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Romanticism and Slave Narratives:
Transatlantic Testimonies

by Helen Thomas

Chapter One: The English Slave Trade and Abolitionism

  1. Reports discrediting the motives behind the Sierra Leone expedition, however, dramatically undermined the original enthusiasm of the settlers, and by November 1786, of the 700 who had originally signed up, only 259 had boarded the departing vessels. At this point, the Committee persuaded the City authorities to round up any black beggars or destitute ex-slaves found on the streets, and under the command of Captain Thompson, the allotted `repatriation' ships finally left London on 8 April 1787 with 350 black settlers. [117] Within three months of their arrival in Sierra Leone, one third of the prospective settlers had died: eighty-four as a result of the difficult voyage and the remainder from the effects of fever and dysentery to which they were exposed upon their arrival in the colony. Even when the relentless and unexpected rainy season ceased, early attempts to cultivate the land proved disastrous. The `promised' land which Smeathman had declared to be sufficiently fertile to sustain a whole agricultural community proved in reality to be thinly covered with soil. However, both the author of the Sierra Leone plan and Captain Thompson claimed that the high mortality rate was due to the inadequacy of the settlers and in 1792, the Sierra Leone Company embarked on its second venture, which involved the transference of over 1,000 men and women of African descent from Nova Scotia. [118]

  2. In her Narrative of Two Voyages to the River Sierra Leone, During the Years 1791-1792-1793 (1794), Anna Maria Falconbridge, who in 1791 had accompanied her surgeon husband, Alexander Falconbridge, to Sierra Leone, dismissed the Clapham Sect's `philanthropic' colonial plan as `premature, hair-brained and ill-digested'. [119] As Moira Ferguson notes in her analysis of Falconbridge's text, her Narrative disclosed a proud commitment to abolition. [120] However, whereas Falconbridge's text presents a critique of the quiet alliance between colonial ideology and missionary enterprise—`Be assured, however disinterested and friendly they [the British] appear at this moment, they are aiming at some selfish purposes'—her Narrative simultaneously reveals a destabilising fear of cultural `subalterity' which threatened to undermine the legitimacy of her presence in Africa. [121] Hence, having witnessed the Africans' symbolic public burning of effigies of the `radical' champions of the west, `Mr. W-ll-ce and Tom Paine'—an act which she identifies as hideous, uncontrollable and anarchic—Falconbridge's Narrative concludes with a note of destabilised cultural hierarchy and deep-seated anxieties of insurrection. Dismissing her previous abolitionist tendencies as manifestations of her youthful naivety, Falconbridge reprioritises her former loyalties and (re)determines the slave trade as an evil `necessary' for the development of Africa's sense of religious morality: `I must think favourably of the Slave Trade, while those innate prejudices, ignorance, superstition, and savageness, overspread Africa'. [122] Therefore, although Falconbridge's text appears at times to transcend the restrictive requirements of colonial discourse and indeed, to reject stereotypical portrayals of Africans, her Narrative is informed by an overriding endeavour to locate the spiritual regeneration of Africa on distinctly western terms, a condition against which slaves were to struggle.

  3. As Falconbridge's text suggests, by the turn of the century, the dynamics of missionary enterprise were often inseparable from the distinctly political aims of British imperial ideology. Following the establishment of the Sierra Leone Company, the Eclectic Society, whose members included John Newton and Richard Cecil, discussed ideas concerning the most efficient methods of propagating the gospel throughout Africa. As a result, the Baptist and London Missionary Society and the Society for Missions to Africa and the East (later the `Church Missionary Society') were formed. [123] With the adaptation of Bell's `national system' of education, the schools of the Church Missionary Society endeavoured to teach the principles of Evangelical Christianity and the virtue of hard work in Sierra Leone. [124] As Wilberforce's parliamentary debate of 22 June 1813 confirmed, these missionaries vigorously promoted Christian ideology as the only available pathway to spiritual and temporal well-being: `That remedy, Sir, is Christianity . . . for Christianity assumes her true character . . . when she takes under her protection those poor degraded beings'. [125] Four decades later, in the preface accompanying his treatise, A Brief History of the Wesleyan Missions on the Western Coast of Africa (1851), William Fox defined Africa as a land of `danger, of dissolution, and of death . . . with its brutal rites and ceremonies, its devil-worship [and] sanguinary superstition'. [126] For Fox, the `history' of West Africa was primarily an account of the `valuable lives' of those missionaries who had attempted to spread the `blessings of a Saviour's love' among the numerous tribes living along the western coast. [127] Yet as these `modern missionaries' functioned as `successors of the apostles' they simultaneously advanced England's colonial sovereignty, `the envy and admiration of the world':

