‘Slavery’ by Hannah More is a long poem that served as campaign literature for the abolition of slavery. More specifically wrote this to launch William Wilberforce’s Parliamentary campaign for the abolition of the slave trade in the eighteenth century. The poem makes a case to put an end to slavery by exposing the hypocrisy in the act and appealing to readers’ humanity.
‘Slavery’ by Hannah More is a campaign poem that argues for the abolition of the slave trade. It was used to launch William Wilberforce’s campaign back in the eighteenth century when the slave trade in Britain peaked.
‘Slavery’ begins with More introducing the concepts of freedom and liberty. She personalizes both while describing how they are not available to all. In subsequent lines, More specifies the absence of liberty in slavery. Her empathy is evident when she questions why African slaves are not free, whereas her country, Britain, claims to stand for freedom. More declares her desire for their freedom to be the inspiration for ‘Slavery.’ This clarifies her stance on the abolition of slavery.
More then exposes the hypocrisy behind the anti-abolitionists’ arguments. One by one, she points out their greed, racism, callousness, and disrespect for faith. While disproving their reasons to continue slavery, More exposes the harm slavery inflicts on its victims. She appeals to the public’s emotions, describing the torture slaves undergo. More discusses Quashi, a slave who chose suicide over his master’s punishment. Afterward, More calls for equality, stating that Africans experience as much pain as Europeans do because they are as human and should be treated as such.
Towards the end of the poem, More switches to a less accusatory and caustic tone (reserved for anti-abolitionists). She takes up a tone infused with hope as she praises people who turned pro-abolition long before the publication of her poem. More lauds William Penn and the Quakers for the emancipation of slaves. She also predicts a future where Britain sets a good example and abolishes slavery. More importantly, she hopes the entire world will follow this example so Africans can be free everywhere. More wishes that in doing so, Christianity and Britain will be redeemed.
‘Slavery’ by Hannah More is a single-stanza poem of 294 lines. Though the poem appears as a single long stanza, a closer look at the structure reveals a make-up of 147 rhyming couplets in total. The poem also has a line length of ten syllables with each line written in iambic pentameter. With that said, ‘Slavery’ is a rather traditional poem. More strategically uses rhyme and rhythm from the meter to ease her readers into the poem. Considering the controversial issues the poem addresses and More’s relentless chastisement of Britain, her use of rhyme and rhythm also mellows out the poem, pacifying the public while conveying its message.
Hannah More employs enjambment and consistent punctuation throughout ‘Slavery.’ The punctuation makes the poem more interactive. They not only indicate a pause or the end of a thought, but also provoke the reader’s thoughts when the speaker asks a question. In addition, More writes in Modern English. This earlier form of English prided in the omission of letters and took on a different structure for past tense verbs.
- Metaphor: The entire poem relies on metaphors, specifically conceits, to convey its message. Many times, More compares her personified virtues to a “Goddess” or the “Sun” to underscore how good they are. Throughout the poem, More connects two or more other ideas that have no similarities at first glance. She intentionally does so to create apt imagery and enable readers to understand the message conveyed.
- Apostrophe: Throughout ‘Slavery,’ the speaker addresses ideas like “Liberty,” “Truth,” “Freedom,” and “Oppression.” These ideas are not only abstract, but also absent as physical entities, hence the figure of speech.
- Personification: All abstract ideas, concepts, and virtues are personified to enable readers to create apt visual imagery. This is notable at the poem’s beginning. More personifies “Liberty” and “Freedom” to make them as real as persons to her audience.
- Rhetorical Question: More uses rhetorical questions to rebut arguments against abolition and provoke the readers’ thoughts. She also uses it to communicate with personified ideas like “Truth.” It is a predominant device in the poem.
- Allusion: The poem is full of references to philosophers, teachings, faith, slaves, and slave masters, to mention but a few. For instance, More mentions Thomas “Southerne” and his novel, “Oroonoko” as a major inspiration for the poem. More capitalized references like these, so they are hard to miss. This goes to show how knowledgeable More is.
- Alliteration: More discusses a serious topic in ‘Slavery,’ but that does not stop her from using fun devices like alliteration. With alliterations like “she sheds,” “parts perverted,” “then, thy,” and many others, More not only creates a rhythm to put readers at ease, but also makes the poem memorable for them.
