The Female Writers of Abolition Poetry


The Female Writers of Abolition Poetry

Slavery in Great Brittan was finally abolished in the early nineteenth century through multiple methods, including literature and poetry. Female poets in England really took to writing about slavery, and wrote using their perception of slavery to convey their point and incense their readers into joining their abolitionist movement. Their writing is moving but they do not have the experience to write a true to life account of how horrific slavery actually was.

In the eighteenth century, there was a growing demand to put an end to the slave trade as well as slavery in England and its colonies. A growing abolitionist’s movement pressured the government to end the inhumane acts of slavery for multiple reasons. Since slaves had almost no say in defense of their freedom, the abolitionist movement was made up primarily of white Europeans, both male and female. Many female poets wrote about their perception of slavery and the mindset of a slave. Writers created their own version of slavery since they did not have legitimate experience of being enslaved. The initial goal was to end slavery, and that is a good and respectable objective. However, by creating their own ideas of slavery, writers overlooked the actual voices of the enslaved, and therefore, never tackling the issue of what it was to be a slave. In Moira Fergusons article entitled “British Women Writers and an Emerging Abolitionist Discourse”, she discusses the writers that made slaves “constructions of a different sort, unproblematized, unvoiced, unthinking, and unnamed victims” in order to appeal to the white audience. These women were appealing to members of the parliament, so their whitened perception of slavery was relatable. Hannah More was most influential in the development of poetry on slavery. She coordinated “many accumulated motifs of slavery into narrative verse” that gave shape to the fundamentals of slave poetry. More focused more upon the horrors of slavery rather than creating specific characters like previous slave literature that had been written. She generalizes slave characters so that people see the terrible overall scope of slavery and not just the immediate slave. By focusing on “the atrocities of slavery”, she sought to incense her readers, who would protest slavery “in conjunction with parliamentary argumentation (that) would ensure the passage of the bill” that would abolish slavery.

In Hannah More’s poem “The Sorrows of Yamba”, she depicts a slave woman named Yamba captured from her home in Africa and forced into slavery. She longs for death until she finds Christianity and a new hope in life. More uses Christianity to humanize Yamba so that Christian readers would find the poem more appealing. Also, Yamba herself implores readers to look to their Christian teachings to put an end to the cruel slavery. Yamba refers to those who participate in or support the slave trade as “British Sons of murder”. This direct call to the sons of Britton would have been addressing the members of parliament. She claims that England must cease its participation in the slave trade. Again, she appeals to Christianity by saying “Mock your Saviour’s name no further”. This bold claim would have surely affronted the British citizens who saw themselves as refined and a ruling power in the world. An earlier line both compliments and shakes a finger at Britons participation in slavery. “Deed of Shame for Britons brave” lets British readers know that Yamba is not insulting them as people, only their practice of slavery. These deeds were the sources of shame which More pushed for her audiences to feel. Shame in their actions and a desire to oppose slavery.

Earlier in the poem, Yamba plans on ending her life by drowning herself. However, a missionary intervenes and delivers his message of Christianity unto her. This changes not only her plans, but her whole life. She is now devout and even feels pity for her master. This would again humanize Yamba and show her to be of good human nature. However, Christianity being an ideology that is entirely European, it would seem that this is where More cannot help but insert her own perception of life that was never bound in slavery. Most slaves were not so ready to accept Christianity and those who did often did so for fear of repercussion. Religion provided slaves little benefit that slave owners claimed it did. Christianity was used to mask the deception that held slaves in chains, and More seems unaware of this. She sees the positive aspects of Christianity and uses that to appeal to her audience. Yet, she is unable to see the negative deceptiveness that helped maintain slavery and pacify slaves. This helps personify Yamba as truly “unthinking” and ready to accept the white man’s teachings. In reality, slaves were forced into a life of slavery and did not have the time or decision to decide whether they adhered with Christianity. More seemed to be aware of the irony of being enslaved and Christian. Ferguson projects More thoughts that “no African will desire conversion as long as traders-“white savages”- function in the name of Christianity.” This is exactly the point that shows how weary African slaves would be of accepting the white man’s religious principles. However, More aligns slaves with Christianity to appeal to those in charge of the slave trade, many of whom claimed to be Christian.

The abolition of slavery in England was greatly furthered  through the work of female writers and female supporters. “Hannah More’s anti-slavery poem urged women’s right to enter the cultural mainstream of the body politic.” Abolition movements gave women a chance to make changes in society and allowed for their voices to be heard. Women felt sympathy for the plight of the struggling slave. Women felt the struggle of “forced marriages, abuse, and family separations.” More’s discourse on abolition “empowers white female abolitionists to blend their worries about themselves as subjects with concerns about colonized others.” It came natural for More and other women to feel sympathy for the slave and take action on their behalf.

In 1807, England abolished slavery. It was thanks to the work of people like Hannah More that slavery was finally abolished. More’s overall undertaking was for a good cause, even if her perceptions overshadowed the true nature of slavery. Her actions also served to better the position of women within politics. Her actions helped change the world not just for the enslaved but for Europe and European ideology.

Texts cited:

Ferguson, Moira. “British Women Writers and an Emerging Abolitionist Discourse” (1992): 3-23. JSTOR. Web. 11 Aug. 2014

More, Hannah. “The Sorrows of Yamba” The Longman Anthology: British Literature: The Romantics and Their Contemporaries. 5th ed. Vol. 2A. N.p.: Pearson Education, 2012. 262-267. Print.