2870. Robert Southey to William Wilberforce, 30 November 1816

2870. Robert Southey to William Wilberforce, 30 November 1816⁠* 

Keswick. 30 Nov. 1816

My dear Sir

Henry Koster sailed on the 22d of this month from Liverpool for Pernambuco, whither he is gone to establish a house of business. He will I have no doubt employ himself well upon the voyage, for he is indefatigable in what he undertakes, & has the business of the Portugueze slave trade at heart. He has had some correspondence with Clarkson. [1] 

Bad as appearances may be, & shocking as the conduct of the Portugueze slave captains is, I think Brazil will be the first country in which decisive measures will be taken for the abolition of slavery. [2]  Two classes of men are agreed upon this point, – the Liberales who conduct journals here in England, – & influence all in Brazil who read, [3]  & the priests whose influence extends over every body else. One great obstacle is the pride of the Portugueze. As we <are> the least national of any people under heaven, (for an English party, if it suited any party purpose would take up the cause of the Devil himself against their own country) – the Portugueze are the most so, & whatever may be their principles, they unite instantly to resent the very shadow of a national offence. Hence it is that they who desire the abolition cannot brook the suspicion that it should be forced upon them, or demanded from their weakness. I wish you read their journals, – it is scarcely credible to what an excess this national sensibility is carried by them. – Pride & weakness naturally produce suspicion, & they have the vice of supposing that in all our efforts for the suppression of the abominable traffic there is some interested motive at the bottom. The two things needful are to undeceive them upon this point, which Koster will make his chief object, – & to treat them with as much respect as possible; – & indeed much respect is due to them; they have been a great people, & a great people they must again become, for the finest part of the new world is their indefeasible portion. Instead of reproaching them directly for not following the example of England & France in the abolition, I would prai extol them for having xxx set the example by destroying the Indian slave trade, [4]  & represent what they have yet to do as the just & legitimate consequences of the principles upon which they then acted.

Surely Spain cannot carry on the trade for herself; [5]  – she has no colonies in a state to require much importation of negroes, – the main [6]  is too disturbed, their part of S Domingo [7]  too poor, – & Cuba far from flourishing. The root of the evil is in our own islands, – I cannot think of them without indignation. – The Registry Bill would reach it if its observance were honestly enforced, – but tho honesty grows plentifully in our English gardens, it is not does not flourish in the plantations, [8]  & in my judgement nothing will ever cut up the slave trade by the roots but fixing a time for the abolition of slavery itself. [9] 

The Pope [10]  & the Jesuits would be the best allies

I thank you much for your intention of procuring me a copy of Mr Bowdlers works [11]  – which I shall be very glad to possess: – they may come to me either thro Murray or Longman, from whom I am continually receiving parcels.

I am not without hopes of seeing you sometime in the early spring, when if my too numerous employments will allow me I may probably visit London. Mr Francis [12]  gave me some hopes that you might pass a summer in this delightful country. I saw but little of him unfortunately because he took up his abode at a distance, & I have no other means of conveyance than those which were given to Father Adam. [13]  It is needless to say that I was much pleased with & interested in him. But I was sorry him to see him sacrificing his time to a science for which he has no predilection, & which never can be of any service to those who dislike it.

Believe me my dear Sir

very truly & respectfully yours

Robert Southey.


* Address: [deletion and readdress in another hand] To/ Wm Wilberforce Esqr M. P./ near/ London/ Hastings
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmark: FREE/ 3 DE 3/ 1816
Endorsement: Poet Southey/ Character of/ Portuguese
MS: Berg Collection, New York Public Library. ALS; 4p.
Unpublished. BACK

[1] Southey had recommended to Wilberforce that the African Institution should support Henry Koster in preparing a Portuguese translation of Thomas Clarkson, History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament (1808). BACK

[2] Despite Southey’s hopes, the slave trade remained legal in Brazil until 1850 and slavery was not abolished until 1888. BACK

[3] In particular, the liberal Correio Braziliense (1808–1822), no. 3203 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library, was anti-slave trade. BACK

[4] That is, the trade in indigenous American peoples in Brazil, largely ended during the eighteenth century (though it had been illegal since 1537). BACK

[5] The Spanish slave trade was abolished in 1820, following a Treaty with Britain in 1817. BACK

[6] The mainland parts of the Spanish Empire, bordering on the Caribbean. Most of these areas were in revolt and had declared their independence. BACK

[7] Today, the Dominican Republic, on the island of Hispaniola, the western part of which is occupied by Haiti. BACK

[8] Wilberforce had proposed a Registry Bill in 1815 to set up a register of all slaves in the British West Indies. It had been virulently opposed by the planters and they continued their opposition in 1816–1817. From 1817 onwards the West Indian colonies began passing their own local Registration Acts, though these were largely ineffective. BACK

[9] Slavery in British colonies was not abolished until 1833. BACK

[10] Pius VII (1742–1823; Pope 1800–1823); in a letter of 20 September 1814 he had forbidden Catholics from arguing that the slave trade could be lawful. The Society of Jesus (restored by the Pope in 1814) had long opposed the enslavement of indigenous peoples in South America. BACK

[11] John Bowdler (1783–1815; DNB), Select Pieces in Verse and Prose (1816), no. 330 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

[12] Clement Robert Francis (1792–1829), clergyman, Fellow of Caius College, Cambridge and nephew of Southey’s friend, James Burney. Francis graduated in 1817. As mathematics formed the major part of the B.A. degree at Cambridge, this may well have been the ‘science’ he was studying of which Southey disapproved. BACK

[13] Walking – the only mode of transport available to Adam in Genesis. BACK

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Keswick (mentioned 1 time)


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