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Romanticism and Slave Narratives:
Transatlantic Testimonies

by Helen Thomas

Chapter One: The English Slave Trade and Abolitionism

  1. Wesley's travels amongst the Moravians during a two-year trip to Georgia between 1735 and 1737 highlighted the fact that the English clergyman's own ministry had lacked the dynamic spark of personal salvation. On his return from a visit to the Moravian headquarters in Germany, therefore, Wesley succeeded in persuading other dissenting religious societies in England to adopt a modification of Moravian practice, which involved intense moments of spiritual experience witnessed by `choirs' or units of around six people of the same sex and marital status. [78] In his essay `On the Causes of Methodism' (1817), the essayist and critic William Hazlitt satirised the Methodist movement as a form of religion equipped with its own `slobbering-gib and go-cart'. According to Hazlitt, the `jargon and nonsense' of Methodism held a peculiar charm for all those who had an `equal facility in sinning and repenting': `It is a carte blanche for ignorance and folly!' [79] In addition, its proponents were characterised by their ability to `soar' on the `wings of divine love' and revel in `a spiritual sea of boundless nonsense': `To speak of them as they deserve, they are not well in the flesh, and therefore they take refuge in the spirit'. [80] As Hazlitt's satirical diatribe ironically suggests, the primary emphases of Methodist preaching lay upon the witness of spiritual visitation, the experience of salvation through faith and a belief in the possibility of personal triumph over temptation. [81] In his work, The New Birth: A Sermon on John 3.7 (1784) Wesley described such a process as an instantaneous transformation of the soul wherein `we are justified by the grace of God' and `born of the Spirit'. [82] Accordingly, his concept of the `new birth' revolved around Pentecostal images of the descent of the mercurial, indeterminate, nebulous `breath' of the spirit of God upon his chosen ones:

    Being born in sin, we must be born again . . . But how must a man be born again? . . . The wind bloweth where it listeth . . . The precise manner how it begins and ends, rises and falls, no man can tell. So is every one that is born of the Spirit. [83]

    Wesley was careful to distinguish the various stages of salvation, emphasising that whilst any man was capable of holiness (`grace'), his liberation from sin (`justification') could occur only following an intense period of inner struggle and contrition. Whilst `sanctification' denoted the restoration of the soul to its original condition of `liberty', the experience of `new birth' initiated a conviction in the possibility rather than in the immediate achievement of sanctification. [84]

  2. From the time of his conviction and the `strange warming of his heart' in 1738, Wesley advanced his belief in salvation by faith by gathering around him an organised, itinerant Evangelical ministry, designed to supplement rather than supplant the role of the established Church. [85] Yet in his Advice to the People Call'd Methodists (1745), Wesley defined the Methodists as a `new people' whose faith and love was wrought by the `inward Witness' of the spirit of God: that `Supernatural evidence . . . of things not seen'. [86] Similarly, in his Character of a Methodist (1743), Wesley called upon Methodists to live according to the `method of the Bible' and to direct their lives in accordance with an habitual philanthropic disposition towards all men, a request which was to develop into a demand for blacks' liberation from enslavement:

    As he [the Methodist] has Time, he does Good unto All Men, unto Neighbours and Strangers, Friends and Enemies. And that, in every possible Kind; not only to their Bodies, by feeding the Hungry, cloathing the Naked, visiting those that are sick or in Prison; but much more does he labour to do Good to their Souls, as of the Ability which GOD giveth. [87]

    Furthermore, in a subtle critique of the authority of the national church, Wesley defined the written word of God as the `only and sufficient rule' of belief:

    We believe indeed, That All Scripture is given by Inspiration of GOD; and herein are we distinguished from Jews, Turks and Infidels. We believe this written Word of GOD to be the Only and Sufficient Rule, both of Christian Faith and Practice. [88]

  3. With its emphasis on personal salvation made possible by the `spirit of God', the concept of `new birth' described by the Scriptures and promoted by Methodism fused easily with a discourse of self-authorisation. In this way, the discourse of spiritual regeneration popularised by radical dissenting Protestants provided an important means of realising the self 's unconditional liberation from prescribed socioeconomic boundaries. Moreover, the pragmatic individualism embraced by Methodism and other evangelical revivalist movements played a crucial role in the advancement of abolitionist demands. [89]

  4. As noted in his journal entry of 12 February 1772, Wesley had encountered Anthony Benezet's work less than two years prior to the publication of his own Thoughts Upon Slavery (1774). [90] In this tract, widely distributed amongst Methodist societies, Wesley petitioned slaveholders, demanding that they improve their ways in order that they might receive salvation from God. By consolidating the evangelical motif with the plight of the slaves themselves, Wesley prophesied both their spiritual and physical salvation by God's divine providence: `O burst thou all their chains in sunder; more especially the chains of their sins: Thou, O Saviour of all, make them free, that they may be free indeed!' [91] Wesley's Thoughts Upon Slavery presented a powerful critique of the slave ideology upheld in the colonies and condemned what he defined as `unjust' colonial statutes which legitimised the murder of runaway slaves by any means that a slaveholder thought fit. For Wesley, such legislation contravened the concept of `natural justice' as defined by Lord Mansfield's ruling, whilst slavery transgressed the `very principles upon which all sales are founded' since `no equivalent can be given for life or Liberty'. [92] Wesley's abolitionist text therefore pronounced the superiority of a divine system of justice at odds with plantation jurisprudence:

