The Slave Trade in British and American Literature Essay - Critical Essays

The Slave Trade in British and American Literature


The Slave Trade in British and American Literature

Literature written about the Atlantic trade in African slaves by white British and American authors and by former captives contributed to the debate about slavery and eventual abolition of the institution.

The era of the Atlantic slave trade began under the Portuguese in the 1490s and continued until the 1870s. During that time, between 10 and 12 million Africans were enslaved in order to support European and American commercial interests. Africans were taken by ship to European- and American-controlled ports to work on sugar, coffee, cocoa, and cotton plantations; in gold and silver mines; in rice fields; and as house servants. At the height of the traffic in the 1780s, European and American slaving vessels carried some forty thousand captive human beings a year from their native countries to a world of which they had no previous knowledge where they would be owned as property. The “triangular” trade system used by the slavers was so named because ships embarked from European ports, stopped in Africa to gather captives, set out for the New World to deliver their human cargo, and returned to ports of origin. The notorious “Middle Passage” was that leg of the slave trade triangle that brought slaves from West Africa to North America, South America, and the Caribbean. Accounts of the Atlantic trade in human lives date from the early sixteenth century, and European writers began introducing descriptions of Africans into their literature by the 1550s. The height of literary interest in the slave trade coincides with the period of greatest activity in the trade itself, and the later eighteenth century in Britain and the United States saw a proliferation of poems, novels, lectures, pamphlets, traveller's narratives, and nonfiction works about the immorality and horror of African chattel slavery.

African characters figured in numerous fictional works of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including, most famously, Shakespeare's Othello, but the first British work of imaginative literature written specifically about slavery and the slave trade was Aphra Behn's Oroonoko; Or The Royall Slave (1688). The mid-1660s setting of Behn's fictional account about a slave of royal lineage from the Gold Coast who is killed after leading a slave revolt in Surinam—where Behn had lived as a child—roughly corresponds with Britian's initial participation in the slave trade. Oroonoko has been seen by many critics as a pionerring antislavery work, although some commentators such as Anne Fogarty claim that the work is as much about insurmountable barriers between its white and black characters as it is about the evils of slavery. Oroonoko was adapted for the stage several times in the late 1600s and throughout the 1700s, and proved immensely popular to British audiences. After Oronooko, depictions of or comments on slavery and the slave trade appeared at least incidentally in the works of many major British writers of the eighteenth century, including Samuel Johnson, William Cowper, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, all of whom denounced slavery. Less well-known British opponents of slavery include the poets James Thomson, William Roscoe, and Richard Savage. Many well-meaning and liberal writers who wrote about the slave experience presented sentimental portraits of Africans and in many instances made clear their beliefs about the fundamental differences between blacks and whites. But these writers were generally driven by their humanitarian concern—as they pointed out the hypocrisy inherent in the practice of enslaving human beings conducted by citizens of a nation that prided itself on its high civilization and devotion to the principles of liberty—and antislavery works laid the foundation for the abolitionist movement by opening up public debate about the morality of slavery. Not all white British authors, of course, opposed slavery, and many travel narratives by participants in the trade and writings of virulently racist thinkers such as Edward Long were used to buttress public support for the slave trade. However, the intellectual and social climate created by British antislavery writers in the 1700s did a great deal to make possible the abolition of slavery in Britiain in the early nineteenth century.

The slave trade was made illegal in the United States in the early part of the nineetenth century also, but slavery as an institution was not outlawed there until more than half a century later. White American writers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were far less inclined to speak against slavery than were their British counterparts, although antislavery literature, especially in the form of pamphlets, did begin to proliferate during the Revolutionary years. However, even writers who advocated freedom for blacks, including Thomas Jefferson, stressed what they thought to be their “natural inferiority.” But as in Britain, white antislavery writers in the United States in the eighteenth century set the stage for the great antislavery debates and abolitionist movement of the next century.

