Cowper (1788) William Cowper was known for his vigorous support of various moral causes, one of which was the abolition of slavery. "The Negro's Complaint" was popular in its first printing as a broadside. Its four-beat lines allowed easy later conversion to a BALLAD, set to music.
Adopting the voice of an individual "Forc'd from home, and all its pleasures," Cowper imagines what a slave might yearn for in his foreign captivity. The speaker continues, "Afric's coast I left forlorn," making clear his origins. The next line speaks to man's inhumanity, as the speaker notes his misery is "To increase a stranger's treasures, / O'er the raging billows borne." The term raging in reference to the sea suggests that even the natural elements find the white man's enslavement of the black man intolerable. Cowper points a finger at the guilty as he continues, "Men from England bought and sold me, / Paid my price in paltry gold," offering the paradox "paltry gold" to remind readers that the value of a human life exceeds that of even the most precious metal. He calls attention to this important point using alliteration in the repetition of the consonant p.
At this point the speaker reveals his superiority to his captors by concluding the opening stanza, "But, though theirs they have enroll'd me, / Minds are never to be sold." A common misperception, or simply an excuse used by slavers, was that slaves lacked the ability to reason, equating them with animals. The ability to think and reason equates to the slave's independence, as stated in the second stanza,
Still in thought as free as ever, What are England's rights, I ask, Me from my delights to sever, Me to torture, me to task?
Cowper uses the slave's voice to ask some hard questions of his contemporaries, repeating the word me as the object of the slavers' heinous action. The voice next notes that although his physical appearance differs from that of his captors, he remains their equal in the ability to feel emotion:
Fleecy locks, and black complexion Cannot forfeit nature's claim; Skins may differ, but affection Dwells in white and black the same.
Cowper continues to pound home his message that blacks and whites have much more in common than not. All the passions that the slaver feels, he should recognize in his captive. In addition he should understand that "Nature" did not intend plants to be nurtured through "sighs," "tears," and "sweat," although perhaps the landowner's "iron-hearted" nature enjoys the fact that "backs have smarted / For the sweets your cane affords." By suggesting that for mere plants slaves have suffered beating or caning, Cowper again
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makes clear the poor judgment of those who favor slavery.
In the fourth stanza the speaker appeals to his captor's religious faith, questioning, "Is there, as ye sometimes tell us, / Is there one who reigns on high?" Cowper's repetition proves effective, strengthening the condemnation in the gentle interrogative approach. He obviously hopes to shame his audience with relentless questions:
Has he bid you buy and sell us, Speaking from his throne the sky? Ask him, if your knotted scourges, Matches, blood-extorting screws, Are the means which duty urges Agents of his will to use?
The speaker clearly suggests slavers are hypocrites. Then he adopts the voice of a prophet, predicting death and destruction for the culture that desecrates God's children through such vile practice:
Hark! He answers—Wild tornadoes, Strewing yonder sea with wrecks; Wasting towns, plantations, meadows, Are the voice with which he speaks.
If any justice exists, man's deity will extract a heavy payment for the insolence that leads him to harm any of that deity's creations:
He foreseeing what vexations Afric's sons should undergo, Fix'd their tyrants' habitations Where his whirlwinds answer—No.
Cowper concludes with two verses that suggest the greatest crime committed against those enslaved was the breaking of their hearts. Their blood wasted in Africa before their "necks receiv'd the chain," they then experienced the horrors of a ship's hold, prior to the "man-degrading mart" where they would be sold like dumb beasts. Cowper returns to the idea of marketing human flesh as unthinkable. The speaker notes that those who survived those terrors had to learn patience.
Finally, the voice retains its pride as it beseeches its audience, "Deem our nation brutes no longer," having proved that the slavers are the real brutes. The slavers must prove they "have human feelings, / Ere you proudly question ours!" The poet's own passion emerges through that of his speaker. He likely adopts the familiar conceit of a complaint in an ironic manner, as traditional complaints often focused on frivolous, barely troublesome matters, such as a courtier's frustration in romance.
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