The ‘Am I not a Man and a Brother’ slogan used by the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/abolition/abolition_tools_gallery_06.shtml
Literature is such a fascinating force within history. It has a dual relationship with it that both shapes and is shaped by the context in which it is produced. Within the world of eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain, opportunities for shaping society through literature abounded. The best example of this binary relationship can be seen in the writing against slavery in the period as perspectives on the spectrum of opinion regarding abolition were inculcated within poetry and novels.
The purpose of this literary production was intentional and unapologetic in its persuasive aims. It sought to change hearts and minds, to shift public opinion and to bring about change. This action was performed by both men and women, however it was Hannah More, not James Stephen, who was asked by the abolitionists to construct a poem about Wilberforce’s bill to abolish the slave trade. The “feminine” emotional touch was recognized as a powerful force for the abolitionist cause.
Too often in feminist accounts of history the role of women is accounted for as supplementary, and as marginalised so as to emphasise the oppressed nature of women’s experience throughout history. The female literature against slavery that was produced between 1788 and 1834 offers a narrative of female agency that cannot be relegated to the marginal but struck at the heart of the abolitionist cause in Britain. The power of literature was realized, harnessed and played upon by the women writers of the eighteenth century in order to affect change, and that change was the abolition of the slave trade.
Hannah More, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Maria Edgeworth, Jane Austen and Elizabeth Heyrick were each women who contributed to the discourse against slavery during the period. They played with characterisation, imagery, morality, and the ever-popular (except if there is a French Revolution occurring) rhetoric of human rights. Each of these sought to mobilise sentiment against slavery, whether that be simply ameliorative action or outright abolition.
These women sought to invoke the public perception of “the slave” and further characterise this archetype within their own writing. The power and importance of deep characterisation lay in the empathetic value of presenting a new perspective. Lynn Hunt in her book Inventing Human Rights identifies the novel as a key turning point in the development of human rights in the eighteenth century. It allowed literate individuals to step outside of their class confines and experience a world that would have otherwise remained entirely foreign to them.
People who could read also happened to be the powerbrokers of Britain and this new experience, albeit a literary one, equipped them with the knowledge that even little, lesser and oppressed people were in fact human, with thoughts, feelings and ideas of their own. People who, in short, experienced the same suffering and joys they themselves felt only in different circumstances. The power of this realization, and employing the realization in literature with intentionality was extraordinary.
More, Edgeworth and Austen were masters of presenting the perspective of others within their texts. More engaged specifically with the already established archetype of the slave which had existed within the literary British public from the time of Aphra Behn’s Oronoko (1788). Edgeworth then presented an ameliorative solution to slavery by the in depth characterization of a benevolent slave owner coupled with faithful, happy slaves.
The imagery employed by each of the writers was extremely effective and powerful. Barbauld consciously refers to the power of literature in the abolitionist discourse claiming “The Preacher, Poet, Senator in vain” had rattled in British society’s “sight the Negro’s chain.” It was rattled, exposed, discussed and this was not only physically done by abolitionists to garner support for their cause but the effect was transferred literarily through painting an image of suffering that was both realistic and acute.
Invoking the readers sense of Christian morality was also heavily played upon specifically by abolitionist writers, while the ameliorative discourse offered a more secular understanding of morals surrounding slavery. The abolitionist movement was often characterised by evangelical Christians heading the charge against the injustice of slavery.
Heyrick offers a particularly practical and rational method of securing abolition to her readers. She played on emotion, morality, imagery and human rights rhetoric, but her most powerful tool was the assignation of responsibility and the way she empowered her readers to be effective change makers through abstinence.
The way these women asserted influence in a period of inherent patriarchy that eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Britain were is truly remarkable. Although the legacy of abolition is more problematic than the romanticized narrative, and British patriots would have us believe, their achievement and the women writers key role within it was an amazing feat.
Ferguson, Moira., Subject to Others: British Women Writers and Colonial Slavery, 1670-1834, Routledge (New York: 1992)
Boulukos, George E., The Grateful Slave, Cambridge University Press, (Cambridge: 2008)
Hunt, Lynn., Inventing Human Rights: A History, W.W. Norton and Company, (New York: 2007)
Midgley, Clare., Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns 1780-1870, Routledge (London: 1992)