Abolition and the Empire in Romantic Poetry

Design for the medallion of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, struck by Josiah Wedgwood

Design for the medallion of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, struck by Josiah Wedgwood

Much of the early Romantic poetry sought to promote abolition of the slave trade; authors of such poetry include Anna Laetitia Barbauld, William Cowper, and Hannah More. While the abolitionist poetry all exhibits attitudes vehemently against the slave trade, these poets approach the slave trade’s relationship to the British Empire differently.

In both William Cowper’s “On Slavery” and Hannah More’s “Slavery: A Poem” the slave trade is portrayed as something inhumane and needlessly cruel, yet these poems fail to condemn the British Empire and colonization; instead, they critique the slave trade without identifying the same evils that the Empire is responsible for. In “On Slavery,” this message is revealed in the poem’s final lines:

They touch our country and their shackles fall./ That’s noble, and bespeaks a nation proud/ And jealous of the blessing. Spread it then,/ And let it circulate through ev’ry vein/ Of all your Empire, that where Britain’s power/ Is felt, mankind may feel her mercy too. 

Hannah More offers a similar view of the Empire in “Slavery: A Poem:”

Oh let the nations know/ The liberty she loves she will bestow;/ Not to herself the glorious gift confined,/ She spreads the blessing wide as humankind;/ And, scorning narrow views of time and place,/ Bids all be free in earth’s extended space.

In both of these poems, the Empire is portrayed as something that can be used to spread benevolence and British culture to less civilized places. In Hannah More’s poem especially, British culture is presented as the height of civilization, while the people whose rights the poem is arguing for, the African slaves, are viewed very negatively. More does argue that they should have the same rights as white people, but she describes them as “dark and savage, ignorant and blind.” More ultimately suggests that while these “dark and savage” slaves deserve the rights of white people, they still require the civilizing power of Imperial colonization.

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