Slave's complaint given voice

Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation
August 25, 2000

This impressively produced eight-volume set of documents will make widely available a range of texts for those interested in the movement that led first to the abolition of the slave trade and then of slavery within the British Empire. As the general editors point out, traditional historical documents and imaginative literature are not usually considered together in examining this period. Beatrice Dykes and Wylie Sypher both published books in 1942 dealing with the image of the slave and African in Romantic writing. It would take another 50 years before the connections between the Romantic movement and anti-slavery began to be explored. These reprinted texts are an extension of this renewed interest and are intended to bring "historical and literary study together": to show how "political, medical, religious and anatomical texts shaped imaginative literature" and were shaped by it; to reveal the complexities of the lives of the people involved in the struggle around slavery; and to restore our appreciation of the significance of figures like Thomas Clarkson and to "re-sensitise Romantic criticism to... the 'race idea' and its violent historical and intellectual legacies". All the texts are reproduced in facsimile; this decision limited the range of texts that could be reproduced, both because of the "inefficient" use of space by contemporary type-setters and the physical condition of some of the originals, but it was almost certainly the only way to control the costs of the project.

The first volume is the most comprehensive, because of the small number of black writers. Its introduction, like all the other introductions, is good. As with the other volumes, all the writers themselves are individually introduced. The editors point to the precarious existence of all of these writers, even though they were by definition exceptional. They take a robust, intentionally anti-sentimental attitude to the writers,indicating a number of literary and personal failings. In the case of the dandy Julius Soubise this attitude is fully deserved, but with most of the others it fails to show sufficient understanding of the mental universe (and standards of behaviour) of the time. The volume starts with Ukasaw Gronniosaw and ends with Mary Prince: the slave narrative form dominates but there are letters from Soubise, Ignatius Sancho, James Harris, several Sierra Leonean settlers and Robert Wedderburn. With the relatively unknown Harris and John Jea the volume provides the best introduction to black writing in Britain of the period.

The second and third volumes contain the explicitly political writing. These will be pieces most familiar to historians and perhaps unfamiliar to literary scholars. Consequently the introductions to both are historical, with Peter Kitson noting that the attack on the slave trade was a sign of that change in sensibility dubbed "Romantic". The second volume contains a wide cross-section of the debate, though these writings are divided into two parts, one anti, the other pro-slave trade - which rather destroys the objective of reading the texts together.

Given the volume of publications at the time of slavery, the editors' selection is a good one. It correctly concentrates on the better-known, more influential figures. So on the anti-slave trade side we have James Ramsay and Thomas Clarkson, John Newton and Burke in his more radical mode; on the other side William Beckford Jr, Bryan Edwards, the earl of Sheffield and Cobbett. The importance of religion (and changing religious attitudes) is stressed. Editor Debbie Lee takes the bold step of asserting that the five pamphlets in the third volume "provide a full history of how the British viewed the emancipation". These pamphlets by Wilberforce, Clarkson, John Hampden, Canning and James Stephen are reprinted almost in their entirety (the main omission appears to be the preface to Hampden's). For this reason volume three will be the most valuable for historians.

The next three volumes will probably be the most enjoyable. They reprint some familiar material but much that will be new, perhaps even to specialist literary critics. Despite the presence of Blake, Wordsworth, Burns, Cowper, Coleridge and Chatterton, the volume title, Verse, describes the book correctly, since it contains some poetry and much verse.Alan Richardson argues against the usual Romantic notion that the best verse, indeed poetry, is removed from social commentary or political engagement and makes a good case in his introduction and selection for anti-slavery poetry being "more diverse, complex and nuanced... than some of the more sweeping criticisms would imply". Having left out the dullest offerings (of which more later), he does seem to have made his case.

The fifth volume, on drama, probably contains the most unfamiliar material. Some of the stories, "Incle" and "Yarico" and "Three-fingered Jack", are familiar but their theatrical representations are not. Jeffrey Cox explains that unlike poets, dramatists on the whole stayed clear of the debate on the slave trade. There is one gem, Thomas Bellamy's play, The Benevolent Planters . The main text has the immortal lines, "you have proved yourself The Benevolent Planters, and that under subjection like yours, SLAVERY IS BUT A NAME". Bellamy, like Burke, had originally been fairly radical, but his enthusiasm waned in the French revolution. Plainly,he saw his play as helping to ameliorate the condition of the slaves, but the play itself is hardly anti-slavery. Its first performance was at a benefit for Mrs Kemble and Roger Kemble himself provided an anti-slavery prologue. Thus, as the editor points out, Bellamy's play "seems to re-enact the debate over slavery in its very form". It is a pity that the audience's reactions (and Bellamy's) have not been recorded.

Volume six, on fiction, contains both a good introduction (if at times couched in the recent language of literary criticism) and excellent introductions to each extract by Srinivas Aravamudan. It also includes a wide range of literary forms, ranging from extracts from Tristram Shandy and other novels to a short story to tracts and works intended for children. The delight here is the long extract from the anonymous Adventures of Jonathan Corncob . This is a funny piece (the whole novel deserves reprinting if the rest is as good) about a visit to Barbados. The narrator gradually comes to an appreciation of the horrors of slavery; it is a telling satire on planters' preconceptions and blindness.

