Also this week: Evan Turiano’s analysis of the historiography of self-emancipation reveals the importance of historians’ approach to enslaved people, while Nathan Wuertenberg’s piece on the relationship of the American Revolution to race-based empire examines similar forces.
by Lewis Eliot
On the twenty-first of August 1791, slaves, backed by rural maroon communities in Saint-Domingue’s Northern Province, rose up against their enslavers in what would become the opening stanza of the Haitian Revolution. In the ensuing years of conflict, the self-emancipated slaves defended their newly acquired freedom from their French former masters, as well as British, Spanish, and American attacks. After more than a decade of conflict, Haiti declared its independence on New Year’s Day 1804. The Haitian Revolution, as the first successful slave revolt, caused perhaps even greater global uproar than either the American or French Revolutions.
The impact of Haitian slaves’ successes fundamentally changed the ways in which imperial governments in Europe viewed enslaved Africans in their empires. Relationships between the myriad imperial powers changed dramatically, leading to, among other events, the ultimate rejection of Bourbon Reforms in Latin America, the Louisiana Purchase, the Napoleonic Wars, and the ending of the transatlantic slave trade. The Haitian Revolution also, however, drastically altered how the white European public related to the enslaved. Romantic poetry written after the Haitian Revolution is particularly illustrative of the evolution of the imperial public’s anxieties concerning slaves.
The late-eighteenth-century interest in recognizing those of African descent as ultimately victims of circumstance instead of inherently inferior subjects can be best understood by examining poems that were contemporary to Olaudah Equiano’s 1789 book The Interesting Narrative, an autobiographical account of enslavement in the New World. While by no means the first, Equiano’s story caught the European public’s imagination most vividly. The information in slave narratives like his prompted the public to consider more directly enslaved Africans as capable of equal, enlightened thoughts and emotions. The Romantic poetry that coincided with Equiano’s narrative addressed themes of slavery and abolitionism in the late eighteenth century. William Cowper’s “The Negro’s Complaint” (1788) and William Blake’s “The Little Black Boy” (1789) most overtly demonstrate these ideas.
Cowper (1731-1800) is best known for his religious works, particularly his hymns. He came to evangelical Christianity relatively late in life after having been institutionalized for insanity in the 1760s. His anti-slavery activism began when he met hymnodist John Newton. Newton commissioned abolitionist poetry from Cowper, the most famous example being “The Negro’s Complaint.” The poem is written from the perspective of a slave taken to the Americas to “increase a stranger’s treasures” with the narrator’s life changing hands for “paltry gold.”
“Skins may differ, but affection / Dwells in white and black the same.” -William Cowper, “The Negro’s Complaint.”
Cowper suggests that “minds are never to be sold,” even as slaves’ bodies were exchanged for material wealth. This is important for two reasons. First, despite being enslaved, the narrator is “still in thought as free as ever.” Second, while a body may be racialized, a mind cannot be. Cowper’s narrator states that “fleecy locks and black complexion /Cannot forfeit nature’s claim; /Skins may differ, but affection /Dwells in white and black the same.” Here Cowper notes that justifying enslavement based on a socially constructed otherness is at odds with ones’ natural personhood. Cowper ends with a plea to whites to “deem our nation brutes no longer.” Doing so would not only allow those of African descent to engage in the debate over slavery but would also “prove that you have human feelings, /Ere you proudly question ours!” Cowper believed that as long as whites viewed themselves as superior, a debate over slavery that included black voices could never be attained.
Blake (1757-1827) was an engraver, poet, and printer. Unlike Cowper, Blake’s anti-slavery work is often overlooked, thanks to his working-class origins and penchant for wide-reaching contrarianism. One of his most famous poems did, however, directly address themes of slavery. Blake’s “The Little Black Boy” appeared in his now-celebrated 1789 anthology, “The Songs of Innocence and of Experience.” Blake stressed the absurdity of racial divisions in even more pugnacious terms than Cowper. Blake’s protagonist announces “I am black but O, my soul is white!” as a first observation about his place in the world. Blake equates blackness to being “deprived of light” – a comment on the lack of opportunities afforded to slaves and black subjects in the Empire. This exclusion of advancement underlines still further the argument that situation, not race, was the reasoning behind white European claims of racial superiority. For Blake, those of African descent were not, in fact, so different.
