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- Modern terms
such as "liberal" and "conservative" or "progressive" and "reactionary" are
not very useful for characterizing the politics
of slavery in Restoration and eighteenth-century
Britain. "Progressive" views might
encourage slavery, as a means not only for
building the national economy but also for
bringing the virtues of enlightenment and
Christianity to Africans — a view endorsed
by Phillis Wheatley and
Ignatius Sancho. "Conservatives" might
object to the slave trade because its profits
and global relocations created a new social
order. Writers associated slavery with their
own political problems.
- What political issues and cultural values seem most at stake in Restoration
and eighteenth-century writings on slavery and the slave trade?
- Do the contradictions in the positions of John
Locke and William Blackstone represent
their confusion, or do they respond to some genuine conflict of values?
- Over the course of the eighteenth century, what changes do you perceive
in assumptions about slavery?
- It is often
said that slavery was founded on economics,
not race. The word "slave" comes
from "Slav" (in the Middle Ages,
many Slavs were enslaved), and white slaves
were not uncommon during the eighteenth century,
especially in Muslim countries. But the trade
in Africans gradually led to associating
black people with slaves, as well as to theories
of race which justified slavery by dwelling
on the "natural" inferiority of
blacks to whites?
- What signs of race and racism do you find in the works on this Web
site? Is the enslavement of black Africans regarded merely as a business,
or as a consequence of race? What sort of evidence seems most important
to you in trying to answer such questions?
- Compare the representation of Africans in these works with Borde's
sixteenth-century description of moors. How much of the eighteenth
century's understanding of race is rooted in older prejudices?
- Aphra Behn's Oroonoko (NAEL
8, 1.2183) shows the horror of one slave's
treatment without openly condemning the institution
of slavery; the color of the hero's skin
seems less important to Behn than his royal
- Why might Behn have chosen the tale of an African prince to express
her royalist views? What image of the slave trade does Oroonoko give,
apart from the sufferings of its royal hero?
- Make a close comparison between Oroonoko's capture and transportation
to slavery and accounts of the Middle Passage by John
Newton and William Snelgrave. In what
respects does Behn's version agree, and where does she deviate from
- The abolitionist Hannah More, writing a century
later, associates Oroonoko's sufferings with those of "millions." What
does her poem suggest about changes in English society, and about the
reception and reputation of Behn's text, in the century after it
More compares Africans to the ancient
Romans, while Richard
Savage links them to the Vandals who
vanquished Rome; in Behn's Oroonoko,
the prince is renamed "Caesar" and
compared to Britain's ancient Picts
(NAEL 8, 1.2183).
- What views of history and cultural progress lie behind these comparisons?
How do they compare with the notion of a fixed racial hierarchy advanced
by Hester Piozzi?
- Compare these texts with the opening of Joseph Conrad's Heart
of Darkness (NAEL 8, 2.1890), which develops the analogy between Africans
and the ancient inhabitants of Britain. Judging from his remarks on
Conrad, how might Chinua
Achebe respond to Behn and the abolitionist poets?
- What do writings
by Africans such as Olaudah Equiano (NAEL
, 1.2850), Phillis Wheatley,
and Ignatius Sancho contribute
to the political debate in Britain? Which
aspects of their writing seem most crucial
to this debate, and why?
- Read the
exchange of letters between Ignatius Sancho
and Laurence Sterne closely.
Judging from how they address one another,
how does each man regard the other? To what
extent do they hold the same opinions about
slavery? How might Sancho have responded
to the passage from Tristram Shandy describing
a "poor negro girl"?
abolitionists opposed slavery on humanitarian
grounds, as an institution which inflicted
great suffering on its victims, and on philosophical
grounds, as an affront to natural liberty.
What elements of each argument do you find,
and which seems most compelling in the works
of the abolitionist poets More, Savage,
and Cowper, of Olaudah
(NAEL 8, 1.2850) and Ignatius Sancho,
and of Locke, Blackstone,
and Johnson (NAEL
Wheatley is available for exploration
on the Web.
- To what extent is slavery a theme in Wheatley's Poems on Various
Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773)? What images and terms does
she employ to describe herself and her sense of mission?
- Wheatley was born in Africa, enslaved in New England, and published
her one volume of poetry in Britain. To what "tradition" does
Wheatley belong, or what challenges does she pose to the idea of tradition?
- Anna Laetitia
Barbauld was an abolitionist poet, yet her Epistle
to William Wilberforce counsels him
to abandon the struggle for abolition.
- Why does Barbauld make this apparently paradoxical proposal? Does this
make her poem more or less effective than those of the other abolitionist
- Compare Barbauld's Epistle with her poem on The Rights
of Women (NAEL 8, 2.35). What accounts for Barbauld's different
approaches to the problems of slavery and women's rights? Do the
two poems seem contradictory, or are they part of a coherent view of
- Annie Besant's White
Slavery in London (1888) draws
a comparison between slavery and the
conditions of Victorian London's
working poor. What is the basis for such
a comparison? Does it seem to you to
get at the heart of what is wrong about
slavery, or does it trivialize the issue?
Olaudah Equiano's (NAEL 8, 1.2850) description
of conditions on board slave ships with John
Ruskin's appreciation of Turner's
Slave Ship (NAEL 8, 2.1321). To what
extent, in Ruskin's view, does the power
of this painting depend on its subject? Is
there a conflict — for Ruskin and for
you — between aesthetic appreciation
and contemplation of what the painting depicts?