Images of Slavery in the British Literary Annuals
This essay reconstructs both the historical and literary strategies of the British abolitionists from images in the British annuals. Images found in poems and stories from annuals between 1827 and 1854 illustrate the influence of annuals on the public perception of slavery. The nineteen abolitionist poems and stories from the eighteen different annuals quoted in this study clearly show the literary techniques used to persuade readers that the inhumanity of slavery outweighed any possible economic advantage.
A Problem of Persuasion
The initial abolition movement began in 1783, when six Quakers formed a group dedicated to opposing slavery through anti-slavery publications and letters. The abolitionists had several obstacles to overcome. Few besides anti-slavery crusaders paid much attention to the 14,000 Negro servants in England (Gerzina 12). In the first census of 1801, there were about 16 million inhabitants in the British Isles (Adams 357). Therefore the number of blacks in England was very small, compared to those in the remote and economically productive colonies. Another difficulty in attempting to abolish the slave trade was the smugness with which the English embraced the freedom of their own air, while enjoying the rewards of slavery elsewhere (Gerzina 199). This smugness had to be erased by revealing the real evils of slavery. The question was how to change the British public perception of slavery from being accepted as a colonial economic necessity to that of being a moral crime against humanity. Strategically, it was necessary to establish evidence of the inhumane treatment of slaves, and then to mobilize support of the literate class through skillful use of the media of their day. In 1787, the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade evolved from the original movement. Thomas Clarkson became one of the Society’s most important and courageous members, who risked his life to gain evidence against the slave trade in England.
Clarkson’s career is described in a twenty-page biography that appeared in The Christian Keepsake and Missionary Annual for 1837. This biography provides a general background on the anti-slavery efforts in England at the turn of the nineteenth century. In 1785, Clarkson won senior Latin first prize at Cambridge for a dissertation on the subject, “Is it right to make slaves of others against their will?” As a result of the shocking evidence he uncovered, he became a life-long spokesman for the cause of abolition. He went to London to publish an enlarged translation of his Latin dissertation, and was introduced to William Wilberforce, an Evangelist, who spent almost fifty years pushing anti-slavery legislation through Parliament, and to many other friends of the cause of abolition. Clarkson traveled over 35,000 miles visiting different seaports, collecting evidence and trying to penetrate the wall of guilty silence surrounding the slave trade. On the fifty-seventh suspect vessel, he finally found a sailor who had witnessed and was willing to testify about slaving activities in the interior of Africa and on ships that transported slaves to the colonies. Wilberforce conveyed Clarkson’s findings to Parliament, while Clarkson revealed his evidence in London and Liverpool customhouses, periodicals, reports, and in a comprehensive history. In 1806, their efforts succeeded. Parliament prohibited the importation of slaves into British colonies; however, their efforts for the total abolition of slavery were not successful until 1833. In the meantime, the Society continued to attack the practice of slavery through the media of Coffee House readership of pamphlets and newspapers, and in reaching a more general audience through church sermons.
At this point, we move ahead to the late-1820s when the popularity of British annuals was peaking, and the abolitionist articles to be discussed below began appearing. The images in these annuals were directed to transform the perception of upper and middle class women readers who might not read other media. Clarkson divided the evil of the slave trade into three parts: the capture of slaves in Africa, the transporting of the slaves overseas, and the life of slaves in colonies. The literary images found in the British annuals will be discussed using those same categories.