Commentary: The Slave Trade

Throughout the second half of the 1700s the gradual movement toward the abolition of slavery in Britain gained considerable momentum. The impulse to end the trade of human beings was the logical consequence of the discourse of rights which we have seen come to characterise the Sheffield Register poems of 1793–94. The recent events of both the American and French Revolutions had forcefully raised serious questions about fundamental constitutional norms. As more and more people concluded that all men had the right to be free the ethics and implications of the slave trade were met with new levels of scrutiny.

The Register’s poem, ‘The Slave Trade’, is attributed to Paul Positive, a name later revealed in a letter to John Ashton as a pseudonym for James Montgomery. The cause of abolition would characterise much of Montgomery’s later career. In ‘The Slave Trade’ Montgomery takes the most common trait of the Register poems, appropriating the arguments perpetuated by its opponents and expressing them with a hyperbolic enthusiasm that deliberately foregrounds their logical inconsistencies to ultimately render them absurd.

Employing this technique in reference to the slave trade makes this simultaneously both one of the Register’s most uncomfortable poems and one of its most effective.

Taking as its inspiration a parliamentary address delivered by Samuel Horsey, the Bishop of Rochester, which campaigned for a bill prohibiting Britain’s involvement in the trading of slaves on the east coast of Africa, ‘The Slave Trade’ finds itself embroiled in the varying parliamentary positions touted at the time of print. The poem begins by apostrophising Humanity, addressed here as a ‘whimpering fool.’ Humanity is advised, ironically, to subscribe to ‘Clarence and Thurlow’s school’ where it will learn to be unfeeling and impenetrable. This is not a literal school but rather a school of thought perpetuated by two of Britain’s most prominent advocates of slavery at this time: William, Duke of Clarence and St Andrews (later King William IV) and Baron Edward Thurlow, the English Lord Chancellor.

The inference here is that to endorse slavery is to corrupt the soul, learning to feel hate rather than compassion if indeed you were to feel anything at all. The ‘kind and civil’ Lord Abingdon here is Bertie Willoughby, a figured remembered in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as a political writer who had supported the plight of the American colonists but opposed the new Republic of France. In Montgomery’s poem, after Humanity has been thoroughly jaded by Clarence and Thurlow, Abingdon will be in position to kick it straight to hell.

The following lines mimic the various justifications for the persistence of slavery, sending up disturbing notions that slaves have no souls and therefore cannot feel pain. Recalling the moral outrage of earlier poems in this collection, particularly in ‘On the Effects of Gold’ and ‘The Statesman’s Soliloquy’, Montgomery locates what he asserts to be the true resistance to abolition. It is not the absurd notion that all slaves are ‘asses’ and ‘brutes’ but the calculation made by men like Clarence and Thurlow that the ‘tears of fifteen million pairs of eyes’ are worth less than the ‘four million pounds a year’ earned by the Britain through the trade of slaves.

Click here to listen to a performance of this poem on Soundcloud.