English Abolitionist Literature of the Nineteenth Century Essay - Critical Essays

English Abolitionist Literature of the Nineteenth Century


English Abolitionist Literature of the Nineteenth Century

Poetry, fiction, and nonfiction written by English writers seeking an end to the slave trade in Britain and its colonies in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Historians and literary critics find the roots of English nineteenth-century abolitionist literature in the preceding century. Eighteenth-century Enlightenment ideals such as compassionate humanitarianism and a new concept of liberty, combined with a growing religious zeal which stressed the perfectibility of mankind and the brotherhood of all races, caused profound changes in how the English thought and wrote about slavery. A great deal of scholarship has devoted itself to tracing the growth of antislavery sentiment in English poetry and literature from the eighteenth century, especially in that century's romantic idealization of the “noble savage.” However halting and sporadic these changes in racial attitudes expressed in literature were, most critics agree that by the end of the eighteenth century abolitionism had gained considerable momentum and had become a cause championed by many of England's most respected and influential Romantic writers.

By 1770 abolitionism was no longer confined to isolated literary individuals or radical Quakers who for decades had denounced the British slave trade and slavery itself. Thomas Chatterton expressed his disgust for slavery in his 1770 African Eclogues, poems that condemned the inhumanity of English slavers and stressed the innocence of Africans. Two years later, Lord Mansfield ruled that liberty was a hallmark of the British Constitution and that any slave brought to England would automatically be freed. In 1787 the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was established with the express goal of gaining popular acceptance and political legislation for the abolition of the British slave trade, which by the end of the eighteenth century was responsible for supplying nearly 50,000 slaves annually to British, French, Spanish, and Portuguese colonies in the New World. Over the next few years, numerous English poets and authors—among them Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, William Blake, Anne Yearsley, Hannah More, and William Cowper—helped further the cause of the Abolition Society by writing poems and essays meant to prod parliamentary debate and the reform of the slave trade. Although these literary efforts were instrumental in gaining support from the public and for petitions for legislative reform, the abolition drives of the late 1780s and early 1790s were repeatedly unsuccessful because of the influence of the pro-slavery West Indian lobby and the 1793 war between England and France, which strengthened conservative opinion against what was considered the radicalism of abolitionism. Finally, in 1807, the continued efforts of the Abolition Society and abolitionist authors had their desired effect when Britain formally abolished the slave trade.

The outlawing of the British slave trade in 1807 did not mean an end to English abolitionist writing. Despite the new law, English slavers continued to buy African slaves and ship them to the New World, and slavery continued to be permitted in British colonies in the Caribbean, facts frequently noted in abolitionist essays and poems. After 1807, abolitionist writers such as William Wordsworth, Leigh Hunt, and Thomas DeQuincey increasingly directed their attention toward ending slavery altogether, at home and abroad, delivering speeches, publishing slaves' narratives, and writing poetry and prose exposing the brutality and inhumanity of slavery. As in the Abolition Society's parliamentary petition drives of the 1780s and 1790s, women abolitionist writers played a major role in voicing public disapproval of slavery. English abolitionism gained its greatest victory in 1833 when slavery was abolished throughout the British empire.

The period between 1787 and 1833 represented the zenith of English abolitionist literature, but even after 1833 English authors continued to denounce the existence of slavery in the New World, targeting especially the United States. Writers such as Frances Trollope, Walter Savage Landor, and Charles Dickens expressed scorn that the new nation could so passionately point to their revolutionary heritage of liberty and equality while allowing the enslavement of more than half a million black slaves in the South. Others, such as the author of the anonymous 1852 novel Uncle Tom in England, which was published months after Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic Uncle Tom's Cabin, sought to shame the United States by unfavorably comparing the social hierarchy in America to that in Britain. After slavery in North America was made illegal in 1863, English abolitionist literature all but came to an end. Although this genre of writing has sometimes been criticized today for its own brand of racism and imperialism, it certainly had great influence in expressing and rallying popular support for the end of slavery in the Western world.

Representative Works

Uncle Tom in England (fiction) 1852

William Blake
“The Little Black Boy” (poem) 1789
Visions of the Daughters of Albion (poem) 1793

Thomas Chatterton
African Eclogues (poetry) 1770
“Heccar and Gaira” (poem) 1770

Thomas Clarkson
An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (nonfiction) 1786
The History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament (nonfiction) 1808

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“Greek Prize Ode on the Slave Trade” (poem) 1792
“On the Slave Trade” (essay) 1796

William Cowper
“The Negro's Complaint” (poem) 1778
“Pity for Poor Africans” (poem) 1788

Olaudah Equiano
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa Written by Himself (slave narrative) 1789

Leigh Hunt
“Descent of Liberty: A Mask” (poem) 1814

Walter Savage Landor
“To General Andrew Jackson, President of the United States” (poem) 1836

James Montgomery
“The West Indies” (poem) 1807

Hannah More
“Slavery: A Poem” (poem) 1788

John Newton
Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (nonfiction) 1788

Mary Prince
The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave (slave narrative) 1831

Robert Southey
Poems Concerning the Slave Trade (poetry) 1794
“The Sailor, Who Had Served in the Slave Trade” (poem) 1798

Harriet Beecher Stowe
Uncle Tom's Cabin (novel) 1852

Frances Trollope
The Life and Adventures of Jonathan Jefferson Whitlaw (travel journal) 1836

Priscilla Wakefield
Excursions in North America (children's fiction) 1806

Robert Wedderburn
The Axe Laid to the Root, or A Fatal Blow to Oppressors; Being an Address to the Planters and Negroes of the Island of Jamaica (essay) 1817
The Horrors of Slavery: Exemplified in the Life and History of the Revd. Robert Wedderburn (slave narrative) 1824

William Wilberforce
“Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade” (essay) 1807

William Wordsworth
“To Thomas Clarkson on the Final Passing of the Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade” (poem) 1807

Anne Yearsley
“Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave-Trade” (poem) 1788

Criticism: Overview

SOURCE: Dykes, Eva Beatrice. “The Romantic Climax.” In The Negro in English Romantic Thought, or, A Study of Sympathy for the Oppressed, pp. 63-103. Washington, D.C.: Associated Publishers, 1942.

