Anti-Slavery Poetry


Poetry was a popular form of expression in the 18th century, and many people enjoyed reading it. Because slavery was such an important issue in England at the time, poems were frequently written on the subject. Below is a selection of popular abolitionist poems, and some are even written by women, who were gaining a public voice toward the end of the century.


"The Task"
I would not have a slave to till my ground,
To carry me, to fan me while I sleep,
And tremble when I wake, for all the wealth
That sinews bought and sold have earned.
No: dear as freedom is, and in my heart's
Just estimation prized above all price,
I had much rather be myself the slave
And wear the bonds than fasten them on him.
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.
-William Cowper (94)
Portrait of William Cowper
William Cowper (95)
Cowper's poetry is very telling not only about his sentiments, but the changing political climate in England. He was very well respected for his religious poems, but "The Task," a book, was quite possibly the most influential in humanitarian reforms (96).
In saying that he would rather be a slave than an owner, Cowper drives his point that owning slaves is immoral in a very unique way. His ability to connect to the reader through simple language make his poetry accessible to any person, unlike Sancho and Cugoano. Cowper seems to have written for the common man, suggesting that he was aware of the increasing influence of the middle class on England's social policies.
Elizabeth's poem looks at slavery from both two perspectives: violence and gender. She suggests that a person cannot be Christian who beats another, and she takes on a feminist view when she says, "The female's modest pride." But, this poem does not only comment on slavery. It is also a commentary on the status of women in England during the 18th century. It addresses the injustices of a sexist society and appeals to men on religious grounds. Thus, Elizabeth's poetry addressed slavery not only in terms of African slavery, but also in terms of gender inequalities.
"On the Flogging of Women"
Bear'st thou a man's, a Christian name?
If not for pity, yet for shame,
Oh fling the scourge wide;
The tender form may writhe and bleed,
But deeper cuts thy barbarous deed
The female's modest pride.
-Chalotte Elizabeth (97)
"The Slaves' Address to British Ladies"
Think, how naught but death can sever
Your lov'd children from your hold;
Still alive- but lost forever
Ours are parted, bought and sold!
-Susannah Watts (98)
Watts takes on a unique voice in her poem as a black woman to white English women. She appeals to the motherly sentimentality of women. In doing so, she creates a connection between black and white women based on one characteristic they have in common: having children. This poem, like Elizabeth's, looks at slavery from a gendered perspective, and her work would have found good use by women such as Wollstonecraft, who urged women to boycott slave-grown products.


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