|The Slave in the Colonies
With few exceptions, we know little about black slaves through their own voices, words, or testimony. As long as they had no voice or power, their enslavement could be viewed as an improvement over their former un-Christian state or over the difficult lives of millions of white English citizens (Gerzina 26). An exception was Mary Prince, a destitute slave brought from Antigua to England by her master. She was abandoned to the streets when she could no longer perform her labors. Moravian missionaries referred Prince to the Anti-Slavery Society. Thomas Pringle, the Society’s secretary, employed her, arranged for her to narrate her life story as a slave to Agnes Strickland, who edited Prince’s autobiography for publication in 1831. Pringle believed most of the particulars of her narrative, but some facts were too shocking to be credible. The stark details of her toils and treatment on plantations and in salt works seem unbelievable.
Although colonial slaves could not address their grievances directly to the English public, many clergymen actively denounced slavery from their pulpits and in publications such as Reverend D. Wilson’s “Thoughts on British Colonial Slavery” from The Amulet of 1828:
Our fellow-creatures, our brethren in blood, they are treated as beasts of burden - are delivered over to the absolute will of a slave-driver - are compelled to their daily work by the cart-whip - are forced in gangs to their excessive and overwhelming toil - are exposed to punishments the most cruel and debasing, at the passion and caprice of another - are branded in the flesh with hot irons - are sold as goods and chattels for the payment of their master’s debts - are separated, the one part of their families from another, and sold off to distant owners - are debarred from religious instructions by the Sabbath being market-day, and the only time for cultivating the patches of land by which they support themselves - marriage almost unknown - cruel punishments and overworking in crop-time, with the constant effect of indiscriminate licentiousness, lessening their numbers - their testimony not believed in courts of law - the possession of property forbidden - the purchase of their liberty made almost impossible! Thus man is the prey of man. The innocent African, first taken from the land of his fathers, is pursued by unrelenting barbarity through his shortened term of life, to a death unrelieved by the Christian’s hope. And all this is done by Englishmen! The English slave-holder has no more right, in the eye of religion, to retain the unoffending African slave than an African slave-owner would have to retain a number of Englishmen, if he had made an incursion on our coast, and had carried off our peasants with their wives and children. (Wilson 295)
Wilson conveys a sense of barely controlled rage and indignation while remaining distant, intellectual, and rational. The specific literary strategies that are used in the characterization personally associate the reader to the slave as a fellow being. Wilson also depicts a stereotypical cruel treatment for all slaves that generate individual empathy for their cruel and sustained punishments, family separations, denial of privacy, lack of freedom to worship God and obtain salvation. The author places both the slave and the reader under God’s judgment, and then he reverses their roles so that the reader imaginatively becomes the slave. Wilson concludes that fear of divine wrath should be felt for this great national sin, and that the elevating principles of true Christianity should persuade the legislature to abolish slavery.
If they couldn’t physically free the slaves, religious supporters of abolition believed that they could at least save slaves’ souls by converting them to Christianity. To aid the building of a place of worship in British Capetown colony for the forty thousand slaves, James Montgomery wrote “A Cry from South Africa” which appears in Friendship’s Offering of 1830:
Let tyrants scorn, while tyrants dare,
The shrieks and writhings of despair;
An end will come, - it will not wait,
Bonds and yokes and scourges have their date;
Slavery itself must pass away
And be a tale of yesterday.
Oh! That the womb had been the grave
Of every being born a slave!
Oh! That the grave itself might close
The slave’s unutterable woes!
But what beyond the gulph may be,
What portion of eternity
For those who live to curse their breath
And die without a hope in death.
Send me the Gospel or I die;
The word of Christ’s salvation give,
That I may hear his voice and live.