For many years readers and critics focused on white responses to the “slavery problem” and overlooked the profound impact of African literary figures on the slavery debate and subsequent abolitionist movement. Accounts about the slave trade and slavery by former captives are not as abundant as those by white authors, but those that are available offer invaluable, first-hand insight and unique perspectives on the horrors of slavery and its effect on Africans' sense of identity. The first African to speak out against slavery was Ignatius Sancho, who was born on a slave ship and brought to England after some years spent in Grenada. Sancho's Letters (1782) are written in the sentimental style of his white British contemporaries, but beneath his sentimental rhetoric he speaks urgently for the freedom of his fellow Africans and against the brutalities of the slave trade. Perhaps the most original and articulate critic of the slave trade was Olaudah Equiano, a Nigerian who had been captured and sold into slavery when he was ten years old. The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789) recounts not only the details of Equiano's travels and life as a slave, but expresses his position on important issues such as religion and the treatment of women, black indentity, and the nature of oppression. Equiano's friend Ottobah Cugoano was also an important voice in the antislavery campaign in Britain, and with his book Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery (1787) and involvement in British politics sought to better the situation of blacks in England. All three of these brilliant men had a profound impact on the abolitionist movement in Britain not only by contributing to the intellectual debate but by overturning standard, negative stereotypes of Africans. African American writers of the eighteenth century did not have the same impact on the slavery debate as did these British ex-slaves. The two best-known African American writers of the eighteenth century, the poets Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley, wrote about slavery but tended to stress freedom in the afterlife over the call for human liberty. Lesser-known African American writers of the eighteenth century who bring interesting perspectives into discussions about slavery are Briton Hammon and John Marrant. Critics have not investigated their works in any detail, and it remains to be shown to what extent the lives and works of these and numerous other Africans affected public perceptions of slavery and contributed to the strength of the abolitionists' cause.

Representative Works

Aphra Behn
Oroonoko; Or, The Royall Slave (novel) 1688

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“Ode on the Slave Trade” (poem) 1792
A Lecture on the Slave Trade and the Duties that Result from its Continuance (lecture) 1795

Ottobah Cugoano
Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evils of Slavery (narrative) 1787

William Cowper
The Task (poems) 1785
“The Negro's Complaint” (poem) 1788
“The Morning Dream” (poem) 1788
“Sweet Meat Has Sour Sauce” (poem) 1785

Olauda Equiano
The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (autobiography) 1789

Alexander Falconbridge
An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa (travel narrative) 1788

Jupiter Hammon
An Evening Thought; Salvation by Christ with Penetential Cries (poem) 1760
“A Dialogue Entitled the Kind Master and the Dutiful Servant” (poem) date unknown
An Address to the Negroes of the State of New York (lecture) 1760

Ignatius Sancho
The Letters of Ignatius Sancho, An African to which are Prefixed Memoirs of His Life by Joseph Jekyll (letters) 1782

William Snelgrave
A New Account of Guinea and the Slave Trade (travel narrative) 1744

James Thomson
Seasons (poems) 1730

Phillis Wheatley
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (poems) 1773

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

SOURCE: “The Slave Ship Dance,” in Black Imagination and the Middle Passage, edited by Maria Diedrich, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Carl Pedersen, Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 33-46.

[In the following essay, Fabre discusses the dances performed on board slave ships headed for the New World as they are variously represented in accounts from ships' logs, observers travelling on the ships, and the captives themselves. She then explores the forced dances' dual relation to the realities of the Middle Passage and to an African heritage.]

We are almost a nation of dancers, musicians and poets.

Olaudah Equiano...

(The entire section is 5942 words.)

Criticism: Depictions By White Writers

William Heffernan (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “The Slave Trade and Abolition in Travel Literature,” in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 34, No. 2, April-June 1973, pp. 185-208.

[In the following essay, Heffernan surveys the depiction of the slave trade in travel literature by eighteenth-century white authors, which he argues provides greater insight into public opinion than does imaginative writing of the same period. Travel writing about Africa, he maintains, was a genre that shaped white attitudes toward blacks and provided the substance for pro- and anti-abolitionist arguments.]

Much has been written about the relationship between the anti-slavery poems, plays, and novels that appeared with...

(The entire section is 10238 words.)

Keith A. Sandiford (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “The Intellectual Milieu: Contexts for Black Writing,” in Measuring the Moment: Strategies of Protest in Eighteenth-Century Afro-English Writing, Associated University Presses, 1988, pp. 43-72.

[In the following excerpt, Sandiford provides an overview of white authors' writings on slavery and the slave trade in Britain from the 1680s to the end of the eighteenth century, and argues that the convergence of ideological currents during this time created a more favorable climate in which blacks could live and write.]

The antislavery movement did not win the concerted advocacy of belletristic writers until the last three decades of the eighteenth century. The...

(The entire section is 4863 words.)

Deidre Coleman (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Conspicuous Consumption: White Abolitionism and English Women's Protest Writing in the 1780s,” in ELH, Vol. 61, No. 2, Summer 1994, pp. 341-62.

[In the following essay, Coleman examines late eighteenth-century British texts discussing slavery and women's rights, and notes that even liberal-minded white writers sought to preserve what they viewed as the essential boundaries between whites and blacks.]