The final two volumes, on medicine and on racial theories, stand at opposite ends of the spectrum of familiarity. The one on racial theories contains much material that a number of anthologies have reprinted in similar selections. Given the overall editorial intention of the series, there is little else Kitson could have done. I think that dating scientific racism to the Romantic period is incorrect but the move towards it can be seen then. Johann Blumenbach, Baron Cuvier and Lord Kames are all represented. There is considerable overlap with the seventh volume. As Alan Bewell points out in his introduction, the differing susceptibility to diseases was used to demonstrate the separateness of human races. These two volumes would probably have benefitted from being edited together so that the interplay of tropical medicine with developing ideas of race would appear more clearly. European medicine as a science was something to be avoided in the tropics, as Richard Sheridan so carefully documented; it hardly merits a volume on its own. Yet for historians of the 18th and early 19th-century Caribbean, this volume will be welcome.

Overall, this series is a useful set of documents, especially for those far removed from large libraries that possess the originals. Students of literature and history will find much important and rare material here. Yet a number of reservations need to be entered. For three main reasons these volumes need to be treated with some caution.

The first involves editorial policy on textual omissions. Most volumes use selections from larger works. Cuts are carefully noted in the texts. The editors commendably, and understandably, try to include the widest range of texts to illustrate changing ideas of slavery. Complete works would have entailed an epic feat of publication. In the case of novels, extracts are unavoidable; in any case, the editor of the prose volume carefully sets the extracts in context. In the case of the medical texts, much will be of interest only to the historian of medicine, probably only the historian of tropical medicine. The excisions from volume one are left unexplained. The full texts of at least four of the included black writers' works are now available in cheap editions (Sancho, Equiano, Gronniosaw and Prince) so that students can easily find the complete texts.The Wedderburn extracts are truncated without indication of this. We might have had more of Ottobah Cugoano despite his repetitions. Volume two contains 14 extracts, again with omissions unexplained, while volume three has five lengthy pamphlets, apparently intact.

The second reservation concerns the selection. It attempts to "push the parameters of the concerns traditionally related to the topos of slavery...beyond the familiar parliamentary debates to encompass the less-known literatures, aesthetic, political, medical economic, and philosophical". As the sub-title, and the three volumes devoted to literary forms suggest, the main impetus of the work derives from literary studies. To a historian it appears extraordinary to suggest that the range of evidence had hitherto been limited to parliamentary debates. Collections of documents on the topic have tended to exclude literary texts. But if the texts are to be widened, one is faced, from a literary point of view, with the dilemma of choosing between what is significant and what has literary merit. A historian would be forced to decide on contemporary significance. Here the guiding principle is unclear. One example can serve as illustration. The editor of volume four points out that Clarkson had noted that Cowper's broadside ballad, The Negro's Complaint , was as important in spreading anti-slavery ideas in 1788 as the better-known Josiah Wedgwood cameo of the shackled and kneeling slave, with the inscription, "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?" Historians do not usually refer to it. It is reprinted here but other poems are omitted on the grounds of "unremitting dullness", despite their importance at the time. An even wider selection of poems, even if some were extracts, would have illustrated the interplay of popular feeling with the attack on and defence of slavery. Unremitting dullness is not after all either a reason for omission or a perfect judgement impervious to change.

The final reservation is one of presentation. In one respect this was beyond the control of the editors. The practicalities of such a venture mean that individual specialists edit individual volumes. Volumes will appeal and be made available to different audiences (students of poetry, drama, black writing). But separating the texts from each other means that the editorial objective of using a wide range of texts becomes physically difficult if the object is to relate these writings to changing attitudes in the period. A reader has to move between eight volumes to do this. Here a CD-Rom publication would have been ideal, allowing the volumes to be separately edited and introduced but making reading a diverse range of texts easier. Some of the music of the era (Cowper's songs, Sancho's compositions that have appeared on CD) could have been added. As the series stands, there is ghettoisation, with, for instance, the black writers in a volume of their own but isolated from the other texts to which they respond - verse, drama and prose maintaining their distance from each other.

However, the series deserves to be widely consulted. It is not certain that literary critics need history but historians certainly need imaginative literature. At the moment, more are probably stumbling back to literature on the uncertain ground of cultural history. These volumes may or may not sensitise literary critics to ideas of race and their legacies. For a historian, what emerges most clearly is the confirmation of the idea that all great political campaigns are based on a coalition of interests with people of the most diverse opinions, knowledge and motivations and that the campaign against anti-slavery may not have been as purely moral as Lecky thought - but that it came as close as the crooked timber of humanity would allow.

Peter Fraser is lecturer in historical and cultural studies, Goldsmiths College, London.

Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation: Writing in the British Romantic Period (Volumes I - VIII)

Editor - Peter J. Kitson and Debbie Lee et al.
ISBN - 1851 965 130
Publisher - Pickering and Chatto
Price - £595.00 the set
Pages - -

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