[In the following essay, Dykes examines the poetry and prose of famous English authors writing on abolitionist themes, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Shelley, Thomas DeQuincey, and Charles Dickens. These authors focused their attacks on British slavery until it was abolished in 1833, after which they turned their attentions to the United States.]


Echoes of the French and American Revolutions, increasing interest in industrialism, the desire to continue humanitarian efforts in behalf of the laboring classes and the unfortunate transgressors of the law, and the eventual abolition of the slave trade in 1807 preserved in the hearts of many people the flames of freedom and a deep consciousness of the universal brotherhood of man. Certain magazines played their part in effecting this attitude. Sidney Smith, one of the founders of the Edinburgh Review, writes, “To appreciate the value of the Edinburgh Review the state of England at the period when that journal began should be had in remembrance. The Catholics were not emancipated—the Corporation and Test Acts were unrepealed—the Game Laws were horribly oppressive—Steel Traps and Spring Guns were set all over the country—Prisoners tried for their lives could have no Counsel—Lord Eldon and the Court of Chancery pressed heavily upon mankind—Libel was punished by the most cruel and vindictive imprisonments—the principles of Political Economy were little understood—the Law of Debt and Conspiracy were upon the worst possible footing—the enormous wickedness of the Slave Trade was tolerated—a thousand evils were in existence, which the talents of good and able men have since lessened or removed; and these effects have been not a little assisted by the honest boldness of the Edinburgh Review.1 The editors of the Edinburgh Journal “a few years” before 1848 refuted arguments for slavery expressed in a book said to be a translation from the French of J. H. Guenebault's The Natural History of the Negro Race. This translation proposed the thesis that Negroes are not human beings but an “inferior order of animals.” In refuting these arguments the editors of the Journal show that Negroes have displayed “intellectual and moral features” identical with those of the whites, offering as proof such men as Carey, Jenkins, Cuffee, Gustavus Vassa, and Toussaint.2

On the other hand, there were those in both England and the colonies who supported the slave trade. William Cobbett, well known writer of this period, in his Weekly Political Register and other writings, opposes abolition of the slave trade, the freeing of Negro slaves, the introduction of Negroes into the Army,3 which in his opinion “necessarily degrades the profession of the soldier,” and disapproves of the “shocking” number of English women married to Negroes. In defiance of the Act of Abolition many Englishmen continued to traffic in slaves. MacInnes says that Brougham in 1811 “carried through a Bill which made participation in the slave trade a felony punishable by transportation, and in 1824 the trade became a piracy and a capital crime. Even after that it still went on, and Englishment and Americans shared in the wicked profits.”4 Planters naturally from economic reasons fought the Abolition Act. A Dominican planter in 1826 writes in one of the West India papers that slaves in Jamaica were happy; in fact, they appeared to him so happy that he wished he could exchange places with them.5 In 1828 appeared anonymously Marly; or the Life of a Planter in Jamaica purporting to be an impartial account of conditions in Jamaica.

The abolitionists, however, were not discouraged. Romilly,6 Brougham,7 Wilberforce, Z. Macaulay, George Stephen, Clarkson, and Buxton with many others worked assiduously to accomplish their aim by speeches, by the presentation of petitions, by letters, and by pamphlets. In 1823 the Anti-Slavery Association was formed with Zachary Macaulay as editor of its monthly publication, The Anti-Slavery Reporter. The same year Buxton, succeeding Wilberforce as parliamentary leader, made his first motion for the extinction of British colonial slavery on the grounds that it was inconsistent with the rights of men.8 Ministers, lecturers, and public speakers urged the discontinuance of slavery. Bishop Reginald Heber's “From Greenland's Icy Mountains” (composed to be sung in April, 1820, when the author preached a sermon for a church missionary society) included the Christianizing of India and Africa.9 The Reverend J. M. Trew, rector of the Parish of St. Thomas in Jamaica, published in 1826 An Appeal, to the Christian Philanthropy of the People of Great Britain and Ireland in Behalf of the Religious Instruction and Conversion of 300,000 Negro Slaves. The profits arising from the sale of this appeal were to be used for the religious instruction of the slaves in St. Thomas. Four years later in 1830 appeared A Sermon on the Duty of the People towards the British Negro Slave by Charles Townsend, Rector of Calstone Wilts. The sermon was inscribed to Clarkson, “the friend of humanity, the enemy of oppression, the devoted, intrepid, unwearied assertor of the rights of the injured sons of Africa.” Between October 10, 1830, and April 23, 1831, five thousand, four hundred and eighty-four petitions were presented to Parliament in behalf of the slave.10

Thomas Clarkson's A Letter to the Clergy of Various Denominations, and to the Slave-holding Planters, in the Southern Parts of the United States of America (1841) was doubtless effective in molding public opinion. His letter is interesting for two reasons: First, the author pays splendid tribute to the intellect of the Negro, mentioning Ignatius Sancho and Henri Christophe. Concerning the latter's widow and her children he says, “Their acquaintance with history, literature, and the fine arts, and their powers of conversation, qualified them for mixing with the highest circles of English society, and they did afterward mix with them in London, and were accounted as amiable and as intellectual as others in whose company they were.”11 Secondly, Clarkson uses the same arguments from an economic standpoint as Hume when he writes, “I may state here, that after an experiment of two years and a half, it has been fully established (a fact which ought to be written in letters of gold) THAT ONE ENFRANCHISED NEGRO DOES THE WORK OF TWO SLAVES.”12

In 1834 slavery was finally abolished throughout the whole British Empire. Thus the efforts of the Quakers, Methodists, Episcopalians, Moravians, Evangelicals; the services of Sharp, Clarkson, Wilberforce, and various committees formed for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery; the ministry of press and pulpit; the voices of lecturers, professors, and Parliamentary orators; the pleas of poets, essayists, dramatists, and novelists found a happy culmination.