In this paper I wish to examine two overlapping areas of middle-class polemmic 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 a...

(The entire section is 8376 words.)

Ann Fogarty (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Looks That Kill: Violence and Representation in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko,” in The Discourse of Slavery: Aphra Behn to Toni Morrison, edited by Carl Plasa and Betty J. Ring, Routledge, 1994, pp. 1-17.

[In the following essay, Fogarty offers a new reading of Aphra Behn's 1688 novel Oroonoko, arguing that the novel does not reveal parallelisms bewteen slavery and the subjugation of women as has generally been held, but rather emphasizes that a harmonious co-existence between the black slave and his white female friend is an impossibility.]

Aphra Behn's novella with its violent account of the execution of an African slave who was once a king was...

(The entire section is 6281 words.)

Joyce Green MacDonald (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “The Disappearing African Woman: Imoinda in Oroonoko After Behn,” in ELH, Vol. 66, No. 1, 1999, pp. 71-86.

[In the following essay, MacDonald discusses why the character of Oronooko's black African wife, Imoinda, in Aphra Behn's novel Oroonoko is depicted as white in later adaptations of the work. The critic claims that Imoinda's whiteness is used to suppress the facts of racial and gender conflict and to confer racial authority on white women.]

At the climax of a mid-eighteenth-century heroic tragedy, the black hero, discovered in a private chamber with the dead body of his white wife, urges the white men who come upon the sight to “Put up...

(The entire section is 7555 words.)

Criticism: Depictions By Former Slaves

Bernard W. Bell (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “African-American Writers,” in American Literature 1764-1789: The Revolutionary Years, edited by Everett Emerson, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1977, pp. 171-93.

[In the following essay, Bell discusses the careers of ex-slaves Jupiter Hammon, Phillis Wheatley, and Olaudah Equiano, which he claims demonstrate how a hostile white literate society fostered the “twoness” of early black identity in the United States.]

Because of the distinctive history and acculturation of Africans in the English colonies during the revolutionary period, their literary gifts are most meaningfully assessed when viewed in the context of the tension between...

(The entire section is 10092 words.)

Wilfred D. Samuels (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “Disguised Voice in The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African,” in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 19, No. 2, Summer 1985, pp. 64-9.

[In the following essay, Samuels contends that Olaudah Equiano's intention in his Narrative, which is to point out the miseries of the slave trade, is enhanced by the use of a disguised voice, through which the author takes control of his audience and holds their attention, outwitting and flattering his white readers while simultaneously revealing that they are unscrupulous and uncaring.]


The author of the slave narrative confronted the...

(The entire section is 6108 words.)

Keith A. Sandiford (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “The Black Presence,” in Measuring the Moment: Strategies of Protest in Eighteenth-Century Afro-English Writing, Associated University Presses, 1988, pp. 17-42.

[In the following excerpt, Sandiford examines the social and cultural situation of blacks in England before 1800 and discusses the lives and works of prominent black writers and intellectuals—including Ignatio Sancho, Ottobah Cugoano, Olaudah Equiano, Phillis Wheatley, and Job Ben Solomon—whose works would spur literary reactions and philosophical debates about blacks and the institution of slavery.]

Ignatius Sancho, Ottobah Cugoano, and Olaudah Equiano were undoubtedly the three best-known...

(The entire section is 13991 words.)

Jesús Benito and Ana Manzanas (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “The (De)Construction of the ‘Other’ in The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano,” in Black Imagination and the Middle Passage, edited by Maria Diedrich, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Carl Pedersen, Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 47-56.

[In the following essay, Benito and Manzanas examine the concept of the “other” in Olaudah Equiano's Narrative, pointing out that Equiano viewed the white man as the “other” against whom he struggled, while at the same time he sought to adopt white culture. According to the critics, this “crisscrossing of identities” creates an “uneasy balance in the authorial voice” of the work.]


(The entire section is 4444 words.)

Further Reading


Conolly, L. W. “English Drama and the Slave Trade.” English Studies in Canada 4 (1978): 393-412.

Survey of English plays about slavery in the 1700s and the early 1800s.

Diedrich, Maria, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Carl Pederson, eds.. Black Imagination and the Middle Passage. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, 320 p.

Collection of essays examining the forced dispossession of Africans caused by slavery and the slave trade; analyzes the texts, religious rites, economic exchanges, dance, and music of the transatlantic journey and on the American continent.

Ebbatson, J. R. “Some...

(The entire section is 1045 words.)