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At the heart of the book lies a series of questions. To what degree was the British public aware of slavery in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? How did slavery figure in the collective imagination and the shared cultural life of the time? What relation did the literary treatment of slavery have to social attitudes, public policies, and economic realities? Above all, how can we explain the historic paradox that the very years of the European Enlightenment were also the period of greatest expansion in the slave trade and in slave-based economies? To address these and many other questions, I have gathered every poem or poetic fragment from the period that brings slavery into view, whether as its main subject, in a single passage or character, or, more glancingly, in bits of allusion or metaphor.
The result is something like a vast archeological dig. There are love poems, passages from dramatic pageants and verse plays, hymns, anthems, religious poems, ballads, songs from operas and musical comedies, epics, verse essays, children's poems, political poems, eclogues, elegies, dialogues, ditties and doggerel of many kinds, even "found poems" taken from newspapers, graffiti, and gravestone inscriptions. Inevitably the quality of the material varies wildly, from the sublime to the insufferable. But whatever the unevenness in aesthetic value, because poetry fills the interstices of our culture, from public spaces to private corners, in moments of high ceremony and in the spontaneous effusions of popular culture, this material maps the emergence of a collective awareness, the gradual appropriation of a subject charged with aesthetic and moral power, and the spread of that awareness through the collective imagination of the Enlightenment.
Why poetry only? The immediate answer is practical. For all the novels and other prose works that bear on the subject, the focus on poetry allows for greater range: it enables this anthology to include some 400 different titles by more than 250 different writers. Even that understates the reach and richness of the material, for many of the poems are short excerpts from much longer works, twenty lines or so from texts that often run to several hundred lines in the original. To enable readers to explore these longer texts in full, I have used the endnotes to provide full citations of original sources.
The focus on poetry has other benefits. This anthology includes some works that are primarily performative and ephemeral, demonstrating how poetry helps bridge oral culture and print, preserving poetic utterances that fall outside a book-reading culture's notions of "literature" and might otherwise have perished. The generic conventions and verbal allusiveness of poetry also make it easier, having assembled all these poems beside each other, to discern lines of influence and imitation. We can see Phillis Wheatley's or the missionary poet Joshua Marsden's debts to Alexander Pope, or those in turn of later white female poets such as Mary Deverell and Mary Scott to Phillis Wheatley, or of Samuel Taylor Coleridge to William Cowper and Robert Southey, and so forth, across an endlessly complex web of literary connection. And of course the variety of forms and voices and idioms available in poetry, and the celebrated tradition of imaginative freedom ("poetic license"), give poetry unsurpassed versatility in capturing extremes of emotion, experience, or fantasy. Poetry is all the more valuable because with a subject like slavery the violence and brutality, the suffering and destruction-most of the historic reality and psychological experience-can seem somehow ineffable, too terrible for words. Poetry, of all forms of language, best enables us to approximate or intimate the unspeakable.
Indeed, there is a transformative power that is in some way applicable to almost all the poetry in this anthology: the transformation of sin and sorrow into grace, of suffering into beauty, of alienation into empathy and connection, of the unspeakable into imaginative literature. That power is best dramatized in the story behind the hymn from which this volume takes its name, "Amazing Grace." Assumed by many people to be a "Negro spiritual" of the nineteenth century, it was originally composed in the 1770s by the English clergyman and abolitionist John Newton, whose preaching and writing inspired generations of abolitionists, including William Cowper, William Wilberforce, and Hannah More. The twist is that in his youth Newton had been a slave trader, sailing on several slaving voyages and eventually serving as captain of a slave ship. To the discomfort of some, the famous lyrics that are so widely heard as the slave's yearning for deliverance from the sufferings of this world-"Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)/That sav'd a wretch like me!"-were originally the words of a penitent slave trader giving thanks for his deliverance from the sinfulness of slave trading. In a further twist, by the mid-1800s Newton's hymn had indeed been taken up by black Christians, enslaved and free alike, to such a degree that in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), at his deepest moment of crisis (chap. 38), Tom achieves a kind of ecstatic transcendence by singing "Amazing Grace"-an act that, given the popularity of Stowe's novel, did effectively canonize the hymn as the paradigmatic expression of Negro piety and spirituality.
There is another aspect to this transformative power, one that emerges most clearly when the material in this volume is considered as a whole. By giving form to the previously unimagined, poetry helps shape reality, offering new models or blueprints for change, both personal and societal. As Percy Bysshe Shelley (himself a fierce critic of slavery) wrote in his great Defence of Poetry, "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." The 400 poems in this anthology trace 150 years of poetic expression about slavery leading up to the abolition of the slave trade in the first decade of the 1800s. A half-century later, when Abraham Lincoln made his famous comment to Mrs. Stowe about her book causing the American Civil War, he was, in more ways than he realized, echoing earlier generations of poets who believed in the power of literature to affect the course of history.
The Historical Context and the Rationale for 1660-1810
Any periodization is problematic, but there is a clear rationale for the period 1660 to 1810 as the natural framework for this anthology. It is rooted in historical circumstances. The English were relative latecomers to the African slave trade. Beginning in the 1430s and 1440s the Portuguese shipped African slaves back to the Iberian Peninsula, and they extended the traffic to the Azores and other Atlantic islands as they pushed their incursions south along the West African coast over the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Columbus's voyages to the New World at the close of the fifteenth century opened the way for the transatlantic slave trade of the 1500s, which continued to be dominated by the Portuguese (later joined by the Dutch and French) and carried tens of thousands of slaves to Portuguese Brazil and to the Spanish possessions across South America and the Caribbean. Apart from isolated slaving voyages by Sir John Hawkins in the 1560s, the English showed little interest. This changed in the early seventeenth century-after the famous arrival of a load of slaves in Virginia in 1619 (carried by a Dutch ship) and the acquisition of Barbados (where sugar would be grown) in 1625-but only slowly.
