Abolition Literature

"The Pen is Mightier Than the Sword"

Authors Discussed Below:

William Wordsworth
Thomas Day
Robert Southey
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
William Cowper
William Wilberforce
William Blake
Thomas Bellamy
Thomas Clarkson
Ottobah Cugoano
Anna Baurbald
Hannah More
Ann Yearsley
Helen-Maria Williams
Amelia Alderson Opie
Olaudah Equiano

Wordsworth, William


This is a copy of William Wordworth's sonnet to Toussaint L'Ouverture, a West-Indian slave who fought against slavery and Napoleon. Born a slave, his work for his people eventually made him the governor of Haiti. This particular copy appeared in The Morning Post on February 3, 1803.

L'ouverture is the "most unhappy man of men." At the time Wordsworth wrote this L'ouverture was near death, incarcerated in a French prison. The focus of the poem is not "death, dungeon's, unhappiness and misery", four staples of the slave trade. What impresses Wordsworth is L'ouverture's drive and determination, coupled with his love for his people. Although L'ouverture's body will soon be dead, he will not be forgotten. What he did with his mind and what he did for his people could never be locked up, no matter how secure the prison is.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor

In his "Thoughts Concerning the Slave Trade" Coleridge takes the logical approach. "No man is wicked without temptation, no man is wretched without a cause". That cause and temptation is money and profits. Coleridge believes that the slave trade will eventually be abolished. "I have the firmest faith that all things work together for good. But alas! It seems a long and a dark process". Coleridge was couldn't have been more correct in predicting that the abolishment of all British slavery would be a long and arduous process. Coleridge was incorrect predicting, "that if England abolish the slave trade other nations will carry it on." After the Great Emancipation Act of 1833 slavery slowly but surely became a thing of the past in a great deal of countries.

Although slavery is not mentioned anywhere in Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner", the thought of the cursed ship as a Middle passage slave vessel is not outside the realm of possibility. After reading Clarkson's extensive research on slave ships, the doomed ship and the suffering that takes place on it could very well be that of a Triangular Trade vessel.

"Day after day after day, We stuck nor breath nor motion"

"We could not laugh nor wail, through utter drought all dumb we stood"

"With throat unslacked, with black lips baked"

Knowing that Clarkson and Coleridge were friends it is possible to state that Coleridge is making references to the torturous and deadly Middle Passage.

Blake, William

TextMore text

William Blake's "The Little Black Boy" has definite abolition overtones to it. Perhaps Blake wanted to write something dealing with the subject in addition to his extensive artwork. On one level the poem is about nothing more than a little black boy. On another level, advice from the boy's mother, "Look on the rising sun: there God does live, And gives his light, and gives his heat away. And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive Comfort in the morning, joy in the midday." Where does the sun rise and where does this joy and comfort take place? East of America, in Africa.

The boy knows that he is black yet feels that "my soul is white". He wants to be like and be loved by white people. The young boy hasn't been alive long enough to full nderstan his unfortunate situation. On the other hand why shouldn't all people love each other regardless of race or skin color. The boy doesn't have enough experience to understand why inequality exists. This is why his story is among the "Songs of Innocence."

Day, Thomas

The full name of Thomas Day's anti-slavery poem is "The Dying Negro, a Poetical Epistle, Supposed to be Written by a Black, (who lately shot himself on board a vessel in the river Thames) to His Intended Wife." The piece was published in 1773, one year after Mansfield's monumental ruling. It is the story of "a Black, who a few days before, ran away from his master, and got himself christened, with intent to marry his fellow-servant, a white woman, being taken, and sent on board the Captains ship, in the Thames, took an opportunity of shooting himself in the head."

For the narrator of Day's story death is the preferable alternative to slavery. Day's work is engaging. His account is not historical such as the work of Wilberforce or Clarkson. It is not written from experience the way Cugoano and Equiano write. It is the work of a white man pretending that he is a black man, attempting to think a black man's thoughts and feel a black man's feelings. It is a truly important trend-setting piece of literature. It is also distinctly and obviously anti-slavery.

Cugoano, Ottobah

Ottobah Cugoano was born in Africa. While he was a child, Cugoano was kidnapped, enslaved and forced to go through the ghastly Middle Passage. He was taken to the West Indies; however, he eventually obtained his freedom. He was in London during the 1780's, friends and co-workers with Granville Sharpe and Olaudah Equiano. He published "Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species" in 1787.

It doesn't take long to realize where Cugoano stands on "that infamous and iniquitous traffic of stealing, kidnapping, buying, selling and cruelly enslaving men!" Cugoano takes a biblical approach in order to prove slaver's injustice and immorality. If "all men should love their neighbors as themselves and that they should do unto others, as they would that men should do to them", (Leviticus 20:18, Matthew 7:12) how could slavery possibly exist?