But the work was not over. The condition of the former slaves in the colonies needed vigilant and constant guidance. Jan Tzatzoe, an intelligent Christian Kafir Chief, and many other African witnesses visited England to testify before a Committee of the House of Commons “instituted for the purpose of enquiring into the inhuman treatment of the injured Aborigines.”13 Now that slavery was abolished in the English empire, the English abolitionists desired its abolition throughout the world. The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, therefore, formed branches and made alliances with similar associations in America and Europe.

Especially close was the communication between England and America. Letters were exchanged frequently between Englishmen and Americans.14 Notices of and references to slavery in English magazines were abundant. The Humming Bird or Morsels of Information on the Subject of Slavery (1825) contains anti-slavery articles and poems. On the cover of the magazine are two stanzas voicing the sentiment of the paper:

As the small Bird, that fluttering roves
Among Jamaica's tam'rind groves,
          A feather'd busy bee,
In note scarce rising to a song,
Incessant, hums the whole day long,
                    In slavery's Island, free!
So shall “A still small voice” be heard,
Though humble as the Humming Bird,
          In Britain's groves of oak;
And to the Peasant from the King,
In every ear shall ceaseless sing,
                    “Free Afric from her yoke!”

The Journal of the Quaker William Howitt15 contains reviews of books on slavery and many anti-slavery poems and articles. Americans visited England, and Englishmen visited America. For example, in 1839 Joseph John Gurney visited America and the West Indies to witness at first hand the results of emancipation. He returned satisfied with “the benefits and blessings, physical, economical, and moral, which always must in the long run, attend a course of justice and mercy.”16 George Thompson as a representative of the Abolition of Slavery and the Slave Trade throughout the World was invited by the New England Anti-Slavery Society to lecture in various American cities in 1834 and 1835.17

American abolitionists extolled England as an example worthy of emulation by the Americans. For instance, William E. Channing in Emancipation regrets the contrast between religion in England, which vindicates the cause of the oppressed, and religion in America, which “rivets the chain and hardens the heart of the oppressor.”18 Children in America were taught to admire England as they learned an alphabet printed for the Anti-Slavery Fair (1846):


S is the sugar, that the slave
                    Is toiling hard to make,
To put into your pie and tea,
                    Your candy, and your cake.


U is for Upper Canada,
                    Where the poor slave has found
Rest after all his wanderings
                    For it is British ground.(19)

The fact that numerous quotations from English writers were utilized by both Englishmen and Americans testifies to the popularity and influence of English anti-slavery literature in America. Van Wyck Brooks informs us that “when volunteers from Germany, Italy, France exiles and revolutionists, joined in the guerilla war in Kansas, when Walter Savage Landor wrote an ode and eloquent voices rose all over the world to hearten the Abolitionists, they felt that great days had come again, like the days of '76, that America had once more become the focus of the world-old struggle for liberty.”20 In 1842 the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society published An Epitome of Anti-Slavery Information designed to be “an effectionate expostulation” with Christians in America “because of the continuance of Negro Slavery throughout many districts of their country.” The writer supports his views by using many quotations from the English poet James Montgomery and also extracts from the Edinburgh Review ascribed to Lord Brougham. An American writer, Lydia Maria Child, in An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans called Africans quotes copiously from Coleridge, Shenstone, Wordsworth, Cowper, and Sterne.21 An American newspaper The Emancipator (May 26, 1836) contains three poetic excerpts in its poetry column under the captions “The Slave Trade” by James Montgomery, “American Slavery” by Moore, and “Oppression” by Coleridge.22 Another American anti-slavery paper The Voice of Freedom (May, 1836) carries “A Voice from Scotland to America” advocating the discontinuance of slavery. The Legion of Liberty and Force of Truth, a publication sold by the American Anti-Slavery Society contains an imposing array of English writers comprising the legion of Liberty. Some of those mentioned are Burke, Johnson, Shakespeare, Pope, Addison, Burns, Smollett, Day, S. Pratt, William Roscoe, Hannah More, J. Montgomery, Southey, Campbell, Erasmus Darwin, William Seward Hall, Shelley, Byron, Pollok, Grainger, and Coleridge.

Liberty (1837), edited by Julius R. Ames of Albany, includes among its many anti-slavery excerpts, a passage under the title of “An African Character” from Mungo Park's Travels, dealing with the hospitality of some African women.23 Cowper and J. Montgomery are quoted in Biographical Sketches and Interesting Anecdotes of Persons of Color (1839).24 On the introductory page of the Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave (1874) is a selection from Cowper. A poem by Cowper also appears in a Dialogue between a Slave-holder and an Abolitionist25 in which each presents his individual point of view. The slave holder rebukes the abolitionist for condemning slavery and yet, for the sake of convenience and ease, eating and using the products of slave labour. Attention may be called to The Anti-Slavery Offering and Picknick; a Collection of Speeches, Poems, Dialogues, Songs, for Schools and Anti-Slavery Meetings with selections from Brougham, J. Montgomery, and Cowper (1843).26The American Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1843 makes use of Cowper, Campbell, Montgomery, and John Wesley.27

Sometimes the ironical note appears. For instance, a London bookseller, Charles Gilpin, published A Description of William Wells Brown's Original Panoramic Views of the Scenes in the Life of an American Slave. From His Birth in Slavery to His Death or to His First Home of Freedom on British Soil. Two quotations follow the title: the one under “Fiction” is an excerpt from the Declaration of American Independence reading,

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; and that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

The second quotation from Cowper is placed under “Fact,”

They touch our country, and their shackles fall.

The Reverend Alexander Crummell, a colored minister, in 1846 delivered a eulogy, “The Man: The Hero: The Christian! A Eulogy on the Life and Character of Thomas Clarkson.” Crummell's knowledge of English champions of the Negro is evidenced by quotations from Montgomery, Wordsworth, Cowper, Milton, Baxter, Steele, Thomson, Shenstone, Warburton, and many other writers.28

But enough of this. The examples cited above show that anti-slavery English literature was well known in America and doubtless was a potent means for liberating American minds from the shackles of prejudice against those whose only crime was the color of their skin.



