Justifying the slave system

James Grainger`s "The Sugar Cane"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

18 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Georgic poems
2.1 Charles Woodmason`s poem Indico as an example of georgic poetry

3. James Grainger’s poem The Sugar Cane
3.1 Information about the poem The Sugar Cane
3.2 Reception after the publication of The Sugar Cane

4. The poem as an approach to justify slavery
4.1 The cultural politics of sugar
4.2 The poetics of empire
4.2.1 A Thesis: Justifying slavery to the British Nation
4.2.2 Antithesis: The Sugar Cane incriminates slavery and the colonial project
4.2.3 Synthesis: Ways to overcome the contradiction between empire and freedom

5. Summary and concluding thoughts

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The subject for this term paper is James Grainger’s approach to use the means of georgic poetry to justify the slave system in the 18th century. The primary object of my study is Grainger's poem The Sugar Cane, which was written in “West-Indian georgic” style. First of all I will give a short explanation of georgic poems and their history. Then I will turn to Charles Woodmason, who immigrated to South Carolina and was responsible for many georgic poems in the New World giving the farmers extensive agricultural advices. Exemplified by Woodmason`s Indico I will point out the typical characteristics of a georgic poem. Next I will focus on James Grainger and his poem The Sugar Cane. He lived and worked on the Caribbean islands as a doctor and provided medical care for the slaves. He wrote down his experiences in the poem and gave detailed information for his readers in Britain and Europe about the West Indies. Furthermore I will explore the significance of sugar for empire building and the poetics of empire. In addition I will thoroughly analyze The Sugar Cane since responses to Grainger's poem in the eighteenth century were quite contradictory. On the one hand he justified slavery and the plantation system and on the other hand he condemned the colonial project and slavery. I will show some passages from the poem as examples for the thesis of justification of slavery and the antithesis of criticism of slavery. Finally I will try to work out and present ways on how he overcomes the contradiction between empire and freedom. At at the end I will give a short summary and some concluding thoughts.

2. Georgic poems

According to The New Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics (1993) a georgic poem is a “didactic poem primarily intended to give directions concerning some skill, art, or science, such as practical aspects of agriculture and rural affairs. It also celebrates the virtues of hard work and cultivation.” The model for such verse in postclassical literature was Virgil’s Georgica written between 37 and 29 BC. Virgil was born to a farming family, and his poem gives specific instructions to Italian farmers along with a passionate message to care for the land and for the animals and crops that it sustains (cf. http://classics.mit.edu/Virgil/ georgics.html). The word georgics stems from the Latin word georgicus and means agricultural (cf. http://aolsvc.merriam-webster.aol.com/dictionary /georgics).

2.1 Charles Woodmason`s poem Indico as an example of georgic poetry

One of his poems, Indigo (1757), is written in the georgic tradition of poetic advice for agriculture. He pays homage to indigo, which was a much-desired plant grown for its blue extracts that were used for dye (cf. http://bell.lib.umn.edu/Products/Indigo.html). Woodmason also presents agricultural advice to the planters in how to successfully cultivate indigo and uses several rhetorical devices, such as personification and references to Greek mythology.

In the following I want to present a typical passage from the poem Indico giving an example on how a georgic poem is structured and what is characteristic:

(Indico- line 81 et seq.)

Break off Delays, and thus prepare the Plain,

Let two Feet void `twixt every Trench remain.

Tho`some, imprudently, their Room confine,

Allowing half that Space to every Line.

Give Room, one Stem as much shall yield,

And richer far the Weed: So shall thy Field

With greater Ease from noxious Herbs be freed,

And knotty Grass that choaks the tender Weed,

So shall the Root by larger Banks be fed,

Nor fear the Rays from piercing Phoebus[1] shed.

Woodmason describes very precisely how the farmers can get rid of noxious herbs which destroy the precious plant indigo and gives agricultural advice. The highlighted words are examples of personification, which were quite common in georgic poems. “Personification metaphorically represents an animal or inanimate object as having human attributes, e.g. of form, character, feelings, behaviour, and so on.”(http://www.virtualsalt.com/ rhetoric.htm#Personification). Through this rhetorical device Woodmason wants to make the act of getting rid of pest plants clearer and more real to his reader by defining or explaining the concept in terms of everyday human action. Also the reference to Greek mythology is quite common since The Georgics by Virgil is full of such references (cf. http://classics.mit.edu/Virgil/georgics.html).

3. James Grainger’s poem The Sugar Cane

3.1 Information about the poem The Sugar Cane

The Sugar Cane is written in four books and consists of some 2500 lines, with an approximate distribution of about 600 lines to each book. Each book is annotated with extensive footnotes about the natural history, topography, plants, animals and colonial arrangements of the Caribbean islands as well as helpful explanations on local customs and diseases. Grainger drew this information from his medical work on the Caribbean islands and from extensive research (cf. Sandiford 2000, 68). For instance the long footnote commentary on the custard apple[2], which can be found in the footnotes of book I, is a good example to show Grainger’s attempt to familiarize the unfamiliar:

The true Indian name of this tree is Suirsaak. It grows in the barrenest

places to a considerable height. Its fruit will often weigh two pounds.

