Addiction that left a bitter taste

Amazing Grace

January 16, 2004

Directly or indirectly, tens of thousands of Europeans were involved in the Atlantic slave trade. From the earliest days of post-Columbus exploration and settlement to the last slave voyages in the 1860s, millions of Africans were shipped to the Americas in European and American slave ships. Viewed from Europe, it seemed a distant process - ships removing Africans from a vast stretch of African coastline and, months later, unloading their human cargoes across the face of the settled Americas, from the Chesapeake in the north to the more southerly settlements of South America. In fact, the great majority of the 10 million-plus survivors were landed in either Brazil or the Caribbean. It was a vast, sprawling economic system that involved three continents and whose African victims made possible both the development of critical areas of the Americas and the enrichment of the European homelands.

What began as a small-scale, haphazard, even piratical, trading system developed (thanks largely to the development of cane-sugar cultivation) into an international business. It attracted the attention of most major European maritime nations and their governing and commercial elites; it seduced ports on both sides of the Atlantic; and it generated employment and commercial wellbeing from the old European heartlands through to the European pioneering settlements on the edges of the American frontiers. The Atlantic slave system became a cornucopia that disgorged material wellbeing on all hands (except, of course, to its African victims).

The trade gave employment to tens of thousands. The most obvious group was the slave traders, generations of seafarers whose work was to load and transport the Africans. The lives of white sailors were often short, ending in the hostile disease environment of West Africa. But there were others equally dependent on the slave trade, from the dockside workers in Europe and the Americas, through to the literate employees of trading houses who documented the paperwork of the slave trade, the shipbuilders and provisioning workers (often deep in the European heartlands, far removed from the slave ships). And all this in addition to the groups whose American lives were linked to slavery: overseers, bookkeepers and artisans, quite apart from the purveyors of slave-grown produce on both sides of the Atlantic.

Atlantic slavery was hardly an invisible institution, out of sight and therefore out of mind. Even to those living and working at the more distant edges of the slave system - say, in Liverpool - there was no escaping the reality of what was happening. The crews of the slave ships returned home with accounts of their exploits. Vessels packed with slave-grown produce (sugar from the West Indies, tobacco from the Chesapeake) unloaded their profitable cargoes on the quaysides of London, Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow and at a range of smaller ports.

In addition, a regular trickle of Africans and their descendants born in the Americas found their way to Britain and western Europe, providing personal testimony and, later, written confirmation about what the Atlantic slave trade involved. There was, in short, no reason for contemporaries not to know about the significance and consequences of slavery. After all, why did Africans find their way to Britain? And why did Europeans become so universally addicted to the fruits of slave labour: to sweetened foodstuffs and drink? And why was European social life so shrouded in tobacco smoke, from the fashionable smoking rooms of high society to the teeming hubbub of the ale houses and coffee shops? It was all down to the slaves. Slavery stood central to the way the West functioned and developed from the 17th century on. Slavery also became an issue in western intellectual life; a reflection of contemporary values and a forum for often angst-ridden intellectual debate. Few today doubt the broader economic consequences of African slavery in the emergence of the Atlantic economy in the modern era. But what role did it play in the social and intellectual life of the time? James Basker's marvellous book, weighing in as a heavyweight contender at 721 pages, provides an imaginative contribution to that question. At one level, Basker's task is simple: to find and reprint poetry about slavery from 1660 to 1810 (between, that is, the effective founding of the British slave colonies and the immediate aftermath of abolition). Even to specialists long aware of the pervasiveness of slavery and its imagery, Basker's work will come as a surprise. The language of slavery - the degree to which images of slavery permeated the vernacular - is lavishly confirmed by this important tome. It embraces the work of some 250 poets, with more than 400 pieces. Basker's work is not merely an exercise in compilation, for it draws on extensive and prolonged research. It is informed by a sensitive awareness of both the literature and the historiography.

There are a number of issues the reader needs to consider. Although it is clear enough from Basker's pioneering work that slavery came to inform the creative imagination more profoundly and earlier than we thought, we need to consider who had access to such literature. Who, in the 17th and 18th centuries, was able to read much of the material made available here? And what role did poetry (as opposed to other literary forms) play in shaping attitudes about slavery? There was a dramatic reversal of opinion (at least in Britain) about slavery from the last quarter of the 18th century onwards. What had once been unquestioned was increasingly viewed with concern and even repugnance. Slavery had become the object of popular dislike by, say, 1800. This transformed sensibility was to a degree a function of widening Enlightened criticism, a change in religious mood and a broadening popular debate about slavery. That spread of anti-slavery was clearly reflected in the volume and nature of poetry. But what role did poetry play in promoting the process of anti-slavery itself? Naturally enough, in a society that turned its face against slavery, that growing revulsion would be reflected in all forms of creative expression. It remains unclear, however, how influential a role was played by poetry in that process, even if, as is clear from Basker's work, slavery attracted increased attention among poets of all sorts and conditions by the late 18th century.

Amazing Grace (its title a homage to the most enduring of anti-slavery poetics) began with a simple idea: to find and publish a definitive collection of poems on slavery. In the execution (greatly aided by yet another handsome edition from Yale University Press), Basker has transcended his initial brief. He has published a volume that will provide a rich seam for future scholars, and become a starting point for anyone interested in the impact of slavery on the intellectual and cultural world of the Atlantic in the era of slavery.

James Walvin is professor of history, University of York.

Amazing Grace: An Anthology of Poems about Slavery, 1660-1810

Editor - James G. Basker
Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 721
Price - £35.00
ISBN - 0 300 09172 9

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