- Oxymoron: Oxymoron is the placing of two words that often infer opposite meanings side by side. For example, the phrase “capricious fate” from the poem is an oxymoron. This is because the word “fate” should imply a future that does not easily change. However, the word “capricious” implies the contrary. Another example of an oxymoron in the poem is the phrase “philosophic quirks.”
- Anaphora: This is not as common as other literary devices, but occasionally, one finds words like “No” in beginning lines 245 and 246. One also finds “For” beginning both line 179 and 180. Anaphora is an artistic form of repetition. More intentionally uses it to balance out the seriousness of the poem.
- Metonymy: “Polish’d souls” is a common metonymy used in ‘Slavery.’ More uses this phrase to refer to her people, the Englishmen. She notes that this is something Africans are not.
- Synecdoche: “Felon hands” is an example of a synecdoche in the poem. More uses this phrase to refer to the European slave masters.
IF heaven has into being deign’d to call
Thy light, O LIBERTY! to shine on all;
Bright intellectual Sun! why does thy ray
To earth distribute only partial day?
Since no resisting cause from spirit flows
Thy penetrating essence to opose;
No obstacles by Nature’s hand imprest,
Thy subtle and ethereal beams arrest;
Nor motion’s laws can speed thy active course,
Nor strong repulsion’s pow’rs obstruct thy force;
Since there is no convexity in MIND,
Why are thy genial beams to parts confin’d?
The opening lines of ‘Slavery’ are as artistic as they are direct. The speaker in the poem, More herself, does not beat about the bush. Using a conceit for the concept of freedom, she goes straight to the heart of the poem. Her conceit for freedom and equality is sunshine. In these lines, More refers to “Liberty” as a “Bright intellectual Sun” that is destined by “Heaven” to distribute its rays equally. With this, More reveals her stance on the issue of freedom and equality. She believes it to be an element of nature and even spirituality itself.
The imagery the conceit paints may seem strange and even inaccurate to any scientist at first. Celestial design automatically makes it so that the sun’s rays are not evenly distributed. However, More’s aim and the very definition of a conceit do not necessarily require accurate comparisons. The title of the poem, added to More’s precise enough comparisons, is sufficient to ease readers into the poem’s subject matter and More’s controversial point of view on it.
While the chill North with thy bright ray is blest,
Why should fell darkness half the South invest?
Was it decreed, fair Freedom! at thy birth,
That thou shou’d’st ne’er irradiate all the earth?
While Britain basks in thy full blaze of light,
Why lies sad Afric quench’d in total night?
Thee only, sober Goddess! I attest,
In smiles chastis’d, and decent graces drest.
Not that unlicens’d monster of the crowd,
Whose roar terrific bursts in peals so loud,
Deaf’ning the ear of Peace: fierce Faction’s tool;
Of rash Sedition born, and mad Misrule;
Whose stubborn mouth, rejecting Reason’s rein,
No strength can govern, and no skill restrain;
Whose magic cries the frantic vulgar draw
To spurn at Order, and to outrage Law;
These lines of ‘Slavery’ relinquish a bit of the glamor in the speaker’s conceit. Though slowly, they begin to uncover the perpetrators and victims of the issue at hand. Between lines 13-18, the speaker mentions Britain as the country receiving this full radiance of “Freedom” and Africa (“Afric”) as the continent in darkness. With this conceit, More indirectly and aptly calls Britain the perpetrator of slavery, the country basking in freedom. She rightly names Africans as the victims lacking this freedom they should have. In these few lines, More has effectively captured the concept of inequality.
In the next few lines, More once again makes her stance clear. She is for the “Goddess” called freedom and against slavery. Between lines 19-28, More describes slavery using apt personifications. She reveals to readers the damage slavery has done to British governance and the nation as a whole. The descriptions are intentionally harsh and near graphic to effectively persuade the neutral, or even anti-abolitionist mind, that slavery has done Britain more harm than good.
To tread on grave Authority and Pow’r,
And shake the work of ages in an hour:
Convuls’d her voice, and pestilent her breath,
She raves of mercy, while she deals out death:
Each blast is fate; she darts from either hand
Red conflagration o’er th’ astonish’d land;
Clamouring for peace, she rends the air with noise,
And to reform a part, the whole destroys.
O, plaintive Southerne! whose impassion’d strain
So oft has wak’d my languid Muse in vain!
