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Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation: Writings in the British Romantic Period. Eds. Peter Kitson and Debbie Lee

Thursday, August 24, 2000 - 11:31
Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation: Writings in the British Romantic Period. 8 volumes. General Editors, Peter Kitson and Debbie Lee.  London: Pickering & Chatto Publishers, 1999.  3,200pp (chiefly facsimile). £595.00/$950.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 1-851-96513-0).

Reviewed by
Charlotte Sussman
University of Colorado at Boulder

Few political movements can have spent so much energy worrying about the relationship between literature and other kinds of materials than the British antislavery movement, or invested so much faith in their forceful interaction. In the course of "Slavery. A Poem" (1788), for example, Hannah More undertakes an investigation of the power of poetry alongside her indictment of British slavery. She calls upon not only "Liberty" and "Freedom," for inspiration, but also upon the author of the dramatic version of Oroonoko, Aphra Behn's narrative of slave rebellion: "O, plaintive Southerne! whose impassion'd strain / So oft had wak'd my languid Muse in vain! / Now, when congenial themes her cares engage, / She burns to emulate thy glowing page[.]" More thus implies that her poem's political efficacy will spring from its ability to carry the emotional impact of a play. A few lines later, however, she rejects the affect of "bright invention": "For no fictitious ills these numbers flow, / But living anguish, and substantial woe; / No individual griefs my bosom melt, / For million feel what Oroonoko felt." Even here, though, it seems as if the millions of actual slaves merely mimic the feelings of the fictional hero. The poem suggests that an understanding of "real" suffering depends on the powers of representation, even as its narrator insists on the primacy of experience: "Rhetoric or verse may point the feeling line, / They do not whet sensation but define." In this way, More, along with many in the antislavery movement, implicitly celebrates print culture, and the inherent value of the written record. Of abolition, she says "What page of human annals can record / A deed so bright as human rights restor'd? / O may that god-like deed, that shining page, / Redeem OUR fame, and consecrate OUR age!"

It is just this kind of written record that we now have in Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation. "Slavery. A Poem" reminds us that, when More wrote, the distinction between "literature" and other kinds of printed material was not nearly as sharply drawn as it is today. These volumes will allow twentieth-century readers to re-think that continuum of material for themselves. The collection is neatly divided into three volumes covering literature (verse, drama, fiction), four covering extra-literary material (theories of race, the history of medicine, the abolition debate, and the emancipation debate) and one devoted to the works of Black writers. Each volume begins with a contextualizing introduction, and then includes a number of documents in facsimile. Ranging from pieces that are now canonical, such as Blake's "Little Black Boy," to those that were widely-read in their own time, such as William Fox's pamphlet "on the Utility of Refraining from the Use of West India Sugar and Rum" and Thomas Clarkson's "Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species," the collection also includes texts initially intended for more specialized audiences, like "Practical Rules for the Management and Medical Treatment of Negro Slaves." At least one narrative crosses discursive boundaries; the story of "Obi" or "Three-Fingered Jack" appears both as a novel, and as a play (the story is originally drawn from "life," and recorded in Benjamin Mosely's Treatise on Sugar). The reader is free to make what connections he or she will between these discourses, or to conclude, as several of the volume editors remind us, that capitalist economics and the armed rebellion of slaves themselves may have had more of an impact on the history of slavery than any piece of print. While this collection doesn't strive to put forward any one answer to the vexed question of why slavery was abolished in the British colonies when it was, it will introduce readers to enough of the key texts from the period to make the problem come alive in all its complexity.

Fictional images of British slavery from this era survive primarily in "low-culture" forms—poems published in periodicals, theatrical pantomimes, sentimental tales. The editors of the literary volumes—Srinivas Aravamudan, Jeffrey Cox, and Alan Richardson—do an excellent job of explaining the cultural contexts of those genres, and the possibilities and limits they may have imposed on representations of slave culture. Cox, for example, considers the flexibility allowed by even the most popular and schematic of forms when discussing Isaac Bickerstaff's comic-opera afterpiece, The Padlock.

