Abolitionist Poets

William Cowper, The Negro's Complaint

William Cowper's (1731–1800) contribution to the antislavery movement was influenced by John Newton, who had collaborated with him on Olney Hymns (1779) and who asked him to write ballads — which could be set to music and sung in the streets — on behalf of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Behn's Oroonoko and Newton's horror stories of the Middle Passage play a part in Cowper's poem; so do the poet's own feelings of being forsaken (see "The Castaway," NAEL 8, 1.2895).

 


Forc'd from home and all its pleasures,
Afric's coast I left forlorn;
To increase a stranger's treasures,
O'er the raging billows borne;
Men from England bought and sold me,
Paid my price in paltry gold;
But though theirs they have enroll'd me
Minds are never to be sold.
Still in thought as free as ever,
What are England's rights, I ask,
Me from my delights to sever,
Me to torture, me to task?
Fleecy locks and black complexion
Cannot forfeit nature's claim;
Skins may differ, but affection
Dwells in white and black the same.
Why did all-creating Nature
Make the plant for which we toil?
Sighs must fan it, tears must water,
Sweat of ours must dress the soil.
Think, ye masters iron-hearted,
Lolling at your jovial boards;
Think, how many backs have smarted
For the sweets your cane affords.
Is there, as ye sometimes tell us,
Is there one who reigns on high?
Has he bid you buy and sell us,
Speaking from his throne, the sky?
Ask him, if your knotted scourges,
Fetters, blood-extorting screws,
Are the means that duty urges
Agents of his will to use?
Strewing yonder sea with wrecks,
Wasting towns, plantations, meadows,
Are the voice with which he speaks.
He, foreseeing what vexations
Afric's sons should undergo,
Fix'd their tyrants' habitations
Where his whirlwinds answer — No.
By our blood in Afric wasted,
Ere our necks receiv'd the chain;
By the mis'ries which we tasted,
Crossing in your barks the main;
By our suff'rings since ye brought us
To the man-degrading mart;
All sustain'd by patience, taught us
Only by a broken heart:
Deem our nation brutes no longer
Till some reason ye shall find
Worthier of regard and stronger
Than the colour of our kind.
Slaves of gold! whose sordid dealings
Tarnish all your boasted pow'rs,
Prove that you have human feelings,
Ere you proudly question ours.

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