Samuel Taylor Coleridge delivered his well-known statement against the slave trade on June 16, 1795, in an atmosphere decidedly unfriendly to abolitionists. Britain had a very strong anti-slavery sentiment, but the willingness of those most actively opposed to the practice of slavery to continue the fight was waning, and Coleridge determined that it was time to confront the pro-slave trade forces once more. Recognizing that moral suasion itself was insufficient to eliminate an economic practice, he took dead aim at those who argued that slavery was a part of Europe and that Britain couldn’t unilaterally dispense with the practice and that it was an economically viable business enterprise in the first place. What became known as his “Slave Trade Lecture,” or, when published in his collected works, as “On the Slave Trade,” began with his suggestion that not just slavery but imperialism were unnecessary luxuries:
“I have dwelt anxiously on this subject, with a particular view to the Slave-trade, which, I knew, has insinuated in the minds of many, uneasy doubts respecting the existence of a beneficent Deity. And indeed the evils arising from the formation of imaginary Wants, have in no instance been so dreadfully exemplified, as in this inhuman Traffic. We receive from the West India Islands Sugars, Rum, Cotton, Logwood, Cocoa, Coffee, . . .Not one of these articles are necessary; indeed, with the exception of Cotton and Mahogany we cannot truly call them even useful; . . .If this trade had never existed, no one human being would have less comfortably cloathed, housed, or nourished.”
Coleridge’s diatribe against the slave trade was not, however, absent a strong moral argument. On the contrary, in addition to his dismantling of the economic and racial arguments on behalf of slavery, he went so far as to equate dark-skinned people with white-skinned people in the eyes of God:
“They, who believe a God, believe him to be the loving Parent of all men – And is it possible that they who really believe and fear the Father, should fearlessly autnorize the oppression of his Children? The Slavery and Tortures, and most horrible Murder of tens of thousands of his Children!”
Now, the question arises: Should Coleridge’s speech against the slave trade be read today? The answer to that question is inarguably “yes.” Slavery, at least in most of the industrialized world, has long since been abolished or, at a minimum, eliminated as a sanctioned practice. Human trafficking, however, remains an enormously serious problem in many of those same countries that once allowed legal slavery and, at its core, is grounded in perceptions of racial and/or gender inferiority. It is carried out as an economic activity designed to generate profits, and victimizes hundreds of thousands of young girls and women, as well as children and men forced into servitude. Coleridge’s speech deserves to be read today in that context alone.
“On the Slave Trade” deserves to be studied for another, more immediate reason: racial tensions across the United States are rising yet again in response to a pattern of activity that is widely viewed among African Americans as designed to marginalize them through armed repression. While the facts of individual cases may not point in that direction, a history of slavery, institutionalized racial segregation, and continued gaps in economic achievement provide a formidable prism through which these otherwise possibly innocuous if tragic events are viewed. The deaths of black men and youths at the hands of Caucasian police officers continues to stir deeply held resentments among African Americans irrespective of the circumstances. That history of racism in the United States left behind a legacy of ghettos, unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, and violent crime that has resisted remedy.
Coleridge’s speech should also continue to be read because it speaks to the racial animosities present in many regions of the world. Racism was certainly not unique to North America. On the contrary, it remains pervasive throughout virtually the entire world and, once we view another ethnic group as racially inferior, it is not a great leap to treating that group as racially inferior. Coleridge’s arguments remain relevant today. The economics of slavery and segregation can certainly be linked to the economic costs today associated with social welfare programs and law enforcement expenditures. The financial costs of repairing the damage from rioting in Ferguson, Missouri will attest to that. Officer Darren Wilson may very well have acted properly in the line of duty; that his actions that fateful night in August were viewed, properly or not, as racially motivated stands as testament to the enduring divisions in society that have their antecedents in an earlier time when theories of racial superiority were openly translated into legislative action.