    Notwithstanding ten thousand Laws, right is right, and wrong is wrong still . . . Where is the Justice of inflicting the severest evils, on those that have done us no wrong? . . . Of tearing them from their native country, and depriving them of liberty itself ? [93]

    Since England's economic advancement had been gained from the profits of the slave trade, it carried with it an even higher price, the `violation of Justice, Mercy and Truth', as determined by God's will:

    It were better that all those Islands should remain uncultivated for ever . . . than they should be cultivated at so high a price . . . Liberty is the right of every human creature, as soon as he breathes the vital air. And no human law can deprive him of that right, which he derives from the law of nature. [94]

    On a similar note, Wilberforce's Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade to the Freeholders and Other Inhabitants of Yorkshire (1807) concluded:

    Is it not utterly astonishing, that Great Britain should have been one of the prime agents in carrying on this trade of blood? . . . We must believe that a continued course of wickedness, oppression, and cruelty . . . must infallibly bring down upon us the heaviest judgements of the Almighty . . . It cannot be denied, that these are circumstances in the situation of this country, which, reasoning from experience, we must call marks of a declining empire, but we have, as I firmly believe, the means within ourselves of arresting the progress of this decline. [95]

  5. Methodism's critique of the slave trade as propounded by Wesley and his followers attracted significant support from other non-conformist sects within the various American colonies and provided an adaptable template of liberationist demands, a template that was later reshaped by others including the slaves themselves. In this way, Methodism distinguished itself from other Evangelical sects which maintained the Calvinistic doctrine of election. [96] In his autobiographical text, the enigmatic revivalist preacher, George Whitefield described the `early Movings of the blessed Spirit' upon his heart, his liberation from sensual appetite and his deliverance by the `Spirit of God': `God spake to me by his Spirit, and I was no longer dumb'. [97] The publication of Whitefield's `Letter to the Inhabitants of Virginia, Maryland, North and South Carolina, Concerning Their Negroes' articulated the preacher's unambiguous denunciation of slave abuse within the context of theological debate: `I must inform you in the Meekness and Gentleness of Christ, that I think God has a Quarrel with you for your Abuse of and Cruelty to the poor Negroes'. [98] Not suprisingly, Whitefield's proposals were met with vehement attacks from various quarters, including the Bishop of London's (Edmund Gibson's) Short Preservative Against the Doctrines Rev'd by Mr. Whitefield and his Adherents (1739) and Tristam Land's Letter to the Revd Mr. Whitefield Designed to Correct His Mistaken Account of Regeneration, or the New Birth (1739). [99] Yet Whitefield's text did not, however, articulate any radical demands for abolition; rather, it advanced a definition of blacks as the spiritual equals of their white masters and therefore worthy of conversion:

    Enslaving or misusing their [the slaves'] Bodies would, comparatively speaking, be an inconsiderable Evil, was proper care taken of their Souls. But I have great Reason to believe, that most of you, on Purpose, keep your Negroes ignorant of Christianity . . . I believe . . . these despised Slaves will find the Gospel of Christ to be the Power of God to their Salvation. [100]

  6. By targeting the more vulnerable issue of the conditions of the slaves rather than slavery itself, British and American abolitionists such as Whitefield avoided any serious conflict over the sensitive issue of private property. Rather, they promoted a revised image of the nation's role as `liberator' of the slaves from spiritual darkness. As a consequence, the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade issued a public disclaimer in 1788 which stipulated that the abolition of slavery had `never formed any part of the Plan of this Society'. Instead the Society insisted that slaves would be treated more humanely if the trade were abolished and the price of slaves increased. [101] Similarly, in his two-volume work, The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament (1808), Thomas Clarkson reiterated the Society's strategic concern for plantation owners and its distinction between `the evil of the Slave trade' and `the evil of slavery itself ':

    By aiming at the abolition of the Slave-trade, they [the Committee] were laying the axe at the very root. By doing this, and this only, they would not incur the objection, that they were meddling with the property of the planters, and letting loose an irritated race of beings, who, in consequence of all the vices and infirmities, which a state of slavery entails upon those who undergo it, were unfit for their freedom. [102]

  7. Nevertheless, the Quakers played a vital role in the abolition of the slave trade, contributing money, manpower and extremely effective ideas to the cause. On 25 March 1807, the resolution to `take effectual measures for the abolition' of the trade was passed in both the House of Lords and the Commons. As a result, the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was reformed as the African Institution, one of the primary aims of which was to establish alternative forms of legitimate commerce with Africa.