While Cowper hinted at the theological truth of racial equality, Blake made this a central tenet of his poem. Blake used the metaphor of a cloud – the barrier between those of African descent and equality among whites – and stated that when it was removed, the truth of complete parity under God’s rule would be made clear. Blake wrote that “for when our souls have learn’d the heat to bear, /The cloud will vanish; we shall hear His voice, /Saying, ‘Come out from the grove, my love and care.'” Blake evidently envisaged a Christian Resurrection defined wholly by harmony and love, not by exploitation or the hierarchical nature of Enlightenment racial philosophies.
European writers and poets replaced appeals to white benevolence from slaves with appeals to whites to end slavery on behalf of enslaved men and women who were now seen as incapable of understanding their own plight in “civilized” terms.
Reports of black Haitians’ violence against their white former masters reached Europe swiftly and inspired white society to reevaluate depictions of black subjects as intellectual and emotional equals. Europeans’ immediate reactions to the conflict painted black Haitians as savage monsters clearly incapable of rational behavior. The arguments of Cowper’s narrator and the “Little Black Boy” – common themes in Romantic abolitionist literature – were soon replaced by a rather different treatment of black subjects. European writers and poets replaced appeals to white benevolence from slaves with appeals to whites to end slavery on behalf of enslaved men and women who were now seen as incapable of understanding their own plight in ‘civilized’ terms.
Like Blake, William Wordsworth (1770-1850) is perhaps not best remembered for his anti-slavery writings. Some of his works did, however, address abolition. Wordsworth’s “The Mad Mother” (1798) tells the story of an enslaved woman who commits infanticide after failing to find her child’s father. Unlike in Cowper and Blake’s subjects, Wordsworth’s protagonist is not capable of European sensibilities. Wordsworth notes that “her eyes were wild, her head is bare,” and that she remained committed to eschewing civilized society for the tranquility of the forest despite her and her son’s helplessness.
Wordsworth’s Mother is a pitiful figure. Far from seeking to underline black inferiority, Wordsworth makes a clear argument for the abhorrence of slavery. It is also clear, however, that considerable guidance from whites would be required as those of African descent were supposedly incapable of helping themselves. Unlike Cowper’s or Blake’s narrators who appeal directly to white society for help, the Mother, preoccupied with her own grief, would have to rely on white benevolence to come to her aid. Indeed, she is in the process of committing an act unthinkable to enlightened society. She sang to her child “in the English tongue.” This familiarity with whites’ language suggests that it is not cultural, but racial difference that sets her apart – a clear departure from the positions represented by Cowper and Blake.
At best, Coleridge’s white guilt functioned for its own sake and indicated the need for spiritual and individual, rather than material and collective, forms of transformation.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), a close friend of Wordsworth, also wrote on slavery. Perhaps his most famous poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) does not expressly address slavery and yet provides an invaluable demonstration of the ways in which the metropolitan public learned of and reacted to events on the periphery of the Empire. Coleridge’s poem portrays a sailor returning home and regaling his friends and family with stories from his time abroad. Coleridge’s narrator expresses guilt at killing an albatross that then hung around his neck “instead of a cross.” Many critics connect this metaphor to the unrecognized, rarely spoken of guilt felt by the British regarding their complicity in the transatlantic slave trade. Despite the collective distaste for slavery, however, those of African descent were kept at arm’s length. Coleridge and likeminded authors did not seek to engage with slaves’ plights or attempt to understand their situations directly. At best, white guilt functioned for its own sake and indicated the need for spiritual and individual, rather than material and collective, forms of transformation.
One of Wordsworth’s best known poems about slavery is To Toussaint L’Overture (1802). L’Ouverture was a former slave and charismatic general in the Haitian army who masterminded several decisive victories against the French in the 1790s. He was captured by the French in 1802 and died in custody in Fort de Joux in Eastern France the following year. Wordsworth portrayed L’Ouverture as a champion who endeavored bravely to model revolutionary Saint-Domingue as a ‘civilized’ nation. Despite his capture, Wordsworth attempts to reassure L’Ouverture that his cause had not died out. His “great allies,” according to Wordsworth, were “exultations,” “agonies,” and “love” – metaphors for distant, indirect abolitionist support for his emancipatory cause, but perhaps not what he and his followers needed.
While Wordsworth’s poem is to the memory of L’Ouverture’s heroism, it is also something of a lament to his defeat as the last individual of African descent who fitted the imagery popularized by Cowper and Blake. L’Ouverture’s defeat marked the failure of an abolitionist approach that sought to portray those of African descent as in some way similar to Europeans and without inherent flaws based on racial difference. L’Ouverture was, of course, an ideal figure for these portrayals. As Haiti’s leader, he brokered treaties with both Britain and the United States, and even arranged a short-term alliance with the French against the Spanish in 1794. He also elected not to overhaul the island’s plantation regime as he believed it necessary for successful and lasting autonomy. These approaches to governance mollified European spectators for a while. Their persistent fear of a well-organized slave rebellion without the tempering influence of a heroic, enlightened leader, however, meant that the white public soon saw slaves and African subjects as inherently different from white Europeans, as exemplified by the Mad Mother.
