Anti-slavery: Poetry, Images and Ideas

  • Thomas Day 

Other Lunar Society figures were less circumspect. Thomas Day was the first Lunar Society figure publicly to attack slavery. In 1773 he read a newspaper report about a slave working for a ship’s captain who fell in love with a white female servant. The slave ran away to be christened, so that he could marry her. Recaptured, he was locked up in a boat on the Thames and shot himself in the head. Day was moved by the experience to compose a lengthy poem, The Dying Negro, one of the first works of propaganda against slavery. Written in the first person, the poem contrasts the feelings of the dying man with a devastating attack on slavery.

When bursting from the treach’rous bands of sleep, 
Rouz’d by the murmurs of the dashing deep, 
I woke to bondage and ignoble pains, 
And all the horrors of a life in chains. 
Ye Gods of Afric! in that dreadful hour 
Where were your thunders and avenging pow’r! 
Did not my pray’rs, my groans, my tears invoke 
Your slumb’ring justice to direct the stroke? 
No Power descended to assist the brave, 
No lightnings flash’d and I became a slave. 
From lord to lord my wretched carcase sold, 
In Christian traffic, for their sordid gold.

The poem sold well and Day prepared a second edition in 1774 when Britain was stumbling into war with America. The American colonists sought the pursuit of liberty, but as slave owners, they denied freedom to slaves. In the preface to the poem, Day noted:

For them the Negro is dragged from his cottage, and his plantane shade…the rights of nature are invaded; and European faith becomes infamous throughout the globe…These are the men whose clamours for liberty and independence are heard across the Atlantic Ocean! 

Day could not stand hypocrisy. In 1784, he published his Fragment of an original letter on the slavery of Negroes:

If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot signing resolutions of independence with one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves. 

  • Erasmus Darwin 

Dr Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), perhaps the most widely talented Lunar figure was a friend of Thomas Day and Josiah Wedgwood. In 1789 Darwin corresponded with Wedgwood on the matter: “I have just heard that there are muzzles or gags made in Birmingham for the slaves in our islands. If this be true, and such an instrument could be exhibited by a speaker in the house of commons, it might have a great effect.”  But Darwin produced explosive attacks on slavery, in his poem, The Botanic Garden (1789-1791).

In the Loves of the Plants (1789) he called on MPs to abolish slavery

Fierce Slavery stalks, and slips the dogs of hell;
From vale to vale the gathering cries rebound, 
And sable nations tremble at the sound!
Ye bands of Senators! Whose suffrage sways
Britannia realms, whom either Ind obeys;
Who right the injured and reward the brave, 
Stretch your strong arm, for ye have power to save!

 In The Economy of Vegetation (1791) he attacked Britain’s economic exploitation of black African:

Hear, oh, BRITANNIA! Potent Queen of isles,
On whom fair Art and meek Religion smiles, 
How AFRIC’S coasts thy craftier sons invade
With murder, rapine, theft, – and call it Trade!
– The SLAVE, in chains, on supplicating knee,
Spreads his wide arms, and lifts his eyes to Thee;
With hunger pale, with wounds and toil oppress’d,
“ARE WE NOT BRETHREN?” sorrow choaks the rest;-
-AIR! Bear to heaven upon thy azure flood
Their innocent cries! – EARTH! – cover not their blood! 

  • Josiah Wedgwood 

Darwin’s reference at the end of the quotation – “Are we not Brethren?” – refers to the famous design for the anti-slavery campaign commissioned in 1787 by another prominent member of the Lunar Society, Josiah Wedgwood for the Society for the Suppression of the Slave Trade. The image was reproduced as a cameo and became a popular symbol of an individual’s commitment. It was used to illustrate snuff boxes, brooches and coat buttons and became the icon of the movement. Darwin also selected the image to illustrate The Botanic Garden. Thomas Clarkson, the leading abolitionist described their widespread use:

“Some had them inlaid in gold on the lid of their snuff-boxes. Of the ladies, several wore them in bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental manner as pins for their hair. At length the taste for wearing them became general, and thus a fashion…was seen for once in the honourable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity and freedom.”

Wedgwood’s commitment was also revealed in his letters. He wrote to James Watt in 1788: “I take it for granted that you & I are on the same side of the question respecting the slave trade. I have joined my brethren here in a petition from the pottery for the abolition of it, as I do not like a half measure in this black business.” Wedgwood successfully appealed to the poet Anna Seward to support the anti-slavery cause. She had argued that abolition would damage West Indian commerce. Wedgwood appealed to her on grounds of human sympathy. He argued that he was unable to relate “an hundredth part of what has come to my knowledge of the accumulated distress brought upon millions of our fellow creatures by this inhuman traffic”.

  • Joseph Priestley 

Dr Joseph Priestley provided a particularly sophisticated attack on slavery. A multi-lingual philosopher, theologian, scientist and radical political writer who had studied many different cultures, Priestley was one of the most important figures of the 18th -century Enlightenment. In 1788 he delivered a sermon in Birmingham, which was subsequently published as a Sermon on the subject of the Slave Trade. Priestley produced a wide range of arguments attacking the slave trade and slavery. His case focused on the psychological and physical cruelty of both activities, but he also produced theoretical arguments underlying the distinctive humanity and philosophy of his approach.