Its skin is green, and somewhat prickly. […]Taken by the mouth,

the Indians pretend it is a specific in the epilepsy (cf. Gilmore 2000, 179).

The fruit and its tree are described, measured and tasted for the reader. The fruit’s botanical classification and its growth locales are clarified as well as its other European names. Furthermore the properties as a potential medicine, which Grainger learned from experiences among native peoples, are featured and commented upon. In such lengthy footnotes Grainger shows to English and European readers the very special knowledge that only a learned colonial could obtain by living and being born in the colonies (cf. Mulford 2001, 87).

The first book describes the ideal soils, seasons and other physical conditions favourable to the cultivation of sugar cane (cf. Gilmore 200, 91-109). The second book gives information about natural threats of crops such as locusts, rats, mongooses, earthquakes and hurricanes. At the end Grainger tells the romantic tale of a star-crossed Creole[3] love. (cf. Gilmore 2000, 111-126). The third book describes typical activities, e.g. harvesting and grinding, which bring sugar and the poetics of labour in great detail (cf. Gilmore 2000, 127-144). The fourth book gives an ethnographic description of the slave population, e.g. provenance, mores, manners and diseases. Grainger gives instructions for the buying and choice of slaves from Africa and describes the slave system that supported the sugar plantations. He presents medical advice to plantation overseers for the proper care and management of the slaves. Furthermore he illustrates an early justification for slavery in the British West Indies as well as some criticism on the colonial project and slavery. A praise for Britain’s commercial empire closes the work (cf. Gilmore 2000, 145-163).

The poem The Sugar Cane combines elements of writing that were very popular during the 18th century. On the one hand he tells a New World exploration narrative[4] about his experiences in the Caribbean, and on the other hand he adapted his medical knowledge and Caribbean matter to the neoclassical form of the georgic poem. Grainger’s poem is based on the classical model of Virgil since he gives instructions how to cultivate sugar or how to successfully lead a plantation, but he adapted it to his own purposes (cf. Mulford 2002, 502). In order to make his reader’s aware of the special features of his poem and to not put them off from reading it, Grainger describes it as a “West-Indian georgic” (Gilmore 200, 90).

The following passage from the poem points out typical georgic attributes like references to classical and Greek mythology and rhetorical devices like personification:

[…] (IV, 103-111)

Worms lurk in all:yet, pronest they to worms,

Who from Mundingo sail. When therefore such


Thus, tho`from rise to set, in Phoebus`eye, => Greek Mythology

They toil, unceasing yet, at night, they’ll sleep,

Lap`d in Elysium[5] and, each day, at dawn, => Classical Mythology

Spring from their couch, as blythsome as the sun. => Personification

(The Sugar Cane- Book IV)


[1] “Literally, "the radiant one". In Greek mythology, an epithet of Apollo because of his connection with the sun or as descendant of the Titaness Phoebe (his grandmother). The Romans praised him as Phoebus Apollo.” (cf. http://www.pantheon.org/articles/p/phoebus.html).

[2] “Any various Annona species of shrubs or small trees of the Annonaceae family, native to the New World tropics and Florida, or their fruits. The fruit of the common custard apple (A. reticulata), or bullock's heart of the West Indies, is dark brown in colour and marked with depressions giving it a quilted appearance; its pulp is reddish yellow, sweetish, and very soft “ ( see http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9028319/custard-apple).

[3] Two definitions: -> “the local elite of European descent whose wealth and position was dependent on the ownership of plantations and of the slaves of African origin who cultivated the land in sugar-cane and processed the cane into sugar for export to Britain” (see Gilmore 200, 14).

-> “a white person descended from early French or Spanish settlers of the United States Gulf states and preserving their speech and culture” (see http://aolsvc.merriam-webster.aol.com/dictionary).

[4] An exploration narrative can be a tale of adventure and endurance, a technical account of navigation and seamanship, or a political history of the overseas empires that were built up in the wake of the explorers (see http://www.growinglifestyle.com/us/h251/a90919272.html).

[5] in Greek mythology, originally the paradise to which heroes on whom the gods conferred immortality were sent. It probably was retained from Minoan religion. In Homer's writings the Elysian Plain was a land of perfect happiness at the end of the earth, on the banks of the Oceanus River (cf. http://www.britannica.com/eb/topic-185418/Elysium).

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Justifying the slave system
James Grainger`s "The Sugar Cane"
University of Göttingen  (Seminar für Englische Philologie)
Of Cannibals and Promised Lands: Typology in early American literature
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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488 KB
slavery, James Graniger, Suagr Cane, plantations
Quote paper
Nicholas Haase (Author), 2008, Justifying the slave system, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/126646


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