Topic: Slavery and Freedom (2010) by Debbie McCauley

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This article on how eighteenth century British Evangelical Christian authors and former slave writers presented the concept of freedom was written by Debbie McCauley on 13 June 2010 as part of a BA in Humanities and Information & Library Studies.

Thy followers only have effac'd the shame
Inscrib'd by SLAVERY on the Christian name.
Shall Britain, where the soul of freedom reigns,
Forge chains for others she herself disdains?

from 'Slavery, a Poem' (1788) by Hannah More (1745-1833)

This essay seeks to compare the various ways in which concepts of freedom were presented by the abolitionists who included British Evangelical Christians as well as former slaves. It will discuss the context the authors were writing in, their attitudes to freedom, the language they used and the authorities they invoked.

The concept of freedom can be represented in several diverse ways. Types of freedoms include intellectual, physical and spiritual forms. For the abolitionists who campaigned to end the slave trade in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries this concept stood for the freeing of mankind from the tyranny of slavery, a practice in conflict with the Enlightenment ideals of the rights of man.

The 1956 United Nations Supplementary Convention on Slavery considers a slave to be anyone who is “unable to withdraw his labour voluntarily” (Engerman, Drescher & Paquette, 2001, p. 467). Britain had been trading slaves since the late sixteenth century, reaching its peak with 100,000 slaves transported in 1800 and over three million working the highly profitable plantations (Open University, 2005, p. 9). Although slavery was commonplace within African society, the slaves were usually well treated, unlike ones that worked on the plantations where “one-third of slaves died within three years of arrival” and “the average life expectancy for plantation slaves was eight years” (Open University, 2005, p. 143).

The horrors of slavery were being brought to the British public’s attention through the publication of poetry, books, hymns, autobiographies, political tracts and petitions as well as through religious sermons and lectures by the abolitionists. Their movement to abolish slavery initially gained momentum through the uncovering of a horrific incident aboard the slave ship Zong. The captain had murdered 131 slaves by ordering them thrown overboard in order to the claim insurance money for their deaths (Walvin, 1992 p. 17).

To understand the attitudes towards freedom held by the abolitionists, one must have an appreciation of the context in which they were writing. The situation in Britain at this time was tumultuous. Influences included: the French Revolution (1789–1799) and the wars against France (1793-1815); the slave uprisings in Santo Domingo (1791-1804); the beginnings of the ‘Industrial Revolution’ and a rapid population growth in Britain along with squalid living conditions; poor health and meagre diets made worse by unreliable food supplies and food riots. Traditional crafts such as handloom weaving and spinning were being replaced by new technologies with many men, women and children forced to eke out a living by labouring from dawn to dusk in appalling working conditions.

The rise in Evangelicalism in the 1790s saw a resurgence of belief in the authority of the bible and salvation through personal conversion and faith which bought hope to many of Britain’s oppressed. As the Open University (2005) explains ‘Evangelicals were men and women of the Enlightenment’ (p. 18). They existed in a world where Enlightenment freedoms such as civil liberties, justice, toleration and freedom of public expression were valued but also in a time when a subtle shift to Romantic freedoms such as subjectivity, sentiment, personal feeling, experience and imagination were underway.

Anglican Evangelical and Yorkshire Member of Parliament William Wilberforce (1759-1833) took a leadership role in the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade. Reformed slave ship captain and fellow Evangelical John Newton (1725-1807) had earlier influenced his conversion to Evangelicalism. Wilberforce’s commitment to Evangelicalism can be seen in A Practical View (1797) in which he states “fruitless will be all attempts to sustain, much more to revive, the fainting cause of morals, unless you can in some degree restore the prevalence of Evangelical Christianity” (quoted in Donnachie & Lavin, 2003, p.292).

Many felt that slavery was in direct contradiction to Britain’s notion of living in the freedom of an enlightened age. Anglican Evangelical poet, playwright and political writer Hannah More (1745-1833) in Slavery, a Poem (1788) asks: “Shall Britain, where the soul of Freedom reigns, Forge chains for others she herself disdains?” (para. 18). In An Appeal (1823) Wilberforce states that if slaves “are not yet fit for the enjoyment of British freedom, elevate them at least from the level of the brute creation into that of rational nature” (Quoted in Donnachie & Lavin, 2003, p.301).   

Abolitionists included former slave Quobna Ottobah Cugoano (1757-c.1800) who uses the Enlightenment theory of reason in support of his arguments against slavery in his Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery (1787). He refers to “enlightened understanding” (quoted in Donnachie & Lavin, 2003, p.130) and the need to “enlighten their minds” (quoted in Donnachie & Lavin, 2003, p.159).