Rather than advance Cowper and Blake’s ideas for cross-racial discourse, post-Revolution poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge focused on the need for whites to exercise complete sovereignty, thereby maintaining control over black slaves and subjects while also seeming more benevolent.
Abolitionist efforts were, of course, eventually successful. British subjects were prohibited from involvement in the transatlantic slave trade from 1807, and Parliament outlawed slavery in Britain’s American colonies in 1833. Public opinion regarding those of African descent in the Empire, however, evolved far more slowly. Reactions to the Haitian Revolution – in particular its widespread, highly organized, and lethal violence against whites – somewhat crippled the chance for a public that would quickly evolve to accept black and white differences as simply cosmetic. This understandable ferocity against whites only strengthened the belief that white sovereignty should not be questioned regardless of the cruelty whites inflicted upon the enslaved – the very position that Cowper and Blake wrote so passionately against. Rather than advance Cowper and Blake’s ideas for cross-racial discourse, post-Revolution poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge focused on the need for whites to exercise complete sovereignty, thereby maintaining control over black slaves and subjects while also seeming more benevolent. It is unfortunately this approach that has endured, in many respects, through emancipation and independence to today.
White attitudes towards regions populated mostly by those of African descent became characterized by this desire to control – a suggestion that non-white groups are fundamentally incapable of helping themselves. This has led to a persistent culture of European interventionism that may not have occurred had the British public during the Age of Emancipation followed the advice of Cowper and Blake and sought to understand slaves’ plights directly. Had they done so, perhaps the public would not have reacted to self-emancipating slaves in Saint-Domingue with such horror, leaving the descendants of Haitian revolutionaries and those like them with rather more than just exultations, agonies, and love.
Lewis B.H. Eliot is a PhD Candidate and Presidential Fellow at the University of South Carolina. He received a BA in History and Ethnomusicology from the School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London and an MA in History from Queen’s University, Belfast. His research focuses on the understandings of abolitionist rhetoric among those of African descent in the imperial Caribbean between the late eighteenth- and mid nineteenth-centuries.
* * *
Our collected volume of essays, Demand the Impossible: Essays in History As Activism, is now available on Amazon! Based on research first featured on The Activist History Review, the twelve essays in this volume examine the role of history in shaping ongoing debates over monuments, racism, clean energy, health care, poverty, and the Democratic Party. Together they show the ways that the issues of today are historical expressions of power that continue to shape the present. Also, be sure to review our book on Goodreads and join our Goodreads group to receive notifications about upcoming promotions and book discussions for Demand the Impossible!
* * *
We here at The Activist History Review are always working to expand and develop our mission, vision, and goals for the future. These efforts sometimes necessitate a budget slightly larger than our own pockets. If you have enjoyed reading the content we host here on the site, please consider donating to our cause.
 For more, see David Patrick Geggus, Haitian Revolutionary Studies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002) and Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard, 2004).
 Celucien L. Joseph, “The Haitian Turn’: An Appraisal of Recent Literary and Historiographical Works on the Haitian Revolution” Journal of Pan African Studies 5:6 (2012): 37-55.
 For a brief overview of activism in this period, see David T. Huw, “Transnational Advocacy in the Eighteenth Century: Transnational Activism and the Anti-Slavery Movement” Global Networks 7:3 (2007): 367-382. For the connections between romanticism and slavery, see Debbie Lee, Slavery and the Romantic Imagination (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).
 For a concise appraisal of Cowper’s life, see James King, William Cowper: A Biography (Durham: Duke University Press, 1986).
 For more on Blake, see Gerald Eades Bentley, The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).
 For a recent biography of Wordsworth, see Stephen Gill, Wordsworth: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
 For more on Coleridge, see Harold Bloom (ed.), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009).
 For one of the seminal treatments of L’Ouverture, see C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York: The Dial Press, 1938). For more recent analysis, see Laurent Dubois, A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1807 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).
Pingback: ‘Domestic Insurrections Amongst Us’: A Critical Historiography of Slave Flight in the American Revolution – The Activist History Review
Pingback: Undeclaring Independence: White Liberals and the Erasure of American History – The Activist History Review