Turning to that bright galaxy of romantic writers whose brilliance begins to increase in 1798 with the publication of the Lyrical Ballads, we conclude that most of them were not impractical idealists, living remote from the great questions of the day. On the contrary, they were vitally interested in current social, political, and economic problems. It is significant that all the leading writers were sympathetic toward the Negro: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Byron, Shelley, Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, Landor, De Quincey, and Lamb.

Wordsworth was an ardent lover of freedom. The words “free,” “freed,” “freedom,” and “liberty,” occur about three hundred and eighty times in his poems alone.29 In the apostrophe to Freedom in “Descriptive Sketches,” (1791-1792) he says that wherever Liberty is found, heart-blessings exist; but where Tyranny rules, virtue and pleasure fail.30 Again in “Liberty” written thirty-eight years later, Wordsworth wrote that no sea swells “like the bosom of a man set free.”31 Just as Wordsworth was aware of the close union between man and nature, he was aware of a lack of unity between man and man as he indicates in “Lines Written in Early Spring:”

To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.(32)

When Wordsworth wrote this poem, he was twenty-eight years old. In the “Prelude,” begun in 1799 and finished in 1805, Wordsworth calls slave traders “traffickers in Negro blood;” hence his sympathetic interest in the slave began when he was a comparatively young man. In this autobiographical poem he says the sight of “Negro Ladies in white muslin gowns” and the other specimens of mankind, including the Swede, Russian, Turk, Jew, Chinese, Tartar, Malay, and Moor give him a peculiar pleasure.33 Among the varied and motley assortment of people at St. Bartholomew's Fair is “the silver-collared Negro with his timbrel.34 On Wordsworth's return from Paris to England in December, 1792, the status of the anti-slavery cause is thus described as he finds

The general air still busy with the stir
Of that first memorable onset made
By a strong levy of humanity
Upon the traffickers in Negro blood;
Effort which, though defeated, had recalled
To notice old forgotten principles
And through the nation spread a novel heat
Of virtuous feeling.(35)

Here the poet refers to the efforts of Wilberforce and Clarkson to abolish the slave trade. The unsuccessful outcome of this movement, he continues, did not give him much concern, for he was certain that if France was successful, “this most rotten branch … would fall together with its parent tree.”

The unhappy destiny of Toussaint Louverture appealed, as it appealed to other writers, to Wordsworth also. In a sonnet “To Toussaint Louverture” he urges this most unhappy man of men to have hope:

… Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There's not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and man's unconquerable mind.(36)

Another sonnet, “September 1, 1802”37 was written as a result of the chasing of all Negroes from France by decree of the government, an act which Wordsworth, in a note prefixed to the poem, characterizes as being “among the capricious acts of tyranny that disgraced those times.” One of the fellow passengers who came from Calais was a “white-robed Negro, like a lady gay, Yet downcast as a woman fearing blame.” The sonnet closes with a prayer to the Heavens to be kind to this afflicted race.

Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy were on intimate terms with the Clarksons, who lived from 1795 to 1806 in the Lake District very near them. Wordsworth's satisfaction with the outcome of the slavery issue is revealed in his sonnet, “To Thomas Clarkson on the Final Passing of the Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1807.)” The author praises Clarkson for the perseverance and skill with which he pursued to the end a difficult and tedious task and assures him of ultimate satisfaction of happiness and repose.38 The spark of liberty is still burning bright in Wordsworth's breast twenty-two years later when he says in “Humanity” (1829):

Though cold as winter, gloomy as the grave,
Stone-walls a prisoner make, but not a slave.
Shall man assume a property in man?
Lay on the moral will a withering ban?
Shame that our laws at distance still protect
Enormities, which they at home reject!
“Slaves cannot breathe in England”—yet that boast
Is but a mockery! when from coast to coast,
Though fettered slave be none, her floors and soil
Groan underneath a weight of slavish toil …(39)

The champion of the rights of man is speaking. Five years later the capture of an eagle evokes a thrust at slavery in “The Dunolly Eagle” (1833) as he tells the poor bird that similarly

Doth man of brother man a creature make
That clings to slavery for its own sad sake.(40)

The correspondence of Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy reveals that from 1791 to 1849 they kept in close touch with the progress of the slavery question. They were on friendly terms with Thomas Wilkinson the Quaker, Thomas Poole, Coleridge, and other sympathizers of the anti-slavery question. Certainly associations played no small part in deepening the Wordsworths' abhorrence of slavery. Wordsworth wrote a poem “To the Spade of a Friend” (1804),41 which was composed when he and Wilkinson worked together on the latter's estate. Thomas Poole, co-worker with Clarkson, was very outspoken against slavery. He wrote a journal about the customs of Sierra Leone in which he observes, “It was in the year 1845 that I embarked for that part of the world, not less infamous for its nefarious traffic in slavery than proverbial for the deadly unhealthiness of its climate.”42 Poole was one of the many who refused to use sugar in his coffee because it was the product of slave labour. Henry Crabb Robinson's correspondence with the Wordsworth circle affords glimpses of the intimacy between the Clarksons and the Wordsworths. Wordsworth's library contained various writings of Clarkson on the slave trade.43

When the Haitians rebelled against the energetic Henri Christophe, he committed suicide. His widow and daughters came to England, where they were received in the hospitable home of the Clarksons at Playford. In a letter to Mrs. Clarkson, October 24, 1822, Dorothy writes that during a discussion of Clarkson's kindness to the Negro widow and her family, Wordsworth and his wife Sarah became much amused at the thought of the “Sable princess” by Mrs. Clarkson's fireside. From her room upstairs Dorothy could hear their peals of laughter as they together composed a parody of Ben Janson's poem, “Queen and Huntress, Chaste and Fair,” which reads:

Queen and Negress chaste and fair!
                    Christophe now is laid asleep,
Seated in a British chair
State in humbler manner keep
                    Shine for Clarkson's pure delight
                    Negro Princess ebon bright!
Let not “Willy's”(44) holy shade
                    Interpose at envy's call,
Hayti's shining queen was made
To illumine Playford hall.
                    Bless it then with constant light
                    Negress excellently bright!
Lay thy diadem apart,
                    Pomp has been a sad deceiver;
Though thy champion's faithful heart
Joy be poured, and thou the giver,
                    Thou that mak'st a day of night
Sable Princess, ebon bright!(45)

Mrs. Clarkson's failure to answer at once caused Dorothy to write her three months later expressing concern that this little joke had caused some displeasure. Resumption of their correspondence, however, shows that if there was any displeasure on Mrs. Clarkson's part, it was not permanent.