Another important though and sentiment of Cugoano is the fact that slave labor is more costly than free labor. The suffering slaves are compelled to deal with vastly outweighs any economic sum. Cugoano calls for "a total abolition of slavery" and that "a fleet of some ships of war should be immediately sent to the coast of Africa" in order to destroy the slave ships that destroy the lives of it's passengers.

Equiano, Olaudah

Similarly to Ottobah Cugoano, Olaudah Equiano was captured and taken on a British slave ship to Barbados and then Virginia. Renamed Gustavas Vassa, Equiano bounced around for awhile, prior to his emancipation in 1772. Along with the aforementioned Sharpe and Cugoano, Equiano was a driven abolitionist. In 1789 he published "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavas Vassa, the African".

The kidnapping, pain and suffering Olaudah Equiano is forced to go through is unfathomable. What's even worse is that Equiano is one of the lucky ones. With a series of less benevolent owners it is highly unlikely that Equiano ever would have made it to England. Equiano's writings have a sort of sarcastic, cynical twist to them. An example of this is taken from the religious aspect of slavery. "While I was attending these ladies their servants told me I could not go to heaven unless I was baptized." In an ironic way, this is slightly humorous due to the fact that ever since he entered the Christian world he might as well have been in hell. It is interesting to think that if Equiano had been in Mansfield's courtroom while on a trip to England in 1757, the abolition movement could have begun earlier.

Cowper, William

At the request of William Wilberforce, William Cowper wrote two powerful poems concerning the slave trade. Cowper is credited for influencing Wordsworth and Coleridge. His first work is similar to that of Day. A white man is writing from a black man's point of view.

"The Negro's Complaint" written in 1778, is easily read and hard to forget. The first four lines are as follows:

Forced from home and all it's pleasures
Afric's coast I left forlorn,
To increase a stranger's treasures,
Oer the raging billows borne

"The Negro's complaint" is the story of a man trying to figure out why slavery exists and why he must suffer so that another man can profit.

Another poem, "Pity for Poor Africans", written in 1788 is the poignant story of a man, and more importantly, a society that knows slavery is wrong, yet doesn't want to give up any of it's benefits. "I pity them greatly but I must be mum For how could we do without sugar and rum." Cowper compares slavery to a bunch of schoolboys thinking about stealing apples from a peasant farmer. One youngster is unsure, "but since they will take them, I think I'll go too, He will lose none by me, though I get a few."

Bellamy, Thomas

"The Benevolent Planter's", a short play by Thomas Bellamy deals with a different aspect of the slave trade, the West Indian lobby against abolition. The play, as I interpret it, is a farce along the line of Gulliver's Travel's, even though slavery and human nature are nothing to joke about. The slaveowners honestly believe that they are providing a better life for their slaves than they would have had back in Africa. In sunny Africa life is too easy. In America, life is constructive, full of character-building toil. When the woman a man loves is gone his owners offer to get him another one and think they are being sympathetic. Sometimes farces such as "The Benevolent Planters" and symbolic metaphors such as Cowper's schoolboy can be just as, if not more effective than a straightforward and truthful, although less imaginative work.

Southey, Robert

Robert Southey, a close friend of Coleridge, wrote "The Sailor, Who Had Served in the Slave Trade" in 1798, shortly after first reading "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner". "The Sailor" is the story of an "anguished, miserable man". A priest encounters the man and asks him why he is so full of despair. The man replies that :

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

The sailor was forced, by his captain, to flog a sad woman who refused to eat. He heard her suffering all night long until she died the next day.

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

The sailor will be eternally haunted by this woman and prays for comfort and mercy.

Although Southey's poem is as fictional as Coleridge's "Mariner" it is astonishingly powerful. It is also interesting to think that the slave trade left nobody, including white sailors unscathed.

Wilberforce, William

William Wilberforce dedicated a major portion of his life towards attempting to abolish the slave trade. Wilberforce often appeared before both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Armed with research of Thomas Clarkson and strong religious beliefs, Wilberforce fought for human rights and the end of slavery for more than forty years.

In his 1807 "Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade" which is addressed to the freeholders and other inhabitants of Yorkshire, Wilberforce is writing to the people he represents. It seems as if Wilberforce is trying the convince the people that the work he's doing is for a worthy cause. "And now surely you must be prepared to admit, without hesitation, the declaration made by Mr. Pitt, in the House of Commons, that the slave trade was the greatest practical evil that ever had afflicted the human race." In a democracy, laws can not be made or will not succeed without the support of the people (Prohibition is one example). Wilberforce knows that he needs his district's support.

