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Found in the Stacks: “On the Slave Trade,” Author Unknown

Volume of ca. 1700s manuscript poetry containing "On the Slave Trade"

On this date in 1807, “An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade” was passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom.  This was a milestone in the struggle over the use of slaves in the British Empire’s colonies and a victory for the abolitionist coalition led by William Wilberforce.  The bill’s passage not only saved countless lives, changed the administration of empires around the world, and transformed nineteenth-century commerce: the research, propaganda, and theoretical efforts which led to its passage were key to developing the concept of human rights.   Many essential  resources for understanding the abolition effort are available in the Rubenstein Library, including correspondence and papers of abolitionists William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, and William Smith.

In addition, a volume of manuscript poetry in a Rubenstein Library collection of British literary papers contains a poem entitled “On the Slave Trade.”  Very little is known about the poet or the poem: the poet is only known by his handwritten initials, “W. J.” or perhaps “W. G.,” and no trace of publication of the poem has yet been found by Rubenstein staff. The poem appears to have been composed before the slave trade’s abolition, probably in the eighteenth century. Study of other poems in the volume, and analysis of the poet’s idiosyncratic punctuation and contractions (such as the use of “fab’lous” for “fabulous”) may provide clues as to the poem’s date and the identity of its author.

The poem is satirical, presenting the intentionally outrageous situation of Satan commissioning his demons to find him slaves to do Hell’s dirty work. While it is unlikely that anyone will argue that it is a lost masterpiece, it does use vivid imagery and sly irony to convey the grotesque injustice of the slave trade and the unbridled greed that led to such abuse of fellow human beings.  A transcription of the poem appears below.  If you know anything about the author or the poem, please post a comment!

Opening page of "On the Slave Trade"

On the Slave Trade

Fab’lous — are storys — some will say
Yet I’ll tell one — if I’m able
That some odd tempers take it may
Either for truth — or a fable

A sort of wisper’s in the air
That Pandaemon’um Peers are met
But loud enough — some ears to hear
And now they do in council set

Satan — address’d his higher Pow’rs
My friends — what I’ll propose you’ll see
Will benifit both yours — and ours
And much improv’d our realm will be

We want more slaves for drudging work
Sewers and boghouses to clean
That well can labour in the murk
And clear away the soil — not seen

Our drains that to Cocytus run
Are choak’d — from whence such stench arise
That must affect us ev’ry one
Our healths endanger — and our eyes

Of women slaves we want a few
As nurses for our Devilkins
To keep them sweet — and wipe their queu[‘s]
So nothing fret their tender skins

The sex besure you don’t mistake
For I remember once before
As some for He’s you She’s did take
Which set our realm in an uproar

My good compatr’ots I advise
You hunt like those on Guinea coast
Use artifice — yourselves disguise
See who can lure — and trap the most

Here Satan — ended his harangue
Their wings they flap — and ape their jaws
With teeth they make a horrid clang
In gen’ral token of applause

A sudden rumbling now exist
Some change to Vultures — Apes — and Hogs
All Proteus like to what they list
Others to Serpents — Newts — and Frogs

Some Keener Devils than the rest
Direct — transform’d themselves to Gold
Well knowing it of snares the best
As nat’ons for it have been sold

The pond’rous gates now open fly
And all rush out their sev’ral roads
In full pursuit of slaves they hie
And swarms they bring to their abodes

The golden lumps had such success
More than the others double caught
Of all descript’ons more or less
Their baits they had so artful fraught

In thought among these tribes you see
Cozening Knaves — and Thieves — beside
The worst of wretches that can be
Envy — Avarice — Mischief — Pride

What horror must these beings feel
Down in the Sink — of mis’ry thrown
Condemn’d — shut out from all appeal
By evil — being downward prone

They like their masters lov’d to prowl
And aim’d to trick and bubble all
So now in Slavery let them growl
Themselves they'[v]e bubbled into thral

Be on your guard for to escape
These Semi Devils — here are out
For some assume a Cherub shape
And are perpet’al on the scout

Post contributed by Will Hansen, Assistant Curator of Collections.