Passages in Wordsworth's correspondence reveal both his antipathy to slavery and his admiration for its opponents. For instance, when the sons of Wilberforce wrote a life of their father in which Clarkson was not given the credit which his friends thought he should have been given, Wordsworth comes to the defense of Clarkson with the statement that if ever any man was “entitled to a subscription for public services that man was Mr. Clarkson.”46

The Quaker couple, Mary and William Howitt, were friendly with the Wordsworths. In a letter of Mrs. Howitt to Margaret Gillies in 1845 we learn that one rainy day when her husband was visiting William and Dorothy, many people called, among them an American general who advocated slavery. On this question Howitt and Wordsworth had a great argument. “All the day afterwards,” Mrs. Howitt writes, “Wordsworth kept rejoicing that they had defeated the general. ‘To think of the man,’ said he, ‘coming of all things, to this house with a defense of slavery! But he got nothing by it. Mr. Howitt and I gave it to him pretty well.’”47

When Clarkson died, Wordsworth wrote Mrs. Clarkson on October 2, 1846, that she would be consoled in her grief by recalling the perseverance which her husband exhibited in humanity's cause.48 On March 16, 1849, he wrote Robinson that Clarkson died rich in good works. An unfinished paper of Clarkson on “Slavery in America” was interesting reading, and because of the truths it contains “cannot but prove galling to numbers in America.”49

In 1840 Robinson wrote a pamphlet, all of which pleased Wordsworth except one passage in which Robinson accuses the “Members of the Church” of England of being very remiss in the matter of the slave trade as contrasted with the zealous Dissenters. On September 4, 1840, Wordsworth answers him, “Neither the clerical nor Lay Members of an Establishment are naturally so much given to stirring as Sectarians of any denomination; but to my certain knowledge a great many of our clergy took a deep interest in that question, and some as the World knows a conspicuous part in it.”50

As Wordsworth neared the end of his life, increasing conservatism appeared in his attitude toward slavery. For example, he writes Benjamin Dockray on April 25 [1840], thanking him for his paper on Colonial Slavery. There are, according to Wordsworth, three parties in this question: the slave, the slave-owner, and the British people. The slave owner should be prepared to face financial loss, the slave should be willing if given his liberty to make recompense for the master's sacrifice, and the British people should pass no measure which does not take into consideration or provide for an equivalent to the owner.51 Those who advocate complete and immediate abolition forget that slavery is sometimes beneficial in that it protects the weak from the strong, for there are worse evils than slavery. He concludes, “I do not only deplore but I abhor it, if it could be got rid of without the introduction of something worse, which I much fear would not be the case with respect to the West Indies, if the question be dealt with in the way many excellent men are so eagerly set upon.”52

One of Wordsworth's American friends and correspondents was Henry Reed, a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1837 Reed brought out the first American edition of Wordsworth's complete poems. On July 1, 1845, Wordsworth writes Reed that one Mr. William P. Atkinson of West Roxbury, an abolitionist, had asked him for a poem for publication in behalf of humanity. “I have nothing bearing directly upon slavery,” Wordsworth informs Reed, “but if you think this little piece would serve his cause indirectly pray be so kind as to forward it to him. He speaks of himself as deeply indebted to my writings.”53 The poem Wordsworth refers to is “To My Grandchildren.” In Reed's reply on August 28, 1845, he informs Wordsworth that he has made inquiry concerning the reputation of the gentleman who had written Wordsworth and thinks it advisable for him not to send the poem since it would be regrettable for Wordsworth's name to appear in any connection “where it might be perverting as sanctioning (if only by the connection) a spirit and modes of ‘Reform’ which I am satisfied you have no sympathy with. I mean a species of lawless, undisciplined philanthropy that counsel neither from sober reason, nor even legitimate enthusiasm, much less from the word of God … Much that has been done has retarded instead of promoting the abolition of Slavery.”54 Wordsworth answers September 27, 1845, thanking Reed and asking him to inform the gentleman that he has nothing among his manuscripts that would suit his purpose.55

This correspondence is of interest because it shows to what extent the anti-slavery sentiment in English literature affected people of like sentiment in America. We have already noted the frequency with which anti-slavery English writers were quoted in America. Wordsworth knew of his own reputation, for he wrote to Edward Moxon in February, 1838, that Miss Martineau, he was told, had said his poems were in the hearts of the American people.56

Coleridge, another of the Lake Poets, was linked to Wordsworth by his hostility to slavery, which no doubt was promoted by friendship, correspondence, and reading. Thomas Poole, farmer at Nether Stowey and opponent of the slave trade, was his friend.57 He was also on friendly terms with his Quaker neighbors, Thomas Wilkinson and his wife;58 with Mrs. Barbauld “whose wonderful propriety of mind” he admired;59 and the Clarksons with whom he corresponded and whose home he visited.60 It was an American acquaintance of his who brought to his mind forcibly the horrors of slavery. A letter he received from “an American officer of High Rank, Grand Cairo, December 18, 1804,” convinced him that he should regard the slave trade, which had not then been abolished as “a dreadful crime, an English iniquity,” and that “to sanction its continuance under full conviction and parliamentary confession of its injustice and unhumanity, is, if possible still blacker guilt.”61

