Dehumanizing the Dehumanizer
In his poem The Negro’s Complaint William Cowper explores the dehumanizing effects of slavery and the slave trade not only on the slave but also on the slaveholder. Cowper shifts the perspective in his poem and gives a voice to the voiceless slave by showing the slaveholder his own folly and dehumanization. The Negro’s Complaint shows how divine judgment has been casted upon the slave trade and how the love of money dehumanizes the slave traders.
Cowper attacks the false view of God held by the supporters of slavery and uses their own line of reasoning against them. In lines 25 through 40 the narrator of the poem points out that not only is the slave traders view of God flawed but God Himself will judge them for their behavior towards the slaves. The narrator uses the slaveholders’ own conception of God to demonstrate to them that if there is indeed a God who reigns on high He will certainly judge them for their injustice towards the Africans. The narrator goes so far as to say that God has already sent tornadoes and storms to halt the slave trade and judge the slave traders.
Cowper also assails the love of money that keeps the supporters of slavery in constant captivity. The African narrator places the crux of his argument around the reality that the English are “slaves of gold” (ln 53). The love of gold that the English person experienced put them in a moral slavery that far exceeded the physical slavery of the African. It has dehumanized them and robbed them of “human feelings” (ln 55). In Christian England the love of money would not have been a foreign subject. In the book of Matthew Jesus directly addresses the love of money and concludes “no man can serve two masters”(Matthew 6:24). Jesus warns that one must be a servant of wealth and riches or of God. By calling the English a “slave to gold” the narrator has cut them straight to the core of their beliefs. Cowper masterfully shows the hypocrisy of the English and uses this familiar subject to show them their own enslavement.
The Negro’s Complaint combines an African perspective with a clear understanding of English culture to combat the slave trade. Through the African narrator’s voice William Cowper affirmed the fully human nature of Africans and the dehumanizing effects of slavery. What sets The Negro’s Complaint apart was Cowper’s ability to reveal the dehumanizing effects of slavery on the slaveholder as well as the slave.
Damrosch, David, and Dettmar, Kevin J.H., eds. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Boston: Pearson, 2012.