While The Padlock's popularity in slave-holding colonies suggests that the comic portrayal of the enslaved Mungo reassured British West Indians about their treatment of African slaves, The Padlock could also be played against slavery, with Mungo—the first blackface comic figure on the London stage to use something approaching an accurate dialect—as a voice of resistance. (5: xv)

On occasion, Mungo concluded the epilogue by stating "For, though no Briton, Mungo is—a man," "a way of reading Mungo that enabled the great black actor Ira Aldridge to make Mungo . . . one of his triumphant roles" (5: xv). Thus, representations of slavery could have political effects well beyond their explicit intentions. Aravamudan uncovers a similar kind of paradoxical multivalency in fictional representations of slavery:

With respect to political fiction, we are faced with an ideological Hobson's choice, in that the reformist (but "pro-slavery") interventions of the period . . . are more refreshingly loco-specific even though ideologically objectionable from a post-slavery perspective, whereas the anti-slavery fictions that include portraits of slaves and freedmen in metropolitan contexts are frequently subjected to sentimentalist distortions. (6: xviii)

Oddly, then, one has to turn pro-slavery accounts to understand the material realities of plantation life—a move one has to replicate when reading the non-literary material. Despite the value antislavery activists like More seem to put on the collection of empirical facts about slavery, few abolitionists (aside from Clarkson) went beyond sentimental tableaux in their representation of that world.

I wonder, however, about the general editors', particularly Kitson's, desire to assimilate this material so forcefully into the pre-existing category of "The British Romantic Period" (see 1: xviii; 2: ix). While it's certainly clear that a greater understanding of the history of British slavery will benefit the study of canonical British Romanticism, it's less clear what an understanding of Romanticism can do for the study of the history of British slavery. True, many of the major events in that history took place during what we understand as the Romantic period: the abolition of the trade in 1807, the emancipation of the slaves in the Caribbean in 1833. But other events did not: the chartering of the Royal African Company in 1660; the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht, granting England the monopoly rights to the slave trade, in 1713; and the intense involvement of British abolitionists in the American struggle against slavery during the nineteenth century. An understanding of the long histories of capitalism, science, and religion is as vital to understanding British slavery as the "Romantic period" issues of the revolution and the rights of man. I bring this up because such a circumscribed vision of the period 1780–1830 arguably continues the Balkanization of literary studies into "periods." It is gratifying to see Wylie Sypher's ground-breaking work, Guinea's Captive Kings (published in 1942 and long out of print) acknowledged by almost every editor. Yet, while work on representations of slavery from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by Laura Brown, Markman Ellis, Margaret Ferguson and Kim Hall is cited in one or the other introductions to individual volumes, work by scholars such as Felicity Nussbaum, Carol Barash and Elizabeth Bohls is never mentioned. Only Brown, among these influential critics, is cited by Kitson in the general introduction. More important than my quibbling over citations, however, is the way the tightness of focus here tends to reify the "specialness" of the same old Romantic Period, while at the same time providing a plethora of material that should lead us to reconsider not only the characteristics of that era, but the whole issue of periodization. Indeed, most of the individual volumes contain texts from far outside that chronological rubric; it seems important that this historical breadth be acknowledged in discussion of the organizing framework.

I should confess, finally, that this collection makes me feel like one of those proverbial schoolchildren who had to walk through snow to the unheated one-room schoolhouse. Not so long ago, when I started researching the more ephemeral material surrounding the antislavery movement—pamphlets, uncanonized poems and novels, memoirs—much of what I found, if it existed at all outside the British Library, was stored in unsorted boxes, in small, often incompletely cataloged collections (no computer databases). It was nothing you would come across unless you were doing a highly specialized research project. Now, thanks to Pickering & Chatto, and the editors of these volumes, much of that material will be easily accessible to a broad audience (in libraries, anyway, these volumes being too expensive for individual buyers). Surely, a new era of scholarship will now begin—what once was specialized knowledge may now become required reading. Indeed, the volumes seem almost to fulfill Hannah More's vision, carrying out the aims of the abolitionists themselves to disseminate the knowledge of British slavery as widely as possible.