Imperialism and its Emphasis on a Mother/Child Relationship in “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point”
The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point- Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Imperialism is present throughout the history of the uprising of the British Empire and the effects it has on the readership and audience from the eighteenth century through today is expansive. Dichotomies also commonly showed through in pieces of writing from the Victorian Period and one that was prominent in this poem is the use of blacks/whites. “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” is classified as an abolition poem because of the aspect of slavery present, but I find it interesting that the slave herself engages in an imperialistic and master-like role when she gives birth to a child. This child is born out of a restrained, dominant and masculine attempt to control the slave, who is a black woman. Her lover is killed and she then is raped by white men of the plantation. Her immediate encounter with these men controlling her from the beginning of the poem sets the tone for the entire piece. In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point,” there is a symbolic use of imperialism that emphasizes not only the evidence of a power struggle between a slave and her master(s), but also in the way imperialism is used in a relationship between mother and child.
The full (Merriam-Webster) definition of Imperialism is “the policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power and dominion of a nation especially by direct territorial acquisitions or by gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas; broadly: the extension or imposition of power, authority, or influence.” Another source stated that “In short, imperialism is not simply either the good or bad conscience of nineteenth-century Britain but rather in an important sense, its unconscious, lurking under the surface of a variety of discourses, conditioning the possibilities for emergence of some and precluding others.” (Bivona) Looking at the full text, we see this idea of a nation (the British Empire) exhibiting indirect control over the slave’s personal life and freedom through the restraints of slavery. We also see the direct emergence of dichotomies such as blacks/whites, which starts from the very beginning of “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point.” The poem begins at Pilgrim’s point or better known as Plymouth Rock, where the Pilgrims arrived, and we get an image of the slave’s future actions as she is saying:
“I stand on the mark beside the shore
Of the first white pilgrim’s bended knee,
Where exile turned to ancestor,
And God was thanked for liberty.
I have run through the night, my skin is as dark,
I bend my knee down on this mark:
I look on the sky and the sea.” (Browning 1148-9)
We see in this excerpt the immediate necessity in the distinction between black and white. It is the main point and focus of the slave that the pilgrims were of white decent. We can see that she has eventually escaped slavery and made it to Pilgrim’s Point. As the poem continues on, we find that through the death of her lover, she has become pregnant with a child. When the child is born she realizes that as time goes on the child is not getting darker as it should be if it was a baby of the other slave who was murdered. The following passage describes this realization and struggle through the slaves own voice as Browning writes,
“I am black, I am black!
I wore a child upon my breast,
An amulet that hung too slack,
And, in my unrest, could not rest:
Thus we went moaning, child and mother,
One to another, one to another,
Until all ended for the best.” (Browning 1151)
This stanza of the poem reveals the imperialist viewpoint the slave is beginning to take against her child. We see her declaration of “I am black!” that shows a direct address of race and its part in the new power struggle between mother and child. The slave shows in her words that because of their oppression in the imperialist world they are living in, both are struggling and are in an unrest. She seems to be expressing a sadness and a regretful outlook and is pinning it on the institution of slavery they are stuck in. The slave continues on in her daily chores all the while taking care of the child. She eventually comes to the point where she can no longer take the stress of the child and what having a white child represents in the institution of slavery. To the slave, having a white child means that she is continuously and consciously restrained by the dominant and imperialistic boundaries set up by the whites. The slave finally gives in and we see her say in the poem,
“My own, own child! I could not bear
To look in his face, it was so white;
I covered him up with a kerchief there,
I covered his face in close and tight:
And he moaned and struggled, as well might be,
For the white child wanted his liberty—
Ha, ha! he wanted the master-right.
He moaned and beat with his head and feet,
His little feet that never grew;
He struck them out, as it was meet,
Against my heart to break it through:
I might have sung and made him mild,
But I dared not sing to the white-faced child
The only song I knew.” (Browning 1151-2)
The death of this child came from an imperial oppression and the extreme anxiety of the mother. Many blame the child for being the cause of its own death. The baby fought the mother and struggled to be free and in this fight the slave looked down at the baby’s face. In the poem she says, “I saw a look that made me mad! /The master’s look, that used to fall/ On my soul like his lash…” (Browning, E) This passage lets us see that even in the power struggle between mother and child, it ultimately still comes down to the imperialist struggle caused by the whites/blacks dichotomy that is so prevalent in “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point.” Without this racial tension and slavery the child would not have been rid of. It seems that the finger of blame is pointed towards the child for having the master’s right because of its skin color. I have to wonder though if the child was raised by the slave would its “whiteness” matter or would it be more like the mother. I cannot say for sure, but I do think that in this moment we see a shift of power and that is that the slave becomes the master of the situation. She is now oppressing the child as she has been oppressed. It comes full circle and continues that way until the end of the poem. In the end, we see the slave speak again at Pilgrim’s Point saying:
“Our wounds are different. Your white men
Are, after all, not gods indeed,
Nor able to make Christs again
Do good with bleeding. We who bleed
(Stand off!) we help not in our loss!
We are too heavy for our cross,
And fall and crush you and your seed.” (Browning 1154)
To me, the slave has come to say that although your white race and descendants have controlled us and kept the blacks as slaves and though you may have an imperialistic hold on the black race, you cannot stop us and we will stop at nothing to end this oppression and institution of slavery. The slave exhibited a force that many took as a crazed and undeliberate action. I however feel that she killed the baby as a symbol and by doing so, she made a point that she could be a strong and master-like figure too. She exhibited an imperialist power over the white child and it gave a small break to the power struggle that from the beginning was so dominant of slave and master.
“The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” is a strong poem that exhibits imperialism at many different levels. It allows the reader to look at power-shifts as something that creates emotional response from its audience. Elizabeth Barrett Browning made a point in bringing together opposites and giving them symbolic meaning. So much can be taken from this poem and it shows an individual’s voice that translates a will and a call for revenge and liberty for all.
Bivona, D. (1990). Preface. In Desire and Contradiction: Imperial Visions and Domestic Debates in Victorian Literature. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Browning, E. (1999). The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point. In D. Damrosch & K. Dettmar (Eds.), The Longman Anthology of British Literature (4th ed., Vol. 2B, pp. 1148-1155). New York: Pearson Education.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (n.d.). Retrieved December 5, 2015, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/imperialism