What was Barbauld really talking about?
Anna Letitia Barbauld’s “Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq. On the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade” is a text that expresses ideals and emotions present in late 18th century. Abolition of the slave trade had been a movement for several years before Barbauld wrote her poem in 1791. The leaders of this movement hoped to implant this ideology into British Society through pamphlets, books, and other written works (Oldfield). William Wilberforce, one of these leaders, spoke in front of the House of Commons in 1789 hoping to convince them of his and his follower’s principles. By understanding the nature of the slave trade abolition movement and an in depth look at William Wilberforce’s speech, one can gain a greater grasp on why Barbauld used certain diction and description in “Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq. On the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade”.
The anti-slavery movement was led by The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The group, lead by Thomas Clarkson, handed out massive amounts of anti-slavery paraphernalia with facts gathered from their research of British slave ports. It is this information that Wilberforce used in developing the points of his speech, thus leading to the response found in Barbauld’s epistle. The initiative was initially unsuccessful however, they eventually gained enough to support pass their bill (Oldfield). Even though this was more than 25 year after Barbauld wrote her piece, it her and similar works that included the passion and support that was needed stimulate the movement. Barbuald’s passion was not alone, it was the work of those before her that allowed for “Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq. On the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade” to be as influential as it was.
Wilberforce’s speech brings forth several reasons for the abolition of slavery, ranging from violent conflicts to ethical mistreatment. He follows up these reasons with evidence to support and discredit, statements and preconceived ideas that were found to be popular. Some of these are in direct contradiction to remarks made by British slave traders. Barbauld uses some of these reasons in her epistle to help put forth her point.
He makes the point that he believes “the slave trade to be the chief cause of war in Africa”. The evidence for this is from the fact that African kings have come in conflict with each other in order to acquire prisoners to sell to Europeans. Prior to this two towns “pledged themselves to peace” but the slave trade caused them to “renew the hostilities”(Wilberforce 3). Barbauld speaks on these points; Africa had been peaceful but now it’s pain stems from internal struggle as much as it does external influence. The ideas of “Contending Chiefs” and “injur;d Afric, by herself redrest” are direct connections to Wilberforce’s speech (Barbauld 261). These, along with the description of joy and pleasure that no longer exists, are better understood with the knowledge of Wilberforce’s speech.
The mistreatment of the slaves is another point that Wilberforce uses to try to persuade the House of Commons. Wilberforce exclaims that he doesn’t believe that anyone has truly seen the “wretchedness of any one of the many hundred Negroes stowed in each ship” because there none “whose heart would bear it”(Wilberforce 5). He responds to the slave traders that the slaves are well fed, well washed, and sing and dance to create a “scene of pleasure”(Wilberforce 6). Like with the violent conflicts Barbauld touches on the subject of the lack of moral consciousness shown by the slave traders. Her statements the “Country knows the sin” and “by turns they try; the plausive argument, the daring lye” echo the point Wilberforce is trying to make that the people are aware of the events taking place but continually develop reason to justify them (Barbauld 260).
To begin his speech Wilberforce speaks of his nervousness and inadequacy to speak on such a subject. He says he was reassured by the encouragement he has received and the internal shame he has being associated with such actions. The courage which it must have taken to face Britain and ask him to change their way of living was noticed by Barbauld. She understood that after failing it must have been hard for Wilberforce thus she provides her approval and support at the end of her work. She wants Wilberforce to know he has saved himself “with or without the varnish of success” (Barbauld 262). Without Wilberforce opening his speech with his statement of uncertainty, perhaps Barbauld would not have felt as inclined to show her affimation and graciousness for the attempt he made.
Through understanding the context in which Barbauld was writing her “Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq. On the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade”, a reader can make sense of why she used the words and examples she did. She uses very specific diction to create her point.The use of “Senator” is specifically used to draw the connection to the House of Commons. She writes about the “jests unseemingly, and to horrid mirth” which is a reference to the laughter that was present during the Parliament session (Barbauld 261). Without knowledge of these occurrences one would not be able to under the context in which Barbauld placed this allusion.
It may seem indicative that to gain a better understanding of an epistle about a political event one would need to better understand that event. But in this case by looking into the greater details of the event one is not only able to understand the author’s reasoning for writing the epistle but also its construction and content.
Barbuald, Anna L. “Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq. On the Rejection of
the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade.” Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed.
David Damrosch, Kevin J.H. Dettmar. Pearson Education Inc, 2010.
“Petitioning and Lobbying Parliament: The Abolition of Slavery Project.” Petitioning and Lobbying Parliament: The Abolition of Slavery Project. East of England Broadband Network, 2009. Web. 21 Mar. 2014.