English Literature and Slavery 1772-1834: From the Beginning of the Abolitionist Movement to the Abolition of Slavery

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English Literature and Slavery 1772-1834:

From the Beginning of the

Abolitionist Movement to the Abolition of Slavery

Slavery has existed since the early beginnings of civilisations, and it is still in existence in some parts of the world. The fact that the repercussions of slavery on societies are still obvious in the relations between and within continents makes it a widely discussed topic nowadays. In the wake of the recent discussions about reparation payment to descendants of African American slaves1 and a growing emphasis on human rights and a humane society, the critical interest in this topic has greatly increased in the past decades. Slavery and the Abolitionist Movement in the 18th and 19th centuries, with several key dates as the main points of interest, and its abolition in the British Empire in 1834 is at the centre of our project entitled English Literature and Slavery 1772-1834: From the Beginning of the Abolitionist Movement to the Abolition of Slavery.

The innovative aspect of our project consists in a thorough reappraisal of the discourse on slavery. This is achieved by analysing the rhetorical and aesthetic strategies in texts of different genres and by closely studying the argumentative areas – e.g. humanitarian, religious, economic, racist, national, and legal – as well as central terms used in texts by British writers dealing with the topic. An in-depth study of the paradigm shift from pro- to anti-slavery discourse in literary and non-literary texts written at and around identified key dates (1772, 1787-91, 1807, 1814/15, 1823, and 1833/4) in the discourse on slavery is being undertaken by subjecting them to both a diachronic and synchronic analysis. The selection of texts is guided by the following considerations: anti-slavery discourse gained more and more influence in the late 18th century. When in 1772 a slave was freed and slavery was declared illegal in England, the issue of slavery became central in the public discourse and concepts of liberty and equality gained new relevance in Great Britain. The Abolition Society was formed in London in 1787, supported by William Wilberforce, and parliamentary discussion and action followed leading to the ending of the slave trade in 1807 and the complete abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834. Therefore, the arguments and strategies applied in literary and non-literary key texts in favour of and against enslaving people produced around the main dates in the fight for the abolition of slavery are at the centre of our attention. Our text corpus is therefore selective rather than comprehensive and has to be flexible enough in that it also takes texts of central importance into account which were not produced at the dates mentioned but nevertheless exerted a great influence on all later argumentations.

In our analysis, the project focuses on the rhetorical and aesthetic strategies used in the controversy about slavery and the paradigmatic changes in this discourse. It also analyses which terminology was used and which underlying concepts formed the basis of this argumentative confrontation between defenders of slavery and abolitionists. The investigation includes research into the question about the introduction, history and use of the problematic word ‘race’ and of other terms relating to the relationship between Europeans and Africans in the discourse on slavery.

Historical Overview

The years between 1772 and 1834 were crucial in the emergence of a new, more humanitarian-oriented society in Great Britain. In the wake of the Age of Sensibility and the beginnings of Romanticism, interest in the treatment of the colonised subjects of the British Empire grew. The abolition of slavery in England was achieved in three phases. In the 1770s and 80s, the slave trade came under increasing attack, most obviously by a Quaker committee founded by Granville Sharp and, from 1787 onwards, by William Wilberforce (1759-1833) and his friends in parliament. The predominant argument of the abolitionists was that, while ‘justice and humanity’ demanded ‘immediate abolition’, pro-slavery advocates predominantly argued that this also served “the political interests of the British Empire.”2 Although the campaigners had to wait many years for the implementation of their goals, small victories were achieved along the way. When, in 1772, a slave, who had been brought to London from the West Indies, was freed ”on the grounds that no law of England authorized ‘so high an act of dominion as slavery’ [. . .], the interest which it aroused caught the essence of the late eighteenth-century mind, with its emphasis on human equality, religious redemption, and political conservatism.”3 This event led to the release of several thousands of slaves in Britain while it was of course still perfectly legal to possess slaves in the colonies. This event also made ‘slavery’ a central topic in the discourse of the period. Therefore it is used as our first date of reference in the abolition of the slave trade and slavery as it constitutes the main starting point in the Abolitionist Movement.

In 1787, the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded, which inspired many writers, especially poets, to join the campaign. A legislative war followed, with many battles and skirmishes, a major victory for the abolitionists in the abolition of the slave-trade in the British Empire in 1807 and, eventually, the abolition of slavery by the British Parliament in 1833/4:

Wilberforce won a partial victory in 1792 when Parliament agreed in principle to the gradual abolition of the slave trade, but the defeat of his 1794 Bill banning British merchants’ sale of slaves to foreign markets, made it clear that the parliamentary struggle to end the slave trade would be a long one. [. . .] His Bills introduced every year between 1795 and 1799 to abolish the slave trade were all defeated, though sometimes by only a very few votes [. . .] In 1804 the patient Wilberforce tried again to get an anti-slave trade Bill through Parliament. This time his Bill passed the House of Commons by a two-to-one margin, but was terminally ‘delayed’ by the House of Lords. The following year he tried again, but his Bill was once more delayed to death. In 1806, however, Wilberforce’s persistence began to pay off […]. The motion in favour of abolition was carried overwhelmingly in both Houses [. . . ] [The Bill] passed on February 23, 1807, by the overwhelming vote of 283 to 16.4