Now, when congenial themes her cares engage,
She burns to emulate thy glowing page;
Her failing efforts mock her fond desires,
She shares thy feelings, not partakes thy fires.
Strange pow’r of song! the strain that warms the heart
Seems the same inspiration to impart;
The speaker dedicates these lines to exposing the hypocrisy of anti-abolitionists. Between lines 29-36, using metaphor, More reveals how anti-abolitionists back in the eighteenth century claimed slavery was important to the nation’s economy and even beneficial for slaves. Some anti-abolitionists argued that slavery itself was a way of life. They also argued that by taking slaves out of Africa and giving them a better life in Britain and the Americas, they were showing slaves mercy. In line 32, More calls out this “mercy” for what it is: “death.” She also calls the anti-abolitionist’s concept of “fate” (line 33), meaning their reference to slavery as the way of the world, a hoax by exposing its devastating consequences.
“Southerne” in line 37 alludes to Thomas Southerne, an Irish playwright and novelist. In these lines, More tells readers that, in some way, Southerne’s work inspired ‘Slavery.’ One can guess she must be referring to his famous novel turned drama, Oroonoko, which depicted the plight of black slaves. It was one of the earliest works that criticized the slave trade in England.
The name “Southerne” may also bring to mind southerners in America, who used many black slaves Britain exported and were, naturally, anti-abolitionist. They were major defenders of slavery, claiming in so many words that it was a divine institution and the slaves were comfortable being slaves.
Touch’d by the kindling energy alone,
We think the flame which melts us is our own;
Deceiv’d, for genius we mistake delight,
Charm’d as we read, we fancy we can write.
Tho’ not to me, sweet Bard, thy pow’rs belong
Fair Truth, a hallow’d guide! inspires my song.
Here Art wou’d weave her gayest flow’rs in vain,
For Truth the bright invention wou’d disdain.
For no fictitious ills these numbers flow,
But living anguish, and substantial woe;
No individual griefs my bosom melt,
For millions feel what Oroonoko felt:
Fir’d by no single wrongs, the countless host
I mourn, by rapine dragg’d from Afric’s coast.
Perish th’illiberal thought which wou’d debase
The native genius of the sable race!
In these lines, More refers to the arguments anti-abolitionists rendered in favor of slavery. In essence, More calls them flowery words with no substance, vain arguments rendered in the hopes of “sound” passionate and intellectual. She then juxtaposes their arguments with her own and mentions that her words are, unlike theirs, inspired by truth. Her arguments, contrary to theirs, are based in reality, the reality being the dehumanizing and subsequent suffering of slaves. Although More ridicules the perpetrators of slavery, she dials down on her accusatory tone by referring to them as “we,” including herself, instead of “you.”
Contrary to the anti-abolitionist’s view, More refers to the black slave’s humanity as a “native genius.” Though this phrase may sound like a sardonic oxymoron, it solidifies More’s stance on equality. More was able to recognize blacks as different but equal “genius(es)” all the same. Another contradictory phrase appears in line 49, where More denies possessing the ability of a poet. Despite her claims, her ability to maintain rhyme, rhythm, and meter while addressing a serious topic elevates her ability as a “Bard.”
In these lines, More does not elaborate on the anti-abolitionist’s stance; she does not need to. After all, anyone living in those times was bound to understand the arguments she inferred. More so, the focus of the poem was on her stance, not that of the anti-abolitionists. “Oroonoko” finally appears in these lines, alluding to the novel by Thomas Southerne: Oroonoko: A Tragedy. This novel (later adapted into a play) was about the titular prince who, sold into slavery by Europeans, led an unsuccessful revolt against them. He was killed and dismembered.
Perish the proud philosophy, which sought
To rob them of the pow’rs of equal thought!
Does then th’ immortal principle within
Change with the casual colour of a skin?
Does matter govern spirit? or is mind
Degraded by the form to which ’tis join’d?
No: they have heads to think, and hearts to feel,
And souls to act, with firm, tho’ erring, zeal;
For they have keen affections, kind desires,
Love strong as death, and active patriot fires;
All the rude energy, the fervid flame,
Of high-soul’d passion, and ingenuous shame:
Strong, but luxuriant virtues boldly shoot
From the wild vigour of a savage root.
