Abolitionist Poets

Hannah More, from Slavery, a Poem

[Click on image to enlarge] In 1788 the antislavery movement was at its peak. Revulsion at the inhuman treatment of slaves led to the Dolben Act, which regulated the conditions in which Africans were packed in British ships (for instance, the Act provided rewards to captains for voyages in which no more than 3 percent of the slaves died). In a note to her influential poem on slavery (1788), Hannah More (1745–1833) says that "The writer of these lines has seen a complete set of chains, fitted to every separate limb of these unhappy, innocent men; together with instruments for wrenching open the jaws, contrived with such ingenious cruelty as would shock the humanity of an inquisitor." More, a pious Christian whose plays and religious and didactic tracts were among the most popular works of the age, had recently met Wilberforce, the abolitionist leader, and had had Oroonoko staged. The passionate involvement of women in the antislavery cause would eventually culminate in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852).


For no fictitious ills these numbers flow,
But living anguish, and substantial woe;
No individual griefs my bosom melt,
For millions feel what Oroonoko felt:
Fired by no single wrongs, the countless host
I mourn, by rapine dragg'd from Afric's coast.
Perish th' illiberal thought which would debase
The native genius of the sable race!
Perish the proud philosophy, which sought
To rob them of the powers of equal thought!
Does then th' immortal principle within
Change with the casual colour of the skin?
Does matter govern spirit? or is mind
Degraded by the form to which 'tis joined?
No: they have heads to think, and hearts to feel,
And souls to act with firm, though erring, zeal;
For they have keen affections, kind desires,
Love strong as death, and active patriot fires;
All the rude energy, the fervid flame,
Of high-souled passion, and ingenuous shame:
Strong but luxuriant virtues boldly shoot
From the wild vigour of a savage root.
Nor weak their sense of honour's proud control,
For pride is virtue in a pagan soul;
A sense of worth, a conscience of desert,
A high, unbroken haughtiness of heart:
That self-same stuff which erst proud empires swayed,
Of which the conquerers of the world were made.
Capricious fate of man! that very pride
In Afric scourged, in Rome was deified.

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