Slavery was, he claimed, “perhaps the greatest, and most crying evil under the sun”. Common humanity required action against it:

You will consider all mankind as brethren, and neighboursAs men, and as Christians…we should not rest ourselves not only for our relations…or friends; not only for our countrymen; not only for Europeans, but for the different inhabitants of Asia, Africa or America; and not only for Christians but for Jews, Mahometans, and Infidels. And as we ought to feel for our fellow men we ought, to the utmost extent of our influence, to exert ourselves to relieve their distresses. 

  • Priestley and the Cruelty of the Slave Trade 

Priestley used many conventional arguments against slavery and the slave trade.

Slavery was psychologically cruel:

I have been informed by a person who resided in Jamaica, that it is usual for the slaves, after they are purchased, to shudder at the sight of a fire, or kitchen utensils, imagining that they are to be killed and eaten, till older slaves convince them that nothing of that kind is intended. What the poor creatures must suffer with this idea on their minds all the voyage, and the terror it must impress on the country in general, in which thousands who are never taken know they are liable to it, is not to be estimated, and for which no good treatment of slaves can compensate. 

The slave trade was also physically brutal:

In order to raise our sugar, and other West-India commodities, perhaps half a million of persons are annually destroyed, and in a manner peculiarly shocking to humanity. To die by an earthquake, by pestilence, or even by famine, would be merciful compared with the manner in which these poor wretches often perish. All the European plantations taken together are said to require an annual supply of sixty thousand fresh slaves; but these are those that remain after so many have died in what is called the seasoning, before they can be brought to bear the labour to which they are made to submit; and after so many more have been lost during the voyage, owing to their mode of confinement, and ill usage on board, that it is said not less than a hundred thousand are annually exported from Africa. And some say that before this ten are destroyed for one that is secured, and safely lodged on board the ships. 

  • Priestley and the Slave- Slave Owner Relationship 

In slavery human beings were subjected to the arbitrary will of others

Under humane masters, slaves may, no doubt, enjoy a certain degree of happiness; but still they are slaves, subject to the wills, and consequently the caprices, of others; and there is no proper security from the greatest outrages, but in the protection of law.  

Slavery was an abuse of power:

In general, it is said, that in our plantations slaves are employed so many hours every day, excepting Sundays, in the service of their masters, that they have only one for themselves, and but little sleep. For remissness in labour they are severely beaten, and for rebellion (as any attempt to recover their liberty is called) they are generally gibetted alive. 

Priestley was prepared to attack people in his own class and country. The English, he said, were the worst slave masters:

No Europeans whatever use their slaves with so much cruelty as the English. The Spanish have excellent regulations in their favour, in consequence of which the slaves can work out their own freedom; and the French government has also interposed by a code of laws enacted for this very purpose. But the slaves belonging to the English are almost wholly left to the mercy of their masters; and the annual consumption of them is itself proof of the most cruel usage.

It is interesting to speculate how far arguments like these contributed to Priestley’s unpopularity amongst sections of Birmingham’s population, which culminated in the Priestley Riots of 1791.

  • Priestley and the Moral Degradation of Slavery

Slavery degraded women and destroyed families:

The shocking indecencies to which the females are subjected during the voyage, and afterwards, and the cruel separation of the nearest relations and friends, husbands and wives, parents and children, both when they are put on board the ships, and at the place of sale, would be heard with horror by all but those who are habituated to this traffic. 

It also dehumanised the owners of slaves. The power that masters wielded debased them morally: “Such a power as that which a master exercises over a slave necessarily tends to make him haughty, cruel, and capricious, unfit for the society of his equals, which is the happiest state of man”.

  • Priestley and the Supremacy of Morality over Economics 

Moral arguments were always more important than economic ones

Some say that if we abandon the slave trade we give up a valuable source of national profit, and yield it to our rivals. Should this be the case, still a Christian nation should not hesitate to do what is right in itself. A trade so circumstanced as this may justly be termed wicked, and unlawful, such as no advantage can justify. 

Even so, Priestley goes on to argue, ending slavery will be economically beneficial: “End the expensive plantation system and enable the African economies to develop with free labour”, he claimed. Priestley also argues that the Quaker masters who freed their chattels and employed them as paid labourers, found that they did more work as freemen than as slaves.

  • Priestley and the Humanity of the African Slave 

Priestley used additional arguments which extended the philosophical and moral language of anti-slavery. Many white opponents of slavery focused on the cruelty and abuses of slavery without seeing Africans as their equals. Priestley recognised the psychological, cultural and intellectual equality of all human beings whatever their colour:

man has the power of reflexion in an eminent degree; and it is this that makes him miserable in a state of servitude. Through agony of mind, great numbers of Negroes put an end to their own lives….And they will be incapable of any degree of happiness in a state of servitude, till their feelings are blunted, and they are reduced to a condition nearly approaching that of the brutes. 

Secondly, Africans were not culturally or intellectually inferior to Europeans:

Some Europeans, finding Negro slaves in this wretched degraded condition, to which they themselves have reduced them, have had the assurance, and the folly, to pronounce them to be a species of men greatly inferior to themselves. But were the Europeans treated in the same manner a sufficient length of time, it is demonstrable that the most intelligent of them would be no better. Those who see Negroes in their native country, or in circumstances of better treatment among ourselves, are satisfied that they are by no means inferior to Europeans in point of understanding. According to the observations of a late ingenious traveller, the ancient Egyptians so famed for their wisdom, were the very same people with the present Negroes.


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