives as “Barbarians” (135) whose one crime is owning a “darker skin” (134), she rebrands the white slave owners as hypocrites whose consciences are seared as with hot irons (1 Timothy 4:2), men who present to the world savagery, not the Christian Gospel, teaching Africa to “dread the Christian’s trust” (184).

For More, slave traders are “not Christians” (188) but instead a plague that “infest” the world, men who are abhorrent not only for the horrific acts they commit against their fellow men but for their un-Christian treatment of souls who fail to see in the black slaves they traffic God’s “sacred image which they bear” (136). 

The charge implicates the highest reaches of the Church order, as, notably, the governing board of the aforementioned Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts which owned and branded slaves in the West Indies was overseen by none other than the Archbishop of Canterbury who “long wondered & lamented… that the Negroes in our plantations decrease, & new Supplies become necessary continually,” a latent deficiency in the black slave he concludes “proceeds from some Defect, both of Humanity, & even of good policy” (qtd. in Hochschild 68).

More again supplements her verse to forcibly dispense facts naked of literary flourish to address the moral blindness at the highest level of the Church, a feat she achieves through inline citations. While Wilson highlights that certain feminist critics “have contextualized More’s recourse to sentimental devices as a conscious strategy… capitalizing on superior sensitivity to claim the right to speak… about violations not of rights but of intimacies” (95), in Slavery she is concerned with both rights and intimacies. More steps outside of the poem’s narrative voice through a series of notes to attack the white slavers’ “privilege” (138) with a direct appeal to the intellect, a move that reinforces the poem’s opening assertion that Slavery, is no “fictitious” account of “ills” (53) and that her aim is not singularly upon intimacies alone.

These footnotes serve as a form of literary forensic evidence that buttress the poem’s argument.  More points to “reason’s palpable abuse” (147) inherent in the logic employed by slavers who argue that black men and women “do not feel the miseries inflicted on them as Europeans would” with another footnote on line 148, once again interrupt the poem’s narrative course to bluntly declare that “Nothing is more frequent than this cruel and stupid argument.”

The formal elements of Slavery, when considered with the poem’s overarching argument against the evils that British hands inflict on African bodies and souls through the slave trade, highlight More’s primary concern with the preexisting condition of humanity’s slavery to sin, and a secondary concern with the reality of transatlantic slavery.

More builds upon this literary and moralistic foundation in her later abolition work with a stronger emphasis on black female bodies and a satirical criticism of white, fashionable ones, two literary interventions that, when read alongside Slavery, reinforce More’s concern with the spiritual consequence of relational bonds. The occasion of the poem’s publication, commissioned as it was to influence public perception as the abolition movement petitioned lawmakers also marks a key literary moment in which More gestures toward the black body and the female body as an important cite where social change originates.

 

 ** Hochschild goes on to note that soon after this extraordinary public event, “a Lady of distinguished ability addressed a women-only gathering on the question of whether women whose husbands were members of Parliament should urge them to support abolition” (137). Notably, Hochschild discusses at length the significance of the year 1788 for the abolition movement and yet overlooks—and does not even mention—More by name. Metaxas notes that More was the only woman allowed to participate in an all-male social club called the “Sour-crout Party” which “always opened its doors to her” (68).  More’s participation in diverse social circles suggests she was adept at addressing both men and women in different forums and formats with rhetorical flourish.

 

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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)

Christian Observer (1805) Accessed: University Microfilms. Index to American Periodicals of the 1800's: Keyed to University Microfilms APS II. Computer Indexed Systems, Indianapolis, 1989.

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.

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. Slavery, A Poem (London: T. Cadell, 1788) Accessed 28 May 2019 http://www.brycchancarey.com/slavery/morepoems.htm

-- The Complete Works of Hannah More, vol. 3, T. Cadell, Strand 1830, https://archive.org/details/workshannahmore42moregoog/ Accessed 18 July This e-text is located at www.brycchancarey.com/slavery/morepoems.htm

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.

Shelley, Percy.  A Defense of Poetry. Edited by Albert S. Cook. Ginn & Company, 1891, www.books.google.ca/books?id=hQyT18_QHXkC&pg=PR5#v=onepage&q&f=false. Accessed 27 June, 2018.

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

Tanner, Paul J. “The History of Interpretation of the Song of Songs.  Bibliotheca Sacara 154, 613, 1997, pp. 23-46, www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/article_song1_tanner.html. Accessed 27 June, 2018.

The New Revised Standard Harper Study Version. Edited by Verlyn D. Verbrugge, Zondervan Publishing House, 1990.

Wall, Cynthia. Introduction. A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, Penguin Books, 2003, pp. xvii-xxxiii.

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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 Makenna Entrikin on Unsplash 


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