The Not So Benevolent Masters
“Sometimes farces such as ‘The Benevolent Planters’…can be just as, if not more effective, than a straightforward and truthful, although less imaginative work” (“Abolition” 1). Published in 1789, Thomas Bellamy’s The Benevolent Planters was written in “support of the anti-emancipation West Indian lobby” (Damrosch 244). For some, mainly those who agreed with Bellamy on the anti-abolition movement, this short playlet would do this proposition justice. However, when this text is examined more closely, it’s easy to see that this text only helps the abolition side of things even more. No matter how ‘benevolent’ Bellamy portrays these masters, masters who bring productive lives, sports, and even lovers together amongst slaves, the dark side still clearly shines through.
While it should be noted that no physical torture occurs in Bellamy’s work, which many times is the most profound and clear way to gain attention for the abolition movement, it should also be observed that there is mental torture throughout. Bellamy knew that no ‘benevolent’ master could beat his slaves, so withholding any act of the sort was smart on his part. He neglected to realize, though, that this was only half the torture that slaves endured. Once the masters of this play find out that they have Selima and Oran, past lovers, they not only do not bring them immediately together, but make each do things just for their own pleasure. First Goodwin, Selima’s master, brings her forward and makes her sing her song she wrote upon losing Oran. “Will you then indulge me with that pleasing tho’ mournful Song you have made, on the loss of him…” (247). Oran, under the ownership of Heartfree, is forced to participate in the archery contest (again, seemingly for the masters pleasure), and upon winning, almost ridiculed for not wanting to “take his boson one whom I [Heartfree] have provided for you” (249).
Both Goodwin and Heartfree know the pain that Selima and Oran have gone through thinking that they had forever lost each other. Neither Selima nor Oran are, no matter what their masters try to do, able to even think about anyone, or really anything else, because of the hurt in their heart. Oran states, “Kind and benevolent masters; I indeed came hither unwillingly,…with a heart already pierced with the arrow of hopeless anguish”(249). In response to her owner Goodwin’s notion of her finding love, Selima says “The first I want not [liberty]- the last can never be [love]! for where shall I find another Oran?” (248). So, why upon finding out that these lovers could be reunited, did these masters not immediately bring them together? Well, they can’t be that kind, can they? After all, they are still slave owners. They have to prove they are still in control of these people in some fashion or another, which, whether Bellamy wants to admit or not, is ever so clear in this piece.
So no, Bellamy’s The Benevolent Planters is not a farce, for he truly thought that this would help the anti-abolition movement. It was indeed effective, however, but not in Bellamy’s favor, for no matter how “benevolent” a master may be, this playlet shows that there is no good argument for slavery.
“Abolition Literature.” www.users.muohio.edu. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2013. <http://www.users.muohio.edu/mandellc/projects/aronowml/LitHome.htm>.
Damrosch, David, and Kevin J.H. Dettmar. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 5th ed. New York: Pearson Education Inc., 2010. 244-250. Print.