Nor weak their sense of honour’s proud control,
For pride is virtue in a Pagan soul;
These lines in ‘Slavery’ highlight More’s perspective of black slaves, equality, and racism. Through rhetorical questions, More reveals that the perpetrators of slavery believe the slaves are below them. She reveals their disdain for the color of the slaves’ skin and the perpetrators’ belief that it somehow makes the slaves unintelligent (lines 65-66). More once again rebuts these beliefs, showing that black slaves are just as human as their white masters. In underscoring their traits, however, More does not sing their praises. She highlights their strengths as well as weaknesses (lines 71 and 76).
On the one hand, one can interpret these lines to be More, showing the humanity of slaves, flaws, and all. On the other hand, words like “savage” in line 74 remind us that More had, like many white abolitionists, applied the self-reference criteria in interpreting African culture.
A sense of worth, a conscience of desert,
A high, unbroken haughtiness of heart:
That self-same stuff which erst proud empires sway’d,
Of which the conquerers of the world were made.
Capricious fate of man! that very pride
In Afric scourg’d, in Rome was deify’d.
No Muse, O Quashi! shall thy deeds relate,
No statue snatch thee from oblivious fate!
James Ramsay, a Scottish surgeon and abolitionist, tells the story of Quashi (line 83) in his essay, An Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies. Quashi was a slave who killed himself because dying was more honorable to slaves than bearing marks from a whip; Quashi’s master was about to punish him.
In these lines, More exposes the hypocrisy in the anti-abolitionist’s perception of dignity in slaves. She challenges them with the thought that though they celebrate that same “sense of worth” in other races, they seek to squash it in African slaves. At this point, one can tell any open-minded reader would already be tilting towards More’s side simply for her exposing the hypocrisy on the other side. Slowing eroding one’s opponent’s arguments was a wise tactic on More’s part.
For thou wast born where never gentle Muse
On Valour’s grave the flow’rs of Genius strews;
And thou wast born where no recording page
Plucks the fair deed from Time’s devouring rage.
Had Fortune plac’d thee on some happier coast,
Where polish’d souls heroic virtue boast,
To thee, who sought’st a voluntary grave,
Th’ uninjur’d honours of thy name to save,
Whose generous arm thy barbarous Master spar’d,
Altars had smok’d, and temples had been rear’d.
Whene’er to Afric’s shores I turn my eyes,
Horrors of deepest, deadliest guilt arise;
More’s self-reference criteria, earlier hinted at in ‘Slavery,’ is more prominent in these lines. She automatically assumes that Quashi, and by extension, Africans, do not have the means to document and celebrate their stories and the heroes in them simply because they do not write them down like the Englishman. She also assumes that the continent of Africa was not a happy continent (line 89) when, in fact, it was as happy as any other continent before the Europeans’ arrival. One would recall More indirectly calling Africans savages with the juxtaposition in line 90, her wishing for “polish’d souls” to sing Quashi’s praises. “Voluntary grave” refers to Quashi’s suicide.
The self-reference criteria were common among white abolitionists back then. It eventually led to contentions between white and black abolitionists, with whites failing to see Africans outside their perspective and blacks willing to do so.
I see, by more than Fancy’s mirror shewn,
The burning village, and the blazing town:
See the dire victim torn from social life,
The shrieking babe, the agonizing wife!
She, wretch forlorn! is dragg’d by hostile hands,
To distant tyrants sold, in distant lands!
Transmitted miseries, and successive chains,
The sole sad heritage her child obtains!
Ev’n this last wretched boon their foes deny,
To weep together, or together die.
By felon hands, by one relentless stroke,
See the fond links of feeling nature broke!
The fibres twisting round a parent’s heart,
Torn from their grasp, and bleeding as they part.
Hold, murderers, hold! not aggravate distress;
Respect the passions you yourselves possess;
These lines represent the transition from More rebutting her opponent’s arguments to her appealing to the public’s emotions. These lines employ graphic visual imagery in describing the plight of Africans as they are sold into slavery. More intentionally does this to stir empathy, or at least sympathy, in a reader’s heart. One can also say More is not particularly interested in appealing to the anti-abolitionists, seeing as she calls them “murderers” in line 111. Rather, More seeks to win over the crowd of minds neutral or passive to the subject of slavery.
Ev’n you, of ruffian heart, and ruthless hand,
Love your own offspring, love your native land.
Ah! leave them holy Freedom’s cheering smile,
The heav’n-taught fondness for the parent soil;
Revere affections mingled with our frame,
In every nature, every clime the same;
In all, these feelings equal sway maintain;
In all the love of HOME and FREEDOM reign:
And Tempe’s vale, and parch’d Angola’s sand,
One equal fondness of their sons command.
