The Sorrow Beyond Slavery
Arguably, fates worse than slavery are hard to find. Hannah More and Eaglesfield Smith’s 1797 The Sorrows of Yamba or The Negro Woman’s Lamentation expounds upon the degradation of captivity and transatlantic voyage Africans endured at the hands of white men. More and Smith’s pro-abolition agenda evinces itself in this lamentation; however, this is not necessarily the only stake attached to Yamba’s self-proclaimed miserable existence. The parallel and contending themes of freedom from slavery and salvation in Christ battle each other throughout the poem, and ultimately reveal that thematically More and Smith believed that true slavery was a life bound in sin and devoid of God.
The pro-abolitionist agenda manifests primarily in Yamba’s frequent pleas for “kind death” as a release from the horrors of slave life and in condemnations of British greed (More and Smith 5). Grotesque visual images of “mangled…poor flesh with whipping” (11) and descriptions of treatment of humans like “cattle” (57) relates the cruelty of the British oppressors (More, 264). Due to her horrific treatment, being ripped from her idealized home on “Afric’s Golden Coast” to her hell on the Middle Passage to her experience enslaved to a cruel “Massa”, Yamba develops an intense longing for death to “give [her] rest” and “set the Prisoner free” (More, 267). When her daughter dies in the ship’s hold, Yamba describes her sweet infant as “happy, happy” in her death (More, 264). As she has “clean escap’d the Tyrants fell” her child will never be sold and worked as a slave; therefore, death freed her from bondage. The same cannot be said for “wretched Yamba” (More, 265). After being sold and worked by a hard Master, Yamba for the third time relates a strong desire to die: “death itself [she] longed to taste” (More, 265).
Through the heightened diction of the typically simply spoken Yamba, More and Smith assert their pro-abolitionist agenda. Breaking from her simple, singsong voice, they interrupt with Yamba contemplating her dying wish: “O that Afric might be free” (More, 267). Despite her new Christian forgiving spirit, Yamba pleads to the “British Sons of murder” (161) to “cease from forging Afric’s chain” (162) and curses them for their poor representation of the her newly-adopted Christian faith. More and Smith, through Yamba’s simple and piteous voice, condemn the brutality of the British slavers in their pursuit of wealth and power.
The British behave cruelly toward the African people all “for the love of filthy Gold”, and Yamba’s repetition of that phrase, their shameful motive, implicates the British involvement in the slave trade (More and Smith, 264). In particularly educated and descriptive language, simple-tongued Yamba states that the white men “[sailed] o’er the bring flood/…[and] with help of British Tar/ [bought] up human flesh and blood” (More, 263). This illuminates a dark conviction to the trade of selling humans as commodities. Her entire life was uprooted by their pursuit of human goods.
More detrimental to Yamba’s life, in More and Smith’s opinion, was the lack of Christianity and organized religion in her life. Highlighting this belief is Yamba’s eventual proclamation that she “bless[es] [her] cruel capture”, articulating that without her enslavement, without all of the horrors she endured, she would not have been exposed to the saving grace of God (More, 266). Through slavery, God granted Yamba freedom. The final lines of the poem, “There, ‘the weary are at rest” (188), allude to the story of Job, a biblical figure whose faith and love to God was tested by Satan. Job, despite all the tribulations and the people around him begging him to abandon his faith, remained true. Likewise, Yamba highly values the positive results of her terrible experiences and believes she will attain heavenly reward in the afterlife for her great suffering (More, 267).
Contrary to her attitude at the beginning of the poem, Yamba anticipates the salvation death will bring, rather than wanting death to take her from her hard life, proclaiming “Death I now will welcome in” (More, 266). Only after being given Christ was she able to accept the world as it is and forgive those who wronged her and her people. It is crucial that she is able to forgive her British captors after British evangelism saves her from committing suicide. On the beach “English Missionary Good” (82) converted Yamba, changing her life irrevocably telling her the “strange and wondrous…story” of Jesus’s sacrifice for the wretched of the earth (More, 265). She imagines more missionaries “roam[ing]” (179) around her “native land” (177), which is an eerie foreshadowing of the next step in British imperialism in Africa (More, 267). Essentially, More and Smith speak for the people of Africa and believe that they want further involvement from outside powers.
In conclusion, English evangelism assumes priority over the abolition of slavery in “The Sorrows of Yamba” (More and Smith). Without slavery, Yamba would never have found religion that she claims changed her life for the better. In the end, Yamba chooses to “trust and serve [God] all [her] days” (144), choosing a new Master with her conversion. Although there is a clear message that there should be no more “slave ship [soiling] the sea” (166), the pro-abolition agenda is not the primary point of this poem. Simply put, discovering Christianity shining at the end of the tunnel of slavery is a problematic notion to suggest; however, More and Smith do so through their manipulation of Yamba’s shifting views on death as freedom from slavery to salvation found in God given to her by “English Missionary Good” (More and Smith, 266).
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.
Marsh, J. The Sorrows of Yamba. 1797. Http://thestir.squarespace.com/journal/2013/2/25/the-sorrows-of-yamba.html. Square Space, 25 Feb. 2013. Web. 17 Mar. 2014.