Robert Wedderburn (1762-1835), the son of a slave-woman, refers to the “enlightened age of reason” (quoted in Donnachie & Lavin, 2003, p.171) in The Axe Laid to the Root (1817); conversely former slave Mary Prince (1788-c.1834) never refers to Enlightenment ideals or reason in her autobiography, The History of Mary Prince (1831). Instead traces of Romanticism can be detected; “expressions of sentiment, emotion and individual suffering” (Open University, 2005, p. 206) such as “in telling my own sorrows, I cannot pass by those of my fellow-slaves – for when I think of my own griefs, I remember theirs” (quoted in Donnachie & Lavin, 2003, p.215).

Prince, Cugoano and Wedderburn had all experienced firsthand the brutal inhumanity of slavery and, in Prince’s case, the sexual abuse of slave-women at the hands of their owners. As Waven (1992) explains “All slaves were exploited people, but female slaves endured extra dimensions of exploitation; worked to the limits, they were also used as breeding animals and were sexually exploited by whites” (p. 120). Prince, appealing to human decency, is able to speak from the context of her own experience as a female slave as well as on behalf of all other female slaves; “mothers could only weep and mourn over their children, they could not save them from cruel masters” (quoted in Donnachie & Lavin, 2003, p.211). The validity of the increasing number of anti-slavery petitions being presented to parliament at this time was substantiated and strengthened by the realities of the experiences contained within the slave narratives. There is no doubt that they were of significant importance in the anti-slavery movement as they presented both reasoned and impassioned pleas as well as evidence of maltreatment and the essential humanity of the slaves.

Attitudes to slavery, imprisonment and freedom are expressed in various forms by the abolitionists who believed that the right to liberty was the right of all humanity. Using “liberty” as a metaphor for freedom, preacher and founder of Methodism John Wesley (1703-1791) wrote in his Thoughts Upon Slavery (1774), “is the right of every human creature, as soon as he breathes the vital air; and no human law can deprive him of that right which he derives from the law of nature” (quoted in Pettinger, 2010, para. 16).

Pro-slavery advocates’ attitude was that slaves were better off than in their native Africa but Prince refutes this by asking rhetorically, “How can slaves be happy when they have the halter round their neck and the whip upon their back? and are disgraced and thought no more than beasts? – and are separated from their mothers, and husbands, and children, and sisters, just as cattle are sold and separated?” (quoted in Donnachie & Lavin, 2003, p.227).

Another pro-slavery argument was that slaves actually fared better than England’s poor and even Wedderburn refers to “West Indian slaves and British wage slaves” (Open University, 2005, p. 188). Cugoano refuted the view that England’s poor were worse off by stating “bad as it is, the poorest in England would not change their situation for that of slaves” (quoted in Donnachie & Lavin, 2003, p.138), although he is realistic when he affirms that “Liberty and freedom, where people may starve for want, can do them but little good” (quoted in Donnachie & Lavin, 2003, p.161).

Literacy itself could well bring another form of freedom. This is especially so in the case of Cugoano for whom literacy facilitated his contribution to the campaign against slavery: “With the acquisition of literacy, Cugoano himself becomes an abolitionist campaigner” (Open Polytechnic, 2005, p. 165). He seems to have had more guidance and opportunity than Prince who seems uncertain how to deal with her newfound freedom, “I knew that I was free in England, but I did not know where to go, or how to get my living; and therefore, I did not like to leave the house” (quoted in Donnachie & Lavin, 2003, p.224). She faced the choice of remaining in England a free woman or returning to her husband in Antigua as a slave. She chose freedom and then wrote an appeal to the British public in her autobiography, “I have been a slave – I have felt what a slave feels, and I know what a slave knows; and I would have all the good people in England to know it too, that they may break our chains, and set us free” (quoted in Donnachie & Lavin, 2003, p.214)

In Cowper’s poem The Negro’s complaint (1788) he indicates intellectual freedom when he states that “Minds are never to be sold” (quoted in Open Polytechnic, 2005, p. 154) meaning that although a slaves body is traded, their minds remain their own. Poet William Cowper (1731-1800) co-author with Newton of the Olney Hymns protests in his poem The Task (1784) that through the application of slavery “the natural bond of brotherhood is severed” (para. 1).

Physical freedom was central to the abolitionists’ campaign. More (1788) declares that “They still are men, and men shou'd still be free” (para. 10). Cowper, however, would rather take the place of the slaves when he writes emotionally “dear as freedom is, and in my heart’s, Just estimation prized above all price, I had much rather be myself the slave, And wear the bonds, than fasten them on him” (para. 1). Former slave Prince is very straightforward when she writes “All slaves want to be free - to be free is very sweet” (quoted in Donnachie & Lavin, 2003, p.227).