Th’ unconquer’d Savage laughs at pain and toil,
Basking in Freedom’s beams which gild his native soil.
Does thirst of empire, does desire of fame,
(For these are specious crimes) our rage inflame?
No: sordid lust of gold their fate controls,
The basest appetite of basest souls;
In these lines, it becomes evident that rather than appeal, More commands the anti-abolitionists to respect the emotions of the Africans they enslave. More does this by forcing the anti-abolitionists to picture how they feel about and interact with their own country and their families. She also guides readers to view and understand slavery from the African’s perspective. Then, Africans from all over the African continent were pulled from their homes and lives as they knew it and thrown into hostile and unfamiliar environments without any time to adjust. More does a good job of relating to the public how disorienting it must have been for Africans.
While some anti-abolitionists express the view that working was what Africans still did, be it on European soil or African soil, More relates between lines 123-124 that the missing element of freedom working on the slaver’s land makes the job totally different.
“Tempe’s vale” in line 121 refers to Tempe’s Estate, a land known for enslaving many Africans. The contrast between this estate and “parch’d Angola sand” highlights how forced migration left African countries like Angola more or less drained of its people. In line 122, More draws a similarity between the people on both lands: their affection for their own.
Gold, better gain’d, by what their ripening sky,
Their fertile fields, their arts and mines supply.
What wrongs, what injuries does Oppression plead
To smooth the horror of th’ unnatural deed?
What strange offence, what aggravated sin?
They stand convicted–of a darker skin!
Barbarians, hold! th’ opprobious commerce spare,
Respect his sacred image which they bear:
Tho’ dark and savage, ignorant and blind,
They claim the common privilege of kind;
Let Malice strip them of each other plea,
They still are men, and men shou’d still be free.
Insulted Reason, loaths th’ inverted trade–
Dire change! the agent is the purchase made!
So far in ‘Slavery,’ More has dedicated her lines to exposing the hypocrisy of the anti-abolitionists. In these lines, however, More digs deeper into the reason for this hypocrisy. She calls it greed. Here, More reveals the true reason the slave trade began: gold. Of course, the poem tells how Europeans were already reaping benefits from Africa through the trade of farm produce, art, and minerals (lines 129-130). However, greed got the better of the Europeans and, according to history, some African monarchs as well. Soon after, the trade of humans began.
More chides her countrymen for their greed, calling their dehumanization and subsequent oppression of Africans an “aggravated sin.” She also calls the image of the slaves “sacred.” Both phrases allude to her Christian faith, a major reason she fought for equality and freedom. In the last lines, and for the first time, More makes her case for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery itself clearly.
Perplex’d, the baffled Muse involves the tale;
Nature confounded, well may language fail!
The outrag’d Goddess with abhorrent eyes
Sees MAN the traffic, SOULS the merchandize!
Plead not, in reason’s palpable abuse,
Their sense of feeling callous and obtuse:
From heads to hearts lies Nature’s plain appeal,
Tho’ few can reason, all mankind can feel.
Tho’ wit may boast a livelier dread of shame,
A loftier sense of wrong refinement claim;
Tho’ polished manners may fresh wants invent,
And nice distinctions nicer souls torment;
Tho’ these on finer spirits heavier fall,
Yet natural evils are the same to all.
Dehumanization is most evident in line 148 of this poem. This was one of the anti-abolitionists’ arguments: Africans cannot feel the pain inflicted on them. More, by personifying “Reason” and “Nature” reveals the ridiculousness and pure hatred behind this argument. However, in defending the slaves’ ability to feel, More once again applies the self-reference criteria. She concludes that not many Africans can reason because they do not reason the way she does. She says they do not have “manners” because those manners differ from hers.
Tho’ wounds there are which reason’s force may heal,
There needs no logic sure to make us feel.
The nerve, howe’er untutor’d, can sustain
A sharp, unutterable sense of pain;
As exquisitely fashion’d in a slave,
As where unequal fate a sceptre gave.
Sense is as keen where Congo’s sons preside,
As where proud Tiber rolls his classic tide.
Rhetoric or verse may point the feeling line,
They do not whet sensation, but define.
Did ever slave less feel the galling chain,
When Zeno prov’d there was no ill in pain?
