Religious Appeal in Stories of the Slave Trade

Shown: A slave and the Holy Bible. What role does religion play in narratives on the slave trade?

Shown: A slave and the Holy Bible. What role does religion play in narratives on the slave trade?

When reading William Cowper’s The Negro’s Complaint, and also The Sorrows of Yamba or, The Negro Woman’s Lamentation by Hannah More and Eaglesfield Smith, I found there to be a prominent stylistic element utilized by both: that of religious appeal. What’s notable about the use of this religious appeal is that the two texts apply it in very different ways. Each of these texts aim to humanize the slaves in their representation, and each makes use of strong emotion to place emphasis on the storytelling. But while each text contains similar content and religious appeal, the application of this stylistic element is unique.

In The Negro’s Complaint, we read the narrative of an unnamed slave who utilizes religious appeal based on shaming Christians for their part in the slave trade and industry. We are not told individual details or traits of the slave that is narrating. We are given instead an account of the process of slave trading, and of the sins which are surely committed as these slaves are sold and forced to work in cane fields and on plantations. This slave details the sins of slavery but maintains a critical distance and voice throughout, offering up the rational plea: “Is there, as ye sometimes tells us,/Is there One who reigns on high?/Has He bid you buy and sell us,/Speaking from his throne, the sky” (Damrosch 258)?

This is the initial instance of religious appeal within The Negro’s Complaint. The slave is calling into question the religious practice that would allow and even participate in the slave trade. The slave prompts the reader− did God command you to buy and sell us? He continues: “Ask Him, if your knotted scourges/Matches, blood-extorting screws/Are the means that duty urges/Agents of his will to use?/Hark! He answers!−Wild tornadoes/Strewing yonder sea with wrecks,/Wasting towns, plantations, meadows,/Are the voice with which he speaks./He, foreseeing what vexations/Afric’s sons should undergo,/Fix’d their tyrants’ habitations/Where his whirlwinds answer−No” (Damrosch 259). The slave inquires as to the will of God, and whether He would have His followers make use of whips and thumbscrews on their slaves, in order to have their bidding done. He then proceeds to answer his own appeal: God speaks, and He has answered with a resounding “No”.

Religious appeal is also employed as a stylistic element in The Sorrows of Yamba or, The Negro Woman’s Lamentation, but to a different extent. Where in The Negro’s Complaint the slave demands: Would your God want you to do this?, The Sorrows of Yamba applies the religious appeal to Yamba’s suicidal grief, an application which introduces Yamba to God and the Bible, and teaches her a new life of praise, prayer, and eternal salvation.

As Yamba recounts her story, we are provided a brief history: she was taken from Africa on a slave ship, and sold to a Master that treated her poorly− whipping her often and forcing her to pick grass in the fields. Yamba also tells of how her child died while the slave ship was at sea. Midway through the poem, just as Yamba has fled her Master’s home with the intent to commit suicide by casting herself into the sea, she encounters an English Missionary: “There I met upon the Strand/English Missionary Good;/He had Bible book in hand,/Which poor me no understood” (Damrosch 265).

The Missionary talks Yamba down from her place on the shore, and leads her to his cottage, where he shows Yamba his Bible and tells her of God’s love: “Told me then of God’s dear Son,/(Strange and wondrous is the story;)/What sad wrong to him was done,/Tho’ he was the Lord of Glory./Told me too, like one who knew him,/(Can such love as this be true?)/How he died for them that slew him,/Died for wretched Yamba too” (Damrosch 265). The story of Christ has appealed to Yamba; in fact, it saves her life just at the moment that she had been about to commit suicide. Although The Sorrows of Yamba -like The Negro’s Complaint– shows us the horrors of slavery, we see that through this religious application by the English Missionary, Yamba is given not just hope for the future and for her afterlife, but also an altered outlook on the events that have brought her to this point.

We observe in both texts the influence that religion has on its narrators. For the slave in The Negro’s Complaint, religion is used to appeal to the reader and to the purveyors of slavery. It is utilized as a point of reason and to highlight the hypocrisy of God-fearing white men who buy, sell, and abuse slaves. This plea serves not just to illustrate the mistreatment and injustice of the slave trade, but to question the morals and beliefs of the Christians who support and participate in the trade as well. In The Sorrows of Yamba, religion becomes a new practice for Yamba− one that allows her to see past her mistreatment and gives her faith. On the last page of Yamba’s narration, she commands: “Where ye once have carried slaughter,/Vice, and Slavery, and Sin;/Seiz’d on Husband, Wife, and Daughter,/Let the Gospel enter in” (Damrosch 267). This is Yamba’s final plea -much like the slave in The Negro’s Complaint– to cease the abhorrent practice of slavery and turn to God, so that the errors of these ways may become clear. Though each of these two texts approach the application of religion in different ways, it is a stylistic element that adds depth to the narration, and effectively calls into question the practice of slavery.

Works Cited:

Cowpur, William, ed. David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. From “The Negro’s Complaint”. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 5th ed. Vol. 2A. Boston, Mass. Pearson, 2012. 258-259. Print.

More, Hannah and Smith, Eaglesfield, ed. David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. From “The Sorrows of Yamba or, The Negro Woman’s Lamentation”. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 5th ed. Vol. 2A. Boston, Mass. Pearson, 2012. 263-267. Print.

Image courtesy of Church In Toronto. From “Does the Bible Condone Slavery?” Penner, Melinda. Posted February 17, 2012. Online.