Wilberforce attempts to have the readers of his letter understand the "sufferings" and "agony" that a slave was forced to endure. He describes a kidnapping, the Middle Passage, the separation of a family at a slave marketplace and then a lifetime of backbreaking and meaningless labor. "Such from first to last is the condition of human existence, to which that abhorred traffic the slave trade annually consigns many thousands of our unoffending fellow creatures."

Clarkson, Thomas

In 1785, Thomas Clarkson wrote an essay while attending college at Cambridge titled "Is It Right to Make Men Slaves Against Their Wills?" Clarkson decided that it was quite wrong and dedicated his life towards the abolishment of slavery. His most famous work, written in 1808, after decades of research is "The History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament."

Clarkson maintains that, "a glance only into such a subject as this will be sufficient to affect the heart; to arouse our indignation and our pity; and to teach us the importance of the victory obtained." A great deal of and perhaps the most shocking portion of Clarkson's research was centered on slave ships and the unspeakable atrocities of the Middle Passage. The pictures of slave ships found on this site are based on drawings by Clarkson. Clarkson borrows a line from his close friend Wilberforce when he says that, "Never was so much suffering condensed in so small a space." Clarkson's muckraking work reminds me of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair's novel concerning Chicago's meat-packing industry. Both works are shocking for several reasons. First of all the events they depict are extraordinarily awful. More importantly these events, circumstances and situations are true. Sinclair's work led to major reforms in the meat-packing industry. Clarkson's work would eventually help lead to the abolishment of slavery throughout the British Empire.

Opie, Amelia Alderson

Amelia Alderson Opie was a devout member of the British Anti-Slavery Society and wrote a great deal of abolition literature. Two of her more famous poems are "The Negro Boy's Tale" written in 1802, and "The Black Man's Lament or How to Make Sugar" in 1826.

"The Black Man's Lament" deals with the kidnapping of slaves from Africa along with the Middle Passage and marketplace, although the focus of Opie's poem is on the incredible amount of work a slave would have to do while cultivating sugar-cane. Unlike poor English peasants, slaves get severely beaten. While their master's pray, they must work. The man wonders why things are the way they are, surely others must see that this way of life is cruel and makes little sense.

For know, its tall gold stems contain
A sweet rich juice, which White men prize;
And that they may this sugar gain,
The Negro toils and bleeds and dies.

The ships to English country go,
And bear the hardly-gotten treasure.
Oh! That good Englishmen could know
How Negroes suffer for their pleasure.

These two passages encapsulate what the black man is lamenting.

Other Authors:

Anna Barbauld, Hannah More, Helen Maria Williams and Ann Yearsley

Women, authors and non-authors, had a tremendous role in the abolition of slavery. Poets such as Anna Letitia Barbauld, Hannah More, Helen Maria Williams and Ann Yearsley and their literature had important public and private roles. Praise is needed after defeat more than it's needed after a victory. In 1791 Barbauld wrote an "Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq. On the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade." Perhaps the inspiration given to Wilberforce was just what he needed to keep fighting. Barbauld writes, "Cease Wilberforce, to urge thy generous aim! Thy country knows the sin and stands the shame."

Hannah More wrote the influential "Slavery, A Poem" in 1788. More opens with a brilliant allusion to slavery, asking the sun "why does thy ray to earth distribute only partial day?" She wonders why, "the chill North with it's ray is blest, Why should fell darkness half the South invest?" More makes references to a novel that deals with slavery, Oroonoko, by Aphra Behn. She also consoles the slaves who don't have "Home" or "Freedom". In the final paragraph, More states that Liberty will defeat oppression, "And FAITH and FREEDOM spring from Mercy's hands".

Helen Maria Williams wrote a poem titled "A Farewell for Two Years to England" in 1789. She did not wish to remain in a country that had no regard for "Humanity's eternal laws."

Ann Yearsley wrote "A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade" in 1788. Yearsley lived in Bristol, which along with Liverpool was one of England's major slave trading seaports. Having the opportunity to see the horrors of the slave trade with her own eyes it is not hard to believe her feeling compelled to write about it's horrors. She knows that the economy and citizens of Bristol are doing something catastrophically wrong and armed with her pen she is not powerless to stop them. Yearsley sympathizes very strongly with the slaves. "Curse on the toils spread by a Christian hand to rob the Indian of his freedom".


The literature of the British Abolition movement is very diverse. It contained the work of men and women. It consists of autobiographies, biographies, plays, poems, stories, court rulings , letters and research. Poems concerning blacks were often written by whites. Firsthand accounts of the capacity of cruelty by whites were often written by blacks.

Although the literature is diverse, it has one thing in common. Whether their work influenced public opinion, the government or each other, the authors and artists played a significant role in the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in both Great Britain and all of it's dominions. Even today writers are still being influenced by the abolition movement and the slave trade. Toni Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for her novel, Beloved, which contains a detailed description of the Middle Passage.