English Abolitionist Literature of the Nineteenth Century Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.