When Coleridge was a student at Cambridge, he won in 1792 the Browne Gold Medal for an ode, “Greek Prize Ode on the Slave Trade.” The Latin foreword under the title is “Sors misera Servorum in Insulis Indiae Occidentalis,” or the “Wretched Lot of Slaves in the West India Islands.”62 In a letter to his brother George, April [1792], Coleridge says he has been competing for all the prizes, the Greek ode, the Latin ode, and the Epigrams. He thinks that he has no hope of success since one Mr. Smith, “a man of immense genius,” is among his numerous competitors. “If you can think of a good thought for the beginning of the Latin Ode upon the miseries of the India slaves, communicate. My Greek Ode is, I think, my chef d'oeuvre in poetical composition.”63 Despite Coleridge's misgivings he won the coveted prize. The first four stanzas were printed in a note to line 327 of “The Destiny of Nations”64 (1796) in which he refers to a belief among the slaves in the West Indies that death is a passport to their native land. A similar idea is expressed in the first part of the Greek Prize Ode, a literal translation of which reads: “Leaving the gates of darkness, O Death! hasten thou to a race yoked with misery! Thou wilt not be received with lacerations of cheeks, nor with funeral ululations—but with circling dances and the joy of songs. Thou art terrible indeed, yet thou dwellest with Liberty, stern Genius! Borne on thy dark pinions over the swelling of Ocean, they return to their native country. There, by the side of fountains beneath citron-groves, the lovers tell to their beloved what horrors, being men, they had endured from men.”65

The curse of slavery is stressed in the “Ode on the Departing Year” (1796) when the Spirit of Earth says,

But chief by Afric's wrongs
                    Strange, horrible, and foul!
By what deep guilt belongs
To the deaf Synod, ‘full of gifts and lies’!
By Wealth's insensate laugh! by Torture's howl!
          Avenger, rise!(66)

The poem “The Three Graves” (1797-1809), a sexton's tale of a mother's curse, was influenced by Bryan Edwards' portrayal of the Obi witchcraft on West Indian Negroes and Hearne's account of the Cooper Indians.67 Turning to that vibrant apostrophe to liberty, “France: an Ode,” we behold Coleridge censuring France's conduct toward Switzerland. The poem as it appeared originally in the Morning Post (April 16, 1798) contained a fifth stanza, which alluded to the conduct of the African Slave Trade by the present ministry and its supporters.68

In 1794 young Coleridge, Southey, and Lovell conceived the idea of founding an ideal commonwealth, Pantisocracy, on the banks of the Susquehanna. To raise funds for this project they decided to get subscribers for certain literary productions and also to give lectures. Accordingly two courses of six lectures each were given at Bristol. The first course dealt with the Civil War under Charles I and the French Revolution. The second course dealt with the corruptions and political views of “Revealed Religion.” One of these lectures was against the slave trade. The reading of the prospectus is interesting: “Tomorrow evening, June 16th, 1795, S. T. Coleridge, will deliver, (by particular desire) a lecture on the Slave Trade, and the duties that result from its continuance. To begin at eight o'clock, at the Assembly Coffee House, on the Quay. Admission One Shilling.”69 Nothing remains of this lecture or the addresses.70

There was no place in this Utopian community for slavery. Coleridge's argument in a letter to Southey dated November, 1794, is that since oxen and horses have no intellect, man is justified in utilizing his labours for his own benefit. “But who shall dare to transfer ‘from man to brute’ to ‘from man to man’? To be employed in the toil of the field while we are pursuing philosophical studies—can earldoms or emperorships boast so huge an inequality? Is there a human being of so torpid a nature as that placed in our society he would not feel it? A willing slave is the worst of slaves. His soul is a slave. Besides, I must own myself incapable of perceiving even the temporary convenience of the proposed innovation.”71

On November 6, 1794, Coleridge wrote his brother George that he had been asked what was the best conceivable mode of meliorating society. He said: “My answer has been this: ‘Slavery is an abomination to my feeling of the head and the heart. Did Jesus teach the abolition of it? No! He taught those principles of which the necessary effect was to abolish all slavery. He prepared the mind for the reception before he poured the blessing.’ You ask me what the friend of universal equality should do. I answer: ‘Talk, not politics. Preach the Gospel.’”72

Other references to the Negro are as follows: Cottle received in 1796 a letter from Coleridge stating that Southey's “Six Sonnets on the Slave Trade” are “worthy of the Author of ‘Joan of Arc.’ In the same year Coleridge wrote to the editor of the Cambridge Intelligencer (April 1, 1796) that the sonnet on the rejection of Wilberforce's bill was written by Southey almost two years before and not by the person who signed his name to it.73 In a letter to Wordsworth, January, 1798, Coleridge mentions Kotzebue's Negro Slaves and Lewis' Castle Spectre. Lewis claimed novelty in the treatment of Hassan, one of the characters; but Coleridge says he is only a Negro with a benevolent heart, who, stolen from his country, becomes a misanthrope as a result of mistreatment by the Christians.74

Coleridge like Wordsworth was interested in the success of Clarkson. In 1801 he characterized Clarkson in a letter to Southey as the “anti-Negro trade Clarkson.”75 Clarkson permitted Coleridge to read in manuscript form his history of the abolition of the slave trade. His reaction is shown in a letter, February, 1808, to Southey where he writes that the dullness and commonplace of the first three pages afford a delightful disappointment, “for all the rest is deeply interesting, written with great purity as well as simplicity of language, which is often vivid and felicitous (as the monthly Rev. would say) and nothing can surpass the moral beauty of the manner in which he introduces himself and relates his own maxima pars in that Immortal War—compared with which how mean all the conquests of Napoleon and Alexander!”76 Coleridge desired that Clarkson's book meet a favorable reception with the public. Accordingly he wrote on May 23, 1808, a very courteous letter to Francis Jeffrey, editor of the Edinburgh Review, “to intreat for the sake of mankind—an honourable review of Mr. Clarkson's ‘History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade.’ I know the man, and if you knew him, you, I am sure, would revere him, and your reverence of him, as an agent, would almost supersede all judgment of him as a mere literary man.”77 Coleridge deems it presumptuous to offer to review the work himself; yet he should like to submit some thoughts which came to him while he was reading it. When Jeffrey wrote Coleridge a “very polite” letter desiring him to write the review, Coleridge did so.78 The review was printed in the Edinburgh Review for July, 1808.79 On its publication Coleridge was very much mortified to see that some passages praising Pitt were deleted (on Clarkson's authority) and “abuse and detraction” substituted instead. Clarkson refused to let him make public the transaction and expressed satisfaction with the effect of the review.80 That Coleridge for a long time afterward was affected by Jeffrey's changes is evident in a letter he wrote to Mr. T. J. Street on September 19 [1809], complaining about the shameful mutilation of his review81 and in another letter to Thomas Poole on January 12, 1810.82