Their miseries philosophic quirks deride,
Slaves groan in pangs disown’d by Stoic pride.
When the fierce Sun darts vertical his beams,
And thirst and hunger mix their wild extremes;
These lines go further to describe the relatability and universality of emotions, specifically pain. In essence, More tells her readers, specifically anti-abolitionists, that just as they feel pain, slaves do too. More also mentions the philosopher Zeno and how his philosophy of Stoicism proved unhelpful in the case of the slave trade. Zeno’s philosophy essentially says that any feeling that cannot fix a problem is unnecessary, and the problem itself should be the focus if one can fix it. However, one quickly realizes that this is easier said than done when one is being tortured continuously, be it by man, hunger, or extreme weather conditions.
When the sharp iron wounds his inmost soul,
And his strain’d eyes in burning anguish roll;
Will the parch’d negro find, ere he expire,
No pain in hunger, and no heat in fire?
For him, when fate his tortur’d frame destroys,
What hope of present fame, or future joys?
For this, have heroes shorten’d nature’s date;
For that, have martyrs gladly met their fate;
But him, forlorn, no hero’s pride sustains,
No martyr’s blissful visions sooth his pains;
Sullen, he mingles with his kindred dust,
For he has learn’d to dread the Christian’s trust;
These lines appeal once again to the readers’ empathy. More uses rhetorical questions to invite the reader into conversation and provoke their thoughts. Like More, the reader is led to ask, in essence, “What is this all for?” as the poet details the purposelessness of the death of slaves. They are neither heroes who die and end up being famous nor martyrs who leave the earth for a dignified cause.
The last line highlights the first time More mentions her faith. Contrary to the expected, she does not place it in a good light. Rather, she uses the word “Christian” the same way anti-abolitionists used it and slaves saw it. According to history, the Christian religion was one of the means through which European slavers hoodwinked Africans into indulging in the slave trade. The last line depicts the fear slaves felt in experiencing the product of this faith as advertised by their masters, even though it was initially presented as trusting.
To him what mercy can that Pow’r display,
Whose servants murder, and whose sons betray?
Savage! thy venial error I deplore,
They are not Christians who infest thy shore.
O thou sad spirit, whose preposterous yoke
The great deliver Death, at length, has broke!
Releas’d from misery, and escap’d from care,
Go meet that mercy man deny’d thee here.
In thy dark home, sure refuge of th’ opress’d,
The wicked vex not, and the weary rest.
And, if some notions, vague and undefin’d,
Of future terrors have assail’d thy mind;
If such thy masters have presum’d to teach,
As terrors only they are prone to preach;
(For shou’d they paint eternal Mercy’s reign,
Where were th’ oppressor’s rod, the captive’s chain?)
These lines capture the amount of suffering slaves endured. Although More previously showed that African slaves feel pain as much as Europeans do, lines 185-194 reveal that the slaves suffered even greater pain. For More to describe in detail the comfort a personified “Death” offers, one can only imagine. We have already established through the story of Quashi that slaves often preferred to kill themselves than bear punishment from their slave masters.
Unimaginable pain must have been the reason. More also uses these lines to express that these anti-abolitionists did not act like, and were not, Christians. One can believe this narrative, especially since More already referenced the greed of these slavers, a trait that is certainly anti-faith.
If, then, thy troubled soul has learn’d to dread
The dark unknown thy trembling footsteps tread;
On HIM, who made thee what thou art, depend;
HE, who withholds the means, accepts the end.
Not thine the reckoning dire of LIGHT abus’d,
KNOWLEDGE disgrac’d, and LIBERTY misus’d;
On thee no awful judge incens’d shall sit
For parts perverted, and dishonour’d wit.
Where ignorance will be found the surest plea,
How many learn’d and wise shall envy thee!
And thou, WHITE SAVAGE! whether lust of gold,
Or lust of conquest, rule thee uncontrol’d!
Hero, or robber!–by whatever name
Thou plead thy impious claim to wealth or fame;
Whether inferior mischiefs be thy boast,
A petty tyrant rifling Gambia’s coast:
More addresses two groups of people directly in these lines. Between lines 201-210, she addresses the African slaves. Her goal is to market true Christianity to them, not by pointing to her attributes but to God Himself. “HIM” and “HE” in these lines refer to God. More encourages them to ignore the people who have “perverted” faith and depend on “HIM.” Till today, this remains the rhetoric in debates that still use religion to justify slavery and any evil act. These justifications have been called perversions by many in religious and even secular circles.