  8. It was not until more than a decade later that the struggle for the abolition of the slave trade developed into a movement abnegating slavery itself. Consequently, in 1823, the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Dominions was formed. It was, however, a society dedicated not to the immediate emancipation of slaves, but to the advancement of gradual plans of emancipation and the protection of the slaves' welfare. In keeping with this, Wilberforce's Appeal to the Religion, Justice and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies, declared slavery a system of `gross' injustice, `heathenish irreligion and immorality' and `unprecedented degradation'. [103] The appeal was met with much opposition, including Sir Henry William Martin's Counter-Appeal in Answer to `An Appeal' from William Wilberforce (1823) which claimed that slavery was neither `injust' nor `displeasing to God'; nor could it be `safely or advantageously abolished in the West Indies'. [104] It was not until 14 May 1833 that slavery was finally deemed illegal throughout the British colonies, with effect from the following year. The protean discourse of radical dissenting Protestantism had achieved a successful challenge to slave ideology, yet, as I shall elucidate below, it also introduced revised forms of colonial expansionism, strategically premised upon the principles of missionary ideology.


    Descend, bright Spirit of eternal Love
    Illumine the dark corners of the earth! [105]

  10. From the time of the crusades, Christian ideology endorsed a classification of cultural `otherness' in terms of spiritual deprivation and inferiority. Taking its cue from the proselyte teachings of the New Testament, where Jesus commanded his disciples to go and `teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost', the advancement of Christianity was often infused with missionary zeal. [106] During the late eighteenth century this desire to propagate the Christian faith by missionary enterprise was strategically combined with the scientific, ethnographical and commercial motives of colonial expansionism, a process exemplified by the activities of the Sierra Leone Company. [107] Indeed, on January 1, 1808, the day that slave-trading became illegal, Sierra Leone, the British Colony for Ex-Slaves in West Africa passed from the control of the Directors of the Company to the British Crown.

  11. Following the decision of the Court of the King's Bench over the Somerset case of 1772, a significant number of blacks in England had drifted into destitution and poverty. Similarly, the demobilisation of blacks who had served with the British forces in the American War further augmented the number of poor blacks already resident in England. [108] In 1786, the year that the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded, members of that Society formed an additional society under the leadership of Jonas Hanway. This `Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor' was set up to discuss ideas concerning the resettlement of ex-slaves and the establishment of a missionary base for expeditions into the African interior. In the same year, the Committee published Henry Smeathman's manifesto, Plan of a Settlement to Be Made Near Sierra Leona, on the Grain Coast of Africa (1786). [109] In 1771, Smeathman had travelled to the Banana Islands off the coast of Sierra Leone, West Africa, in order to collect botanical specimens for Sir Joseph Banks' collection at Kew Gardens. [110] Smeathman's Plan of a Settlement outlined plans for the transportation and `happy establishment of Blacks and People of Colour' in one of the most `pleasant and fertile countries in the known world' under the direction of the British Government. [111] His text proposed that each repatriated black would be allowed, `by common consent, to possess as much land' as he or she could cultivate in the mild and fertile climate of the country:

    An opportunity so advantageous may perhaps never be offered to them [black persons, people of colour and refugees from America] again; for they and their prosperity may enjoy perfect freedom. Settled in a country congenial to their constitutions, and having the means, by moderate labour, of the most comfortable livelihood, they will find a certain and secure retreat from their former sufferings. [112]

    For Clarkson, as for others, the Sierra Leone project presented an embryonic prototype of both a revised colonial plan and the means of establishing civilisation in Africa: those who were to settle there were to `endeavour to establish a new species of commerce, and to promote cultivation in its neighbourhood by free labour'. [113] Having based his opinion of the Sierra Leone project from the accounts by Smeathman and the former slaver-resident, John Newton, Granville Sharp issued prospective emigrants (including poor blacks rounded up from the streets of London) with certificates to protect them against slave-traders. These documents were intended to guarantee the blacks' status as free citizens of the `Colony of Sierra Leone or the Land of Freedom'. [114] With the development of schools and places of worship, Africa was to be freed from the vicious and barbarous effects of the slave trade so that it might `be in a better state to comprehend and receive the sublime truths of the Christian religion'. [115] Initially, Sharp's idea of forming a company on behalf of the settlers with the aid of his friends on the Relief Committee was met with hostility in Parliament. However, with a shift of emphasis from the philanthropic concerns of the Sierra Leone Company to the commercial objectives of its directors, a Bill to incorporate the Company was passed in June 1791. [116] The success of this revised Bill indicated the mercurial interchange between abolitionist, missionary and colonial ideologies: not unlike plantocracy, Sierra Leone was to function as a Province of Freedom governed by absentees in England.

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