The well-known Abyssinian explorer Bruce in his work Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile (1790) had vindicated the slave trade. In a letter to Mr. Hunt, Coleridge takes issue with Bruce, affirming that such things as “predatory Wars, Murder of Male Captives, Sale of the females—then (avarice prevailing over Blood-thirstiness) sale of male and female, and that accursed Slave Trade which Bruce likewise vindicates!” were not so “from the beginning” but came about as the result of the hardness of men's hearts.83

In prose works other than letters did Coleridge manifest his attitude toward the Negro. For example, in The Friend, a literary, moral, and political paper (1809-1810 and 1818), he says that in the spiritual darkness that has enveloped the earth at various ages there is a need for indispensable moral truths to be proclaimed by the few who in every age attempt to build lofty and noble structures. To this small group belong Luther, Huss, Calvin, and Latimer in former times and at the present Thomas Clarkson, and his excellent confederates, the Quakers, “who fought and conquered the legalized banditti of men-stealers, the numerous and powerful perpetrators and advocates of rapine, murder, and (of blacker guilt than either) slavery.”84

Coleridge again pays tribute to Clarkson, Sharp, and Wilberforce for their contribution to the continuance of national prosperity.85 Again he says in a lecture: “For I have seen what infinite good one man can do by persevering in his efforts to resist evil and spread good over human life: and if I were called upon to say, which two men in my own time, had been most extensively useful, and who had done most for humanity, I should say Mr. Clarkson and Dr. Bell.”86

In a passage dealing with the origin of man Coleridge says that the descendants of Ham went to Africa and thus verified the curse pronounced upon them.87 In “Table Talk” for February 24, 1827, he reproduces Blumenbach's “scale of dignity” with regard to the five races: Caucasian or European, Malay, American, Negro, and Mongolian.88 Coleridge often voiced an interest in black characters in literature. He says in his “Notes on Othello” from “Lectures upon Shakespeare and other Dramatists” that Shakespeare was not so “utterly ignorant as to make a barbarous Negro plead royal birth,—at a time, too, when Negroes were not known except as slaves.”89 Furthermore, Othello was not a Negro but a Moor, and the dramatist could not possibly have had the “monstrous” conception of having a Venetian girl fall in love with a Negro.90 One character that especially appealed to Coleridge evidently was the black colonel in Mrs. Bennett's Beggar Girl.91 A character that Coleridge evidently had no taste for was Zeluco, the cruel slave master and planter in Moore's novel of the same name.92

Later Coleridge became more and more conservative in his attitude. On June 8, 1833, we find him saying, “You are always talking of the rights of the Negroes. As a rhetorical mode of stimulating the people of England here, I do not object; but I utterly condemn your frantic practice of declaiming about their rights to the blacks themselves. They ought to be forcibly reminded of the state in which their brethren in Africa still are, and taught to be thankful for the providence which has placed them within the reach of the means of grace.”93

Southey, the third of the trio of Lake Poets, expresses through John Ball in Wat Tyler the principle that Nature made all men equal and that equality is their birthright. Hence Southey took an active interest in varied humanitarian projects to aid men obtain this birthright. One, like Southey, concerned with reforms in the army, and among criminals, laborers, and paupers would, of course, include the slave in his program. His pen, doubtless, accomplished much good; for example, H. C. R. wrote in a letter to T. R. (July 23, 1833) that “no one public writer has so invariably advocated the cause of the poor” as Southey.94

Southey could have become interested in the Negro by various means. He was intimate with Clarkson, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, all of whom were friendly to the Negro. He dedicated The Fall of Robespierre to Hannah More95 and visited her home at Bristol.96 Southey's reading also enters here for consideration. He thought Bamfylde's sonnets some of the most original in the English language.97 Sources...

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Criticism: Poetry

Alan Richardson (essay date spring 1990)

SOURCE: Richardson, Alan. “Colonialism, Race, and Lyric Irony in Blake's ‘The Little Black Boy.’” Papers on Language and Literature 26, no. 2 (spring 1990): 233-48.

[In the following essay, Richardson contends that William Blake's poem “The Little Black Boy” cannot simply be categorized as either a fine abolitionist poem or an example of latent racism in English antislavery literature. Rather, the critic suggests that Blake intended to critique English mass education while also offering children and adults an alternative, more positive depiction of Africa than was typical of the age.]

Blake's “The Little Black Boy” offers a particularly rich site for...

(The entire section is 5992 words.)

D. L. Macdonald (essay date winter 1994)

SOURCE: Macdonald, D. L. “Pre-Romantic and Romantic Abolitionism: Cowper and Blake.” European Romantic Review 4, no. 2 (winter 1994): 163-82.

[In the following essay, Macdonald compares the antislavery poetry of William Cowper and William Blake to highlight the differences in pre-Romantic and Romantic literary strategies.]

Most historians now accept that the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade and the emancipation of the West Indian slaves were not (as Eric Williams famously argued) simply the inevitable results of economic processes, but the outcome of a political struggle (Walvin, Slaves 93-96). The struggle began in the mid-eighteenth century, when many...

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Criticism: Origins And Development

SOURCE: Rice, C. Duncan. “Literary Sources and the Revolution in British Attitudes to Slavery.” In Anti-Slavery, Religion, and Reform: Essays in Memory of Roger Anstey, edited by Christine Bolt and Seymour Drescher, pp. 319-34. Folkestone, Kent, England: Wm. Dawson & Sons, 1980.

[In the following essay, Rice argues that English attitudes toward slavery can be understood by examining how the subject was treated in British literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and concludes that the transformation of how slaves and slave-owners were depicted during this period is evidence of a cultural revolution in English thought.]

During the century between...

(The entire section is 6410 words.)