The remainder of the lines begins More’s warning to her fellow Brits. She calls them “white savages.”
Or bolder carnage track thy crimson way,
Kings disposses’d, and Provinces thy prey;
Panting to tame wide earth’s remotest bound;
All Cortez murder’d, all Columbus found;
O’er plunder’d realms to reign, detested Lord,
Make millions wretched, and thyself abhorr’d;—-
In Reason’s eye, in Wisdom’s fair account,
Your sum of glory boasts a like amount;
The means may differ, but the end’s the same;
Conquest is pillage with a nobler name.
Who makes the sum of human blessings less,
Or sinks the stock of general happiness,
No solid fame shall grace, no true renown,
His life shall blazon, or his memory crown.
Had those advent’rous spirits who explore
Thro’ ocean’s trackless wastes, the far-sought shore;
More’s warning to the European slave traders appears more like a curse by its end (lines 229-230). More details the anti-abolitionists’ evil deeds, referring to them with sarcasm the way anti-abolitionists would describe them before exposing those deeds for what they truly are. For example, she calls their “conquest” “pillage.” Cortez and Columbus (line 220) are infamous colonizers, Cortez from the sixteenth century and Columbus from the fifteenth. Both enslaved thousands of indigenous natives in the lands they colonized.
As if More’s curse took effect, today, a large number of people worldwide do not remember the era of the slave trade with any form of affection. Many do not regard slave traders themselves as people to be honored.
Whether of wealth insatiate, or of pow’r,
Conquerors who waste, or ruffians who devour:
Had these possess’d, O COOK! thy gentle mind,
Thy love of arts, thy love of humankind;
Had these pursued thy mild and liberal plan,
DISCOVERERS had not been a curse to man!
The, bless’d Philanthropy! thy social hands
Had link’d dissever’d worlds in brothers bands;
Careless, if colour, or if clime divide;
Then, lov’d, and loving, man had liv’d, and died.
The purest wreaths which hang on glory’s shrine,
For empires founded, peaceful PENN! are thine;
No blood-stain’d laurels crown’d thy virtuous toil,
No slaughter’d natives drench’d thy fair-earn’d soil.
Still thy meek spirit in thy flock survives,
Consistent still, their doctrines rule their lives;
More did not write ‘Slavery’ to condemn anti-abolitionists alone. She also wrote the poem to laud people who were pro-abolition long before the publication of the poem. One such person is the Quakers and a Quaker leader, William Penn (line 284). However, one may say More’s opinion of William Penn is a bit rosy. Although William Penn allowed his slaves many rights (like the right to marry, etc.) and arguably treated them well, he still owned a number of slaves. Some he set free, some he did not, and his reasons for doing so remain unclear to this day.
Controversy also surrounds the history of the Quakers’. Nonetheless, they remain one of the first to campaign against slavery. Some historical documents mention they held slaves. However, those slaves were eventually emancipated. Years before William Wilberforce, the Quakers in England were the first to form an abolition committee. This group dedicated their lives to empowering their fellow campaigners as well.
The Quakers operated largely in secret due to persecution. This is why they remain fairly unknown as one of the pioneers of the Abolitionist Movement. More, however, brings them to the limelight with these lines. She commends them for leading the charge against slavery and connects their actions with the “spirit” of William “PENN.”
Thy followers only have effac’d the shame
Inscrib’d by SLAVERY on the Christian name.
Shall Britain, where the soul of freedom reigns,
Forge chains for others she herself disdains?
Forbid it, Heaven! O let the nations know
The liberty she loves she will bestow;
Not to herself the glorious gift confin’d,
She spreads the blessing wide as humankind;
And, scorning narrow views of time and place,
Bids all be free in earth’s extended space.
What page of human annals can record
A deed so bright as human rights restor’d?
O may that god-like deed, that shining page,
Redeem OUR fame, and consecrate OUR age!
And see, the cherub Mercy from above,
Descending softly, quits the sphere of love!
Given More’s constant chastisement of Britain, one may assume More is not patriotic. These lines, however, disprove such thought. More’s patriotism is ever so clear in her desire to see Britain not only great but good. More predicts a future where slavery is not only abolished, but Britain, and even Christianity, is redeemed by the abolishment. In some ways, that future has come to fruition. However, in other ways, both the nation and religious institutions still bear the stains of slavery today.
