The Slave Trade in British and American Literature Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.