Of course, the fact that the slave trade between Africa and the British Colonies was abolished in 1807 did not automatically mean that slavery and the slave trade were matters of the past. The legislative war to end slavery as an institution in the British Empire dragged on for more than 25 years. “The Slavery Abolition Act was passed by the British Parliament on 24th August 1833. The Act did not become law until 1st August 1834 when slavery was to be abolished throughout the British possessions abroad.”5 Thus, 1772, 1787-91, 1807, 1814/15, 1823 and 1833/34 can be seen as the key dates in the struggle against slavery. Therefore, special attention is paid to texts written at and around these events. Between 1772 and 1834, the interest of the public and writers in the issue of slavery was enormous. Indeed, according to Matlack, “[t]he attempt to end the British involvement in the slave trade and to emancipate the slaves in the British crown colonies in the West Indies was perhaps second only to the French Revolution in its impact on the social consciousness of writers, especially women, in England between 1780 and 1830.”6

Since a prevailing paradigm is not in need of justification, reactions to slavery in literature tended to be favourable to the cause of abolition. However, with the emergence of the abolitionist movement, more and more texts were written in defence of slavery. In our project, the quantitative development of pro- and anti-slavery texts will be examined. As to the pro-slavery argumentation, the most popular argument seems to have been that slavery was

morally justified on the grounds that the Africans had been slaves in their own countries and, further, were savages or heathen incapable of rational thought or moral feeling and hence unfit for freedom. African slaves should be regarded as ‘children’ who required a ‘benevolent’ master to teach them the civilizing benefits of Christian doctrine and the Protestant work ethic.7

With the help of critical discourse analysis informed by deconstructive postcolonial reading practices and methods of ideological criticism it is attempted to show what the argumentative patterns in the discourse on slavery were and to answer the question of how the new paradigm of anti-slavery was introduced and the paradigm shift brought about. It is distinguished between literary and rhetorical strategies in the argumentation (argumentative patterns of both majority and minority opinions), used to support the argumentative patterns, like the derogatory images and the revelation of atrocities used in support of slavery, or the depiction of Africans living freely without interference by colonial powers, the portrayal of love relationships, etc.8.
Critical discourse analysis is specifically suited to be used in this study as it is

  • problem orientated

  • trans- and interdisciplinary

  • it incorporates the historical dimension, at the same time intertexuality

  • it works multi-methodologically

  • it attempts to seize the correlation between discourse, text, and society theoretically.”9

Goals of the Project

The treatment of slavery is also being analysed in non-literary texts. These include legal texts like Acts of Parliament as well as political pamphlets. Parliamentary debates and newspaper articles written around the identified key dates are of central importance to the project as they reflect the attitude of the British press and society at that time. “The debates on these bills were widely reported in the local papers in places like Bristol, where there was strong interest in the outcome whatever that happened to be.”10 The terminology and arguments employed in the pro- and anti-slave trade/slavery discourse are of particular interest. The argumentation of writers on both sides is fully scrutinised in this study to really get beyond the existing assumptions concerning the arguments and attitudes in favour of and against slavery: the humanitarian argument (the slave trade/slavery should be abolished because it is inhuman; trading in slaves rescues them from their own countrymen’s cruelty), the racist argument (African slaves were considered biologically and culturally inferior), the legal argument (slavery is immoral, against the rights of man and illegal under British law), the religious argument (slavery is against Christian principles), the economic argument (slavery is expensive and inefficient), and the national argument (the slave trade/slavery cannot be abolished because of the great harm caused to planters and England’s economy). Obviously, many held a middle position, claiming that, although the slave trade should be abolished, slavery should basically be approved of because it provided the African slaves with an opportunity to be taught Christian thought and culture.

Papers presented at Conferences

  • British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies: 36th Annual Conference, 3rd – 5th January 2007, St. High’s College, Oxford

  • ‘Free at Last’ Conference, University of Warwick, 11th – 13th July 2007

  • International CISLE Conference: Literatures in English: ethnic, colonial, and cultural encounters, 23rd – 27th July 2007, Universitat de Barcelona


  • Going online with our website as a platform on which Prof. Wolfgang Zach, Dr. Ulrich Pallua, and Mag. Adrian Knapp are going to put an outline of the project in progress, timelines (political and literary) and a bibliography of the most important authors and critics, as well as allow for a discussion of central issues

  • Presentation of papers at a Conference in New Orleans, USA, 21st February 2008

  • Analysis and reappraisal of texts from different genres, including non-literary texts

  • Publication of results with contribution from renowned scientist/researchers

1Cf. Daniel Tetteh Osabu-Kle, “The African Reparation Cry” <http://www.kbabooks.com/Reparations/african_reparation_cry.htm>

2 Dan Schaps, “The Debate over Abolition” <http://www.library.miami.edu/archives/slaves/slave_trade/individual_essays/dan.html>

3 Kenneth O. Morgan, TheOxford Illustrated History of Britain (Oxford: OUP, 1984) 418. Also cf. “The Mansfield Judgement” <http://www.eiu.edu/~multilit/texts/mansfieldjudgment.pdf>.

4 Inkle and Yarico <http://www.holders.net/yarhist.html>.

5 “The Triangle” <http://website.lineone.net/~stkittsnevis/slavery.htm>.

6 Richard Matlack, “Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Abolition in Britain,” British Literature: 1780-1830, ed. Anne K. Mellor and Richard E. Matlack (Fort Worth, TX: Hardcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996) 53.

7 Matlack, British Literature 54.

8 cf. Patrick Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness. British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914 (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988) 175-176.

9 Ruth Wodak, “Diskurs, Politik, Identität,“ Wissenschaft, Bildung, Politik. Band 5. Der Mensch und seine Sprache(n), eds. Oswald Panagl, Hans Goebl, and Emil Brix (Wien: Böhlau, 2001) 142. (my translation)

10 “The Parliamentary Campaign” <http://www.discoveringbristol.org.uk/showNarrative.php?narId=358>.

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