Poetry and Slavery

If The Fleece creates a georgic map (as it were) of Britain by linking disparate regions and populations into relations of economic and social cooperation that spread, weblike, across the oceans, another variety of georgic situated itself in faraway colonies whose economic productivity was equally crucial to the health of the empire. The Scotsman James Grainger's The Sugar-Cane (1764) is the most ambitious of such eighteenth-century poems. As John Gilmore, its most recent editor, reminds us, this poem stems from Grainger's belief that "the cultivation of the sugar-cane is not a matter of growing some rather peculiar plant in a few small islands a long way from anywhere important, but the basis of a prosperous trading system which spans the Atlantic" (Gilmore 2000: 31). Grainger treats the natural beauties of a Caribbean plantation as he does the fecundity of the soil or the enforced productivity of slaves — each plays a role in enabling "Mighty commerce" to throw

O'er far-divided nature's realms, a chain To bind in sweet society mankind. By thee white Albion, once a barbarous clime, Grew fam'd for arms, for wisdom, and for laws; By thee she holds the balance of the world, Acknowledg'd now sole empress of the main.

Grainger's "West-India georgic" raises plantation practices, including the management of slaves and their illnesses, to the status of classical poetic subjects, extending to the British colonies of the Caribbean the same literary courtesy Dyer bestowed on the sheep-rearing provinces of Britain. Not unexpectedly, Grainger has few qualms about slave labor (which, he argues, is less arduous than work in the mines of Scotland, where the laborers were still serfs, or the Inca empire) and is quite certain that slaves should be satisfied with their circumstances:

With these compar'd, ye sons of Afric, say, How far more happy is your lot? Bland health, Of ardent eye, and limb robust, attends Your custom'd labour; and, should sickness seize, With what solicitude are ye not nurs'd! -Ye Negroes, then, your pleasing task pursue; And, by your toil, deserve your master's care.

Virgil's Georgics had also taken for granted a slave economy; but there is nothing in that poem that provides a precedent for Grainger's rewriting of the brutalities of plantation slavery into this banal exhortation to slaves to pursue their "pleasing task." If readers today need any reminder of the ideological priorities of British nationalist and imperialist thought in the practice of eighteenth-century poetry, Grainger's georgic is salutary reading.

However, the power of poetry to move or to anger, to naturalize or to alienate, to justify or to contest, is even more compellingly put to service later in the century by the movement for the abolition of the slave trade. The anonymous author ofJamaica, a Poem: In Three Parts (1777) prefaced his poem with a pointed rebuttal of Grainger:

"The Muse thinks it disgraceful in a Briton to sing of the Sugar-cane, since to it is owing the Slavery of the Negroes" (Krise 1999: 328). He provides enough details of plantation practices to remind his readers that slaves do rebel in the face of great cruelties ( Jamaica had in fact seen a slave revolt in 1760, and the years continued to be tense):

And can the Muse reflect her tear-stained eye, When blood attests ev'n slaves for freedom die? On cruel gibbets high disclos'd they rest, And scarce one groan escapes one bloated breast.

Britons, forbear! be Mercy still your aim, And as your faith, unspotted be your fame; Tremendous pains tremendous deeds inspire, And, hydra-like, new martyrs rise from fire.

Unlike this poet, who spoke as a Jamaican himself, or at least as someone who had lived and worked there, most anti-slavery poets did not in fact know slavery at first hand, but found in the issue an emotive and moral power that moved them to write. Their productivity was such that the corpus of anti-slavery poetry is important for any literary-historical consideration of poetry, politics, and empire in the later eighteenth century.

Given the status of poetry as the literary form most conducive to the expression of higher ethical and humanitarian values, as also for the elaboration of issues important to the nation, it seemed entirely appropriate for anti-slavery activists to augment their pamphleteering and parliamentary lobbying by writing poems in the service of their cause. Several women were prominent in this effort, including Hannah More, Elizabeth Bentley, and Anna Laetitia Barbauld; their poems argued both that slavery was inhuman and anti-Christian, and that if Britain was to claim its empire as legitimate and in the service of social and cultural improvement of all its subjects, it needed to rid itself of the taint of slave-trading and slave-owning (though the latter claim was not made forcefully till the nineteenth century). The anti-slavery discourse in poetry, that is, claimed both the ethical and the nationalist high ground: abolition would be the best demonstration of the civic superiority of British values, and thus a potent reminder of why the British Empire was at heart humane and civilizing rather than brutal and exploitative. The world of slavery, but also the world more generally, is represented as in need of British reform (indeed, particular constituencies in Britain are represented as in need of reform). This argument derived some intellectual force from the dissemination of the "four-stages theory" of human development - from hunting and gathering to pastoralism to agriculture to commerce - which led to explanations of the socio-cultural superiority of Europeans over the rest of the world (lagging behind in terms of development) and thus to the claim that British leadership would allow primitive nations and peoples to emerge from economic and religious darkness. Certainly the Declaration of Independence by the thirteen United States colonies in 1776 had dented claims for the moral and political legitimacy of the British Empire; as British abolitionists sought to generalize the vocabulary of natural rights and freedom into arenas where they had hitherto been considered inapplicable, they also restored some of the lost sheen of the Pax Britannica. Perhaps the final word on this topic should be given to Hannah More, who closes her poem on "The Black Slave Trade" (1787) with a vignette of Britain as no longer an enslaving but an emancipatory global power, and thus as restored to its primacy among all nations:

The dusky myriads crowd the sultry plain, And hail that mercy long invok'd in vain, Victorious pow'r! she bursts their two-fold bands, And faith and freedom springs from Britain's hands.

See also chs. 1, "Poetry, Politics, and the Rise of Party"; 14, "James Thomson, The Seasons"; 29, "The Georgic"; 32, "Whig and Tory Poetics"; 38, "Poetry and the City"; 39, "Cartography and the Poetry of Place."

References and Further Reading

Anon. (1999). Jamaica, a Poem: In Three Parts. In Thomas W. Krise (ed.), Caribbeana: An Anthology of English Literature of the West Indies 16571777. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brown, Laura (1985). Alexander Pope. Oxford: Blackwell.

Dobree, Bonamy (1949). "The Theme of Patriotism in the Poetry of the Earlier Eighteenth Century." Proceedings of the British Academy 35, 49-65.

Fulford, Tim (1996). Landscape, Liberty, and Authority: Poetry, Criticism, and Politics from Thomson to Wordsworth. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Gerrard, Christine (1994). The Patriot opposition to Walpole: Politics, Poetry, and National Myth, 1725-1742. Oxford: Clarendon.

Gilmore, John (2000). The Poetics of Empire: A Study of James Grainger's The Sugar-Cane (1764). London and New Brunswick, NJ: Athlone.

Goldstein, Laurence (1977). Ruins and Empire: The

Evolution of a Theme in Augustan and Romantic Literature. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Hammond, Brean S. (1997). Professional Imaginative Writing in England, 1670-1740: "Hackney for Bread." Oxford: Clarendon.

Kaul, Suvir (2000). Poems of Nation, Anthems of Empire. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia.

Meehan, Michael (1986). Liberty and Poetics in Eighteenth-Century England. London: Croom Helm.

Shields, David (1990). oracles of Empire: Poetry, Politics and Commerce in British America, 16901750. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Thomson, James (1972). The Seasons and The Castle of Indolence, ed. James Sambrook. Oxford: Clarendon.

Williams, Raymond (1973). The Country and the City. London: Chatto & Windus.

Young, Edward (1866). Poetical Works, 2 vols. London: Bell & Daldy.

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