On feeling hearts she sheds celestial dew,
And breathes her spirit o’er th’ enlighten’d few;
From soul to soul the spreading influence steals,
Till every breast the soft contagion feels.
She bears, exulting, to the burning shore
The loveliest office Angel ever bore;
To vindicate the pow’r in Heaven ador’d,
To still the clank of chains, and sheathe the sword;
To cheer the mourner, and with soothing hands
From bursting hearts unbind th’ Oppressor’s bands;
To raise the lustre of the Christian name,
And clear the foulest blot that dims its fame.
As the mild Spirit hovers o’er the coast,
A fresher hue the wither’d landscapes boast;
Her healing smiles the ruin’d scenes repair,
And blasted Nature wears a joyous air.
These lines underscore More’s empathy for mankind as a whole. She envisions a future of freedom for not only Africans in Britain but Africans everywhere. When she reiterates her hope for the redemption of Christianity, the phrase “mild Spirit” refers to the Holy Spirit, one of the three persons of the Christian God. It is also an allusion to the book of Genesis, where the Spirit is mentioned to hover “over the waters.” More’s description presents a picture of how smoothly she expects the outcome of abolition to influence people’s affection toward her faith. But of course, many things never turn out so smoothly as seen in present times. Nonetheless, the black church remains proof that, at least to many African Americans, Christianity was redeemed.
She spreads her blest commission from above,
Stamp’d with the sacred characters of love;
She tears the banner stain’d with blood and tears,
And, LIBERTY! thy shining standard rears!
As the bright ensign’s glory she displays,
See pale OPPRESSION faints beneath the blaze!
The giant dies! no more his frown appals,
The chain untouch’d, drops off; the fetter falls.
Astonish’d echo tells the vocal shore,
Opression’s fall’n, and Slavery is no more!
The dusky myriads crowd the sultry plain,
And hail that mercy long invok’d in vain.
Victorious Pow’r! she bursts their two-fold bands,
And FAITH and FREEDOM spring from Mercy’s hands.
Despite bitter beginnings, the closing lines of ‘Slavery’ possess a tone of excitement and hope. More’s determination to end slavery is clear in her writing as if it was already gone. Her visual imagery is as intentional as it is clever. It urges readers to share the same hope of eliminating slavery.
“She” mentioned in the first few lines refers to “Nature” from previous lines. By mentioning “Nature” and other ideals like “Liberty,” “Faith,” and “Freedom,” More causes readers and anti-abolitionists alike to see these virtues on her side. Ending the poem with two of these virtues solidifies her stance for good even more. With this ending, one cannot be surprised if the passive, the neutral, and even anti-abolitionists walk away from ‘Slavery’ ready to end it.
‘Slavery’ was first published in 1788 in a British edition of T. Cadell, In the Strand. Ever since, extracts of the poem, even the full poem, have appeared in several anthologies. A copy of the original poem, however, is held in The British Library to this day.
The overall tone and mood of the poem is sober. That is to be expected, considering the poem discusses a serious subject matter. Nonetheless, throughout, More’s tone transitions from introspective to caustic to sad and finally, hopeful. Her mood transitions similarly, from angry to sad to excited.
‘Slavery’ helped raise awareness of the damaging effects of slavery on morality, faith, and Britain. It was part of More’s contribution to the Abolition Society and William Wilberforce’s Parliamentary campaign against slavery. This poem eventually became a useful tool in circles debating slavery. These debates eventually led to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and, finally, the abolition of slavery itself in 1833, the year More died.
One characterizes political poetry by its ability to advocate for or protest against subject matters affecting a nation. In this sense, ‘Slavery’ is political poetry. The poem protests against slavery, a political affair, and makes a case for its abolition.
If you enjoyed reading ‘Slavery’ by Hannah More, you should check out similar poetry below:
- ‘The Death of Slavery‘ by William Cullen Bryant: A poem in which the speaker celebrates the death of a personified Slavery after the American Civil War.
- ‘Bury Me in a Free Land‘ by Frances Harper: In this poem, the speaker/poet requests to be buried in a land where no one is a slave.
- ‘Harriet Beecher Stowe‘ by Paul Laurence Dunbar: This poem reveals the brutality and, therefore, inhumanity of slavery.