It is the year 1660 around which major events and geopolitical changes in the Anglo-Atlantic world cluster, from London to New York to the Caribbean. The British takeover of Jamaica in the late 1650s was pivotal: the Spanish left behind plantations and the African slaves who worked them, and the vast size of the island (twenty-six times the size of Barbados) made huge expansion possible. During the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 1660s the English also acquired new territories, including various African and Caribbean possessions and, most importantly, New Amsterdam/New York. The year 1660 also marked the restoration of the English monarchy, after two decades of civil war and fractious commonwealth, which not only brought stability at home but ushered in an era of burgeoning trade and colonial expansion overseas. In 1663 the Company of Royal Adventurers to Africa was formed, and then was succeeded by the Royal African Company in 1672. With these developments, English involvement in and awareness of African slavery began to grow dramatically. Significantly, Aphra Behn, whose Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave (1688) would do more to raise English awareness of New World slavery than any other literary work of the century, gathered her observations about slavery in the early 1660s when she traveled to Surinam with her father, a newly appointed colonial official.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the picture had changed beyond recognition. Between 1672 and 1713 the Royal African Company sent five hundred ships to Africa which, in addition to other trade, carried away 125,000 slaves for transatlantic sale. By 1730, Britain (as it was called after the Union with Scotland in 1707) had become the world's leading slave-trading nation, and would occupy that position until the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. And it wasn't just as cargo that slaves were entering British consciousness. Beginning in the 1730s, articles about slave insurrections appeared regularly in London periodicals: a total of 52 articles about 43 different insurrections, for example, were published in the Gentleman's Magazine between the late 1730s and the eve of the American Revolution. By the late eighteenth century slavery was practiced throughout the British colonies, including those that would become the United States; in the economies and agricultural systems that depended on slave labor there had been phenomenal growth in numbers. To take just one example: in 1700 Virginia had 16,000 black slaves; by 1780 there were 220,000. In the last years of the eighteenth century, British ships were carrying 45,000 slaves per year across the Atlantic. By 1810 British ships had carried more than three million slaves to the New World, of which more than 1,361,000 had been imported into the British West Indies, and a further 376,500 into British North America.
Thus it is all the more remarkable that at the same time, the anglophone Atlantic community also led the world in opposition to slavery. At first individuals took the lead, people like the Philadelphia Quaker Anthony Benezet, who ran a charity school for blacks and wrote a stream of pamphlets against slavery, and Granville Sharp in England, who filed legal actions against slaveholders and forced the landmark Somerset ruling of 1772, that no master could forcibly remove his slave from England. Gradually, more organized efforts emerged. While pious individuals of various denominations had spoken out against slavery at intervals since at least 1688, in the second half of the eighteenth century Quaker societies and other religious groups on both sides of the Atlantic began to denounce slaveholding as sinful with greater frequency, and in 1775 the first abolition society was formed in Pennsylvania. In the mid-1770s a group of activists (including Samuel Johnson) helped Joseph Knight secure his manumission in the Scottish courts, in a case I will return to below. In 1785 Cambridge University set the slave trade as the topic of an essay competition, and Thomas Clarkson's winning essay marked the beginning of his lifelong career as an abolitionist. In 1787 the British Abolition Society was founded in London and launched a national campaign. Largely through its efforts, thousands of petitions calling for the abolition of the slave trade flooded into Parliament from churches, town councils, corporate bodies, and citizen groups of all kinds. In May 1789 William Wilberforce led a group of antislavery MPs that began the struggle to pass an abolition bill, a struggle they would be forced to continue for almost twenty years, before a meaningful bill was passed in 1807. Meanwhile in America individual states in the North began to abolish slavery: first Vermont in 1777, followed, during the years 1780 to 1804, by Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey. In 1807 the government of the United States, in parallel with Britain, outlawed the overseas slave trade, though of course the practice of slavery itself remained and a clandestine traffic in slave importation was to persist for another fifty years.
The year 1810 thus marks the appropriate closure for this volume, as major historic shifts occurred about that time. Both the British and American abolition of the slave trade took effect on January 1, 1808. Thereafter the British government dispatched ships of the Royal Navy to patrol the African coast and occasionally used the illegality of the slave trade as an added pretext to interfere with American shipping (they also were seeking to impress sailors alleged to have deserted from British ships). In 1812, as a result of this interference on the high seas and other grievances, America and Britain went to war, and during that war the British not only sacked and burned Washington, D.C., but also carried away hundreds of slaves they had enticed over to their side. From about 1810, America and Britain followed rapidly diverging trajectories on the slavery question. In Britain, popular opposition to slavery grew throughout the 1810s and 1820s, leading to further legislation and the peaceful abolition of slavery throughout the British colonies in 1833. Meanwhile America lurched through a series of moral and constitutional crises, beginning with the debates over admitting Missouri and other territories as free or slave states in the 1810s, and eventually descended into a bloody civil war. A dramatic reminder of these diverging trajectories is the fact that the American "Underground Railroad" for fugitive slaves eventually led to sanctuary in the British territory of Canada. After 1810, slavery in British and American cultural life became two different stories.
Excerpted from Amazing Grace Copyright © 2002 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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