Criticism: Prose

Audrey A. Fisch (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Fisch, Audrey A. “Abolition as a ‘step to reform in our kingdom’: Chartism, ‘white slaves,’ and a new ‘Uncle Tom’ in England.” In American Slaves in Victorian England: Abolitionist Politics in Popular Literature and Culture, pp. 33-51. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Fisch discusses themes in the anonymous 1852 novel Uncle Tom in England, asserting the work was published to illustrate England's moral superiority to the United States and to capitalize on the success of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.]

England, perhaps more than any other nation, owes a duty to America; and...

(The entire section is 11815 words.)

Helen Thomas (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Thomas, Helen. “Robert Wedderburn and Mulatto Discourse.” In Romanticism and Slave Narratives: Transatlantic Testimonies, pp. 255-71. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Thomas analyzes two nineteenth-century abolitionist texts written by ex-slave Robert Wedderburn, focusing especially on the impact and influence of his mulatto identity on the works.]

But there comes a time, as it came in my life, when a man is denied the right to live a normal life, when he can only live the life of an outlaw because the government has so decreed to use the law to impose a state of outlawry on him.1


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Criticism: Sociopolitical Concerns

Barbara Taylor Paul-Emile (essay date April 1974)

SOURCE: Paul-Emile, Barbara Taylor. “Samuel Taylor Coleridge as Abolitionist.” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 5, no. 2 (April 1974): 59-75.

[In the following essay, Paul-Emile discusses Samuel Taylor Coleridge's transformation from liberal abolitionist to a conservative wary of emancipation's effect on the British social hierarchy.]

As a young man, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was deeply concerned about slavery; his writing on the subject can be divided into two distinct periods. The first, extending from 1792 to 1798, could be called his more liberal abolitionist phase. During this time he expressed distress over the very existence of slavery and...

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J. R. Oldfield (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Oldfield, J. R. “Abolition at the Grass-Roots Level.” In Popular Politics and British Anti-Slavery: The Mobilisation of Public Opinion against the Slave Trade 1787-1807, pp. 125-54. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Oldfield examines antislavery literature aimed at British children, which its authors believed would ultimately be beneficial in spreading the abolitionist message to the public at large.]

Just as abolitionists sought to reach and influence women, so, too, did they try and influence children. As J. H. Plumb argues, after 1700 children ‘became luxury objects upon which their mothers and fathers were...

(The entire section is 2715 words.)

Alan Richardson (essay date spring 1996)

SOURCE: Richardson, Alan. “Darkness Visible: Race and Representation in Bristol Abolitionist Poetry, 1770-1810.” Wordsworth Circle 27, no. 2 (spring 1996): 67-72.

[In the following excerpt, Richardson argues that even though poetry by abolitionists writers Robert Southey, Thomas Chatterton, Hannah More, and Anne Yearsley shows that British Romanticism contributed to the construction of racial identity, their racial representations varied considerably.]

My purpose here is not to engage in the debate on “race” and culture, but rather to keep the contours of that debate in view while I examine the representation of race in the critical years, 1770-1810—from just...

(The entire section is 4794 words.)

Criticism: English Abolitionist Literature And Feminism

Moira Ferguson (essay date spring 1992)

SOURCE: Ferguson, Moira. “British Women Writers and an Emerging Abolitionist Discourse.” Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 33, no. 1 (spring 1992): 3-23.

[In the following essay, Ferguson describes why Hannah More was chosen by London's Abolition Committee to compose a poem condemning British slavery, and how her “Slavery: A Poem” influenced subsequent depictions of Africans as powerless and passive victims in need of European guidance and support.]

Nothing in May 1789 is surely so interesting as the noble effort in asking for the abolition of the slave-trade. Nothing, I think, for centuries past, has done the nation so much...

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Moira Ferguson (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Ferguson, Moira. “Extending Discourse and Changing Definitions.” In Subject to Others: British Women Writers and Colonial Slavery, 1670-1834, pp. 273-98. New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Ferguson examines the 1831 slave narrative The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave to show that Prince's language and agenda were often at odds with white female abolitionists.]


I would rather go into my grave than go back a slave to Antigua, though I wish to go back to my husband very much—very much—very much! I am much afraid my...

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Deidre Coleman (essay date summer 1994)

SOURCE: Coleman, Deidre. “Conspicuous Consumption: White Abolitionism and English Women's Protest Writing in the 1790s.” ELH 61, no. 2 (summer 1994): 341-62.

[In the following essay, Coleman argues that even as white female abolitionists in the late eighteenth century tried to connect their own subjugation to the plight of slaves, their writings tacitly created insurmountable boundaries between whites and blacks.]

In this paper I wish to examine two overlapping areas of middle-class polemic from the 1790s: white abolitionism and English women's protest writing. A certain polarization has crept into recent discussions of abolitionism, with some critics arguing that...

(The entire section is 8387 words.)

Marilyn D. Button (essay date September 1994)

SOURCE: Button, Marilyn D. “Reclaiming Mrs. Frances Trollope: British Abolitionist and Feminist.” CLA Journal 38, no. 1 (September 1994): 69-86.

[In the following essay, Button discusses feminist and antislavery themes in Frances Trollope's The Life and Adventures of Jonathan Jefferson Whitlaw, which she asserts was the first English novel to attack slavery in the United States.]

In spite of recent critical attention which has convincingly demonstrated the breadth of Mrs. Frances Trollope's literary achievement, she remains confined in the contemporary popular imagination as the vitriolic narrator of Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832) and critic...

(The entire section is 5951 words.)

Further Reading


Anstey, Roger. “Anti-Slavery Values in Literature.” In The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition 1760-1810, pp. 142-53. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1975.

Argues that British nineteenth-century religious zeal to abolish slavery had its roots in the eighteenth-century ideals of liberty, benevolence, and the noble savage.

Coleman, Deidre. “Sierra Leone, Slavery, and Sexual Politics: Anna Maria Falconbridge and the ‘Swarthy Daughter’ of Late 18th Century Abolitionism.” Women's Writing 2, no. 1 (1995): 3-23.

Explores connections between race and gender in Anna Maria...

(The entire section is 660 words.)