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Saturday, May 21, 2011

Poems on the Slave Trade

(Robert Southey, poet laureate, 1813-1843)

Appointed poet laureate by George III, Robert Southey (1774-1843) was one of the Lake Poets, Romantics like Wordsworth and Coleridge who lived in the Lake District of England.

Like many artists and writers of the time, Southey did his best to encourage the support of the public for the campaign in the chambers of Parliament against the evil of slavery.

In 1797, he wrote a series of six sonnets on the slave trade. The verses begin with the story of the abduction of an African man and his imprisonment on a slave ship destined for forced labor in the New World. They end with the man’s gruesome hanging death for his part in a bloody mutiny against the ship’s “tyrant lord.”


Sonnet VI

High in the air expos’d the Slave is hung
To all the birds of Heaven, their living food!
He groans not, tho’ awaked by that fierce Sun
New torturers live to drink their parent blood!
He groans not, tho’ the gorging Vulture tear
The quivering fiber! hither gaze O ye
Who tore this Man from Peace and Liberty!
Gaze hither ye who weigh with scrupulous care
The right and prudent; for beyond the grave
There is another world! and call to mind,
Ere your decrees proclaim to all mankind
Murder is legalized, that there the Slave
Before the Eternal, “thunder-tongued shall plead
Against the deep damnation of your deed.”

The following year, Southey published a poem that showed another part of this evil enterprise. It tells the heart-rending tale of the cruelty that slavery imposed on the men who worked in this “peculiar institution,” as some have called slavery.


O I have done a cursed deed,
The wretched man replies,
And night and day and everywhere
’Tis still before my eyes.

I sail’d on board a Guinea-man
And to the slave-coast went;
Would that the sea had swallowed me
When I was innocent!

And we took in our cargo there,
Three hundred negroe slaves,
And we sail’d homeward merrily
Over the ocean waves.

But some were sulky of the slaves
And would not touch their meat,
So therefore we were forced by threats
And blows to make them eat.

One woman sulkier than the rest
Would still refuse her food, —
O Jesus God! I hear her cries —
I see her in her blood!

The Captain made me tie her up
And flog while he stood by,
And then he curs’d me if I staid
My hand to hear her cry.

She groan’d, she shriek’d — I could not spare
For the Captain he stood by —
Dear God! that I might rest one night
From that poor woman’s cry!

She twisted from the blows — her blood
Her mangled flesh I see —
And still the Captain would not spare —
Oh he was worse than me!

She could not be more glad than I
When she was taken down,
A blessed minute — ’twas the last
That I have ever known!

I did not close my eyes all night,
Thinking what I had done;
I heard her groans and they grew faint
About the rising sun.

She groan’d and groan’d, but her groans grew
Fainter at morning tide,
Fainter and fainter still they came
Till at the noon she died.

They flung her overboard; — poor wretch
She rested from her pain, —
But when — O Christ! O blessed God!
Shall I have rest again!

I saw the sea close over her,
Yet she was still in sight;
I see her twisting everywhere;
I see her day and night.

Go where I will, do what I can
The wicked one I see —
Dear Christ have mercy on my soul,
O God deliver me!

The peaceful campaign against slavery finally succeeded with the vote in Parliament to abolish the British slave trade in 1807 and the practice of slavery in countries under British rule in 1833.

(For another example of how British artists and writers fought against slavery, click on the name of “Turner” in the labels below.)

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