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William Cowper’s poem The Negro’s Complaint is narrated by an African slave. From the poem’s opening lines, it is clear that Cowper, a noted abolitionist, intended to depict the inhumanity of the slave trade from the vantage of those seized from their homes to be bought and sold like so much chattel:
Men from England bought and sold me,
Paid my price in paltry gold;
As Cowper’s narrator continues to lament the dehumanizing nature of slavery, additional details are provided that further expose the nature of this tortured individual: “Fleecy locks and black complexion.” The poem’s final stanza, however, provides the definitive proof that the poet viewed slavery as inherently evil and that racial prejudice, based upon the most superficial of characteristics, was a cancer that destroyed the soul of those who practiced it:
Deem our nation brutes no longer
Till some reason ye shall find
Worthier of regard and stronger
Than the colour of our kind.
Slaves of gold! whose sordid dealings
Tarnish all your boasted pow'rs,
Prove that you have human feelings,
Ere you proudly question ours.
The morally corrosive effects of the slave trade on those who practiced it was the central theme of Cowper’s poetry. The voice depicted in The Negro’s Complaint is that of the slave searching for some sign of humanity in his captor’s soul.
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