The authors have used a variety of styles of language as a means to convey their individual messages. The approach seems largely dependent upon the intended audience. Political and religious tracts employed a more formal language while autobiographies were usually more casual as they related one’s life story. Newton’s most famous Olney hymn, Amazing Grace (1779), uses music to promote his emotive message of freedom and immortality through Christianity: “Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound), That sav’d a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind, but now I see” (quoted in Donnachie & Lavin, 2003, p.238).

Cugoano defends and then angrily attacks from his Christian abolitionist perspective. He changes his structure of address using the first person plural to describe himself as ‘we’ or black Africans then changes to ‘we’ meaning the abolitionists. The third person plural ‘they’ is used when discussing the slave owners and the British people. The piece varies from a religious sermon, political tract and autobiography and, according to the Open Polytechnic (2005, p. 161-162), includes “the genres of philosophical reflection, historical narrative and economic analysis.”

Wedderburn shifts from the first person to the third person. Like Cugoano, he uses the genres of religious sermon, political tract and autobiography throughout his writings whereas Prince shifts from the first person plural ‘we’ to the first person singular ‘me’. Her genre is purely autobiographical.

Abolitionists frequently invoked the authority of God throughout their work, most having experienced powerful spiritual conversions to Evangelicalism which in itself became a “powerful force for asserting the dignity and worth of every human being” (Open University, 2005, p 84). Having ‘right’ on their side as they fought for emancipation and the chance to convert the souls of Africans was the impetus driving much of their work. As Walvin (1992) states: “In the half-century it took to end the British slave trade and slavery the abolitionist campaign had taken on the trappings of a crusade; a good (and godly) people, brimming with pious anger, had organized themselves in a determined attack on slavery wherever it thrived” (p.309).

In A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1807) Wilberforce reveals his religious motivation for Christianisation of slaves as compensation for their slavery; “Might we not have hoped that the Slaves of this Protestant and free nation, might have had some compensation made to them, for the evils of their temporal bondage, by a prospect being opened to them of a happier world hereafter, a world of light and liberty?” (quoted in Donnachie & Lavin, 2003, p. 293).  As well as social reform, Wilberforce was working against the acceptance of slavery within the church. In 1787 he wrote in his diary “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners (morality)” (quoted in Piper, 2007, p. 35).

Divine retribution is a theme running through many of the texts, with ‘fear of God’ a powerful motivation of abolition. In his poem Charity, (1782) Cowper cautions; “Remember, Heaven has an avenging rod” (para. 1) and Cugoano (1787) gives a dire warning to slave-masters that if they do not repent they will “meet with the full stroke of the long suspended vengeance of heaven” (p. 25). Wilberforce stresses that “a continued course of wickedness, oppression and cruelty, obstinately maintained in spite of the fullest knowledge and the loudest warnings, must infallibly bring down upon us the heaviest judgements of the Almighty” (quoted in Donnachie & Lavin, 2003, p. 294).

Wedderburn demands “in the name of God, in the name of natural justice, and in the name of humanity, that all slaves be set free” (quoted in Donnachie & Lavin, 2003, p.170-171) He also urges divine justice for the men that encourage “seizing the persons of men and dragging them from their native country, and selling their stolen persons and generations” (quoted in Donnachie & Lavin, 2003, p.170).

Cugoano also invokes divine law upon that those who take “away their liberty by slavery and oppression, is the worst kind of robbery, as most opposite to every precept and injunction of the Divine Law” (quoted in Donnachie & Lavin, 2003, p.131) and then warns of their damnation with  “the slave-holders are meaner and baser than the African slaves, for while they subject and reduce them to a degree with brutes, they seduce themselves to a degree with devils” (quoted in Donnachie & Lavin, 2003, p.141).

Prince appeals to God in quieter terms in what could be described as a discourse of salvation, “I still live in hope that God will find a way to give me my liberty, and give me back to my husband” (quoted in Donnachie & Lavin, 2003, p.227).

The full freedom gained for British slaves in 1838 didn’t mean the end of the abolitionists campaigning. They turned their attention to other slave owning countries such as France and the American South. Today there are still “27 million victims of the modern slave trade” (Dodson, n.d., para. 2) which mainly affects women and children through forced and bonded labour, human trafficking, sexual exploitation and child soldiers. Abolitionist groups are still committed to bringing about freedom as we know it to the rest of the world although the modern day concept of freedom can be presented using the mediums of television, radio and the internet.

This essay has compared the various ways in which concepts of freedom were presented by British Evangelical Christian abolitionists as well as writers who were former slaves. It has discussed context, attitudes to freedom, language and authorities invoked and has found that while the authors used various forms and language to present their concept of freedom to the British public they did so but with but one aim, to end slavery forever.


by Debbie McCauley (June, 2010).



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