    The `signs' which have followed the labours of the missionaries of various denominations on the Western coast of Africa, are such as to warrant, not only the hope, but the absolute certainty, that . . . results still more great and glorious will follow. [128]

    Thomas Coke's History of the West Indies (1808-1811) similarly translated the biblical concept of `redemption' into a narrative delineating the mechanisms of colonial expansionism and the `necessary' suppression of anti-imperial insurrections in the West Indies:

    And yet it is to the gospel, that Great Britain, in all probability, stands indebted for the preservation of many of her richest colonial possessions even to the present day; that her swarthy subjects have not revolted like those of a neighbouring island; and committed those depredations on the white inhabitants, which humanity even shudders to name. [129]

    According to Coke, the `benefits' which were to result from Britain's `intercourse with distant parts', depended upon the establishment of a civilised state amongst the native inhabitants and their `habitual indulgence' in violent passions. [130] In fact, in its account of the dissemination of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Coke's `history' of the West Indies fuses territorial expansionism with missionary ideology by presenting a sacred history of those islands on revised Christian terms:

    But for the unerring page of sacred History, we should have known nothing of the conduct of God towards the human race . . . The origin of justice and of law would have been alike unknown; and our moral and intellectual condition would have been somewhat similar to that of the swarthy inhabitants of those islands which we are about to explore . . . History in general, may be considered as a science without which all others would be useless; and without much impropriety we may denominate it the memory of the world. [131]

  4. Three decades later, Thomas Fowell Buxton's The African Slave Trade and Its Remedy (1839) emphasised the Christian missionaries' role in establishing the universal abolition of the slave trade. This narrative of abolition promoted a vision of England's redemptive role, rather than its culpability and envisaged a dissolution of the boundaries separating the distinct categories of `legitimate commerce', agricultural development and Africa's conversion within a single, unified imperial schema: `The merchant, the philanthropist, the patriot, and the Christian, may unite'. [132] Buxton's text effected a strategic translation of the embryonic prototype of spiritual regeneration into a `mutant' discourse of national ideology, the `deliverance' of a thousand nations under the `divine' aegis of the British Empire:

    A nobler achievement now invites us. I believe that Great Britain can, if she will, under the favour of the Almighty, confer a blessing on the human race. It may be that at her bidding a thousand nations now steeped in wretchedness, in brutal ignorance, in devouring superstitions . . . [shall] emerge from their debasement, enjoy a long life of blessings—education, agriculture, commerce, peace, industry and the wealth that springs from it; and, far above all, shall willingly receive that religion which, while it confers innumerable temporal blessings, opens the way to an eternal futurity of happiness. [133]

  5. According to commentators such as Buxton, Britain's unquestionable responsibility had been to transform and redeem the African continent of its former cultural epistemologies: `to take up the cause upon Christian grounds'. This discourse of spiritual regeneration on national colonialist terms was, however, ultimately dependent upon a genre of spiritual autobiography which emerged in the late eighteenth century under the influence of radical dissenting Protestantism. While Buxton's text envisaged the `deliverance' (and indeed, the appropriation) of one culturally distinct nation by another, the autobiographical narratives reflected and resisted this paradigm of the self by the agency of an indeterminate, `nebulous', spiritual other.

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