Race, Slavery and Abolitionism in the Romantic Period - William Blake’s 'Little Black Boy'

Seminar Paper, 2011

15 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Hi stori cal background

3. William Blake: The Little Black Boy

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Racism and racially motivated conflicts are phenomena that seem to move and occupy us strongly: from the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, over the Rodney King incident in 1991, to the end of apartheid in South Af­rica in 1994. A lot of today’s conflicts have their roots in past centuries, when Euro­pean countries like Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands and Great Britain estab­lished large overseas empires and colonized and exploited foreign countries and their populations.

The period of Romanticism - which is seen as the time between the 1780s through to the mid of the 1830s, with its literary movement and complex of beliefs and styles of art (cf. Hogle: 1) - was an important time for the British Empire and its expansion. The period was coined by various politically and historically important events, linked to the topic of imperialism: the French revolution, England’s loss of its American colonies, the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the Governor of Bengal, the transportation of convicts to Australia, the acquisition of new colonies in Africa, as well as the administration of older colonies in India, Africa, or Ireland, and the campaign to abolish slave-trade (cf. Fulford and Kitson 1998: 2).

This term paper deals with the last-mentioned issue: slavery and its abolition and takes a look at the reactions in the Romantic literature. First of all, an overview over the historical background will be given, showing the economic importance of the slave trade at the end of the 18th century, as well as giving an outline of the con­temporary major race theories, that were underlying its justification. The movement for the abolition of slavery will be introduced, as well as some of their representa­tives, like Thomas Clarkson, or William Cowper. Subsequently, the main part of the paper will deal with William Blake - one of the five most important British poets of the Romantic period (Fulford and Kitson 1998: 1) - and his Little Black Boy. The poem will be taken as an example for 18th century abolitionist literature and will be analysed, with the help of secondary literature by Hazard Adams, D.G. Gillham, David Erdman and Lauren Henry. A special focus will be on the poem’s religious theme. The term paper will end with a conclusion, summarizing the interpretations of the before-mentioned literary scientists and evaluating the significance of the paper’s findings.

2. Historical background

Fulford and Kitson (1998: 1) state, that it is generally accepted, that it is im­possible to understand writing in the period of Romanticism, without knowing about the important political and historic events and the contemporary reactions to them, displaying the view of the world at the time. Therefore the following paragraphs will try to give the reader a short overview over the topic of slavery in the period of Ro­manticism and some major theories concerning race, which will lead to a better un­derstanding of the subsequent analysis of William Blake’s poem.

In England, slavery was legally abolished in 1772 - however that did not af­fect the end of the slave trade or slavery in the colonies. Triangular slave trade even reached its peak by 1775, with British merchants sending ships to the African Gold Coast, where they kidnapped or bought 38,000 to 42,000 Africans each year. These Africans were then shipped under appalling conditions to America or the West Indies to work on tobacco or sugar cane plantations. Due to the large profits that were made in the slave trade, the British merchants and wealthy West Indian planters exerted an enormous influence on British politics (cf. Mellor 1996: 311, 12) arguing in favour of the institution of slavery. Nevertheless, there were critical voices too: the so-called abolitionists were arguing that slave trade and slavery itself was immoral (cf. Mellor 1996: 313) and demanded to instantly end it.

This discourse about slavery was conducted within a larger discourse about human races in general (cf. Kitson 1998: 18) and their relationship to each other. There were basically two major theories: First of all, there was the idea, that the black and the white were two entirely different species, with - according to the Ja­maican slave owner Edward Long (1774) - the African being closer to the orang­utan or ape than to mankind (cf. Kitson 1998: 20). Seeing Africans as the “vilest of human kind”, totally lacking of moral and intellectual capacities (Long, cited Kitson 1998: 20) - thus as a species, almost on the level of an animal - it becomes easier to justify and defend slavery, as this would not be very different from ordinary live­stock keeping.

However, this two-species-theory was not the generally accepted conception in the eighteenth century - mainly because of theological reasons. Robert Young (cited in Kitson 1998: 18) summarizes the prevailing view of race at that time:

The dominant view at that time was that the idea of humans being of different species, and therefore of different origins, conflicted with the Biblical account; moreover the pressure of the Anti-Slavery campaign meant that the emphasis was very much on all humans belonging to a single family.

Nevertheless, the idea of all humans belonging to one single family did not imply that every race was considered equal. In fact, Kitson (1998: 18-20) mentions, that a so-called „hierarchy of races’ became generally accepted, with the „Negro’ being at the foot of it. He goes on stating, that this conception derived from the work of the German anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who followed a biblical account of race, arguing that the different varieties of humanity could be accounted for by the idea of „degeneration’. For Blumenbach, the European race was the most beautiful and least degenerated one, constituting the origin of mankind, where all the other races (Malayan, Mongolian, American and Ethiopian) had deviated from. Even though Blumenbach argued in the tradition of Montesquieu, that this change was just due to different climatic conditions and denied that mental ability was a determinant of race, it is obvious, how these ideas of racial degeneration could be used to justify colonialism and slavery.

Even though, the general opinion of the time was, that black people were in­ferior to the white race - thus justifying slavery and colonial exploitation - not eve­rybody in the 18th century was agreeing to that, like the British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. Kitson (1998: 21, 22) states that Clarkson went further than most, in stress­ing the equality of all races. Underlying his arguments was a Christian universalist view of race, believing, that all human beings came from th e „same original’. Fur­thermore, for Clarkson, a man was not a thing and therefore could not be traded, which he made clear in his publications, making his readers rethink their assumptions about European superiority and slavery.

According to Kitson (1998: 25) abolitionism in the Romantic period often acted as a coded language of opposition to the dominating culture within Britain and a direct campaign against the cruelties of the empire. However, abolitionists rarely let those who had been subjected to slavery speak - they appropriated the words of the slaves from mixed motives of their own. The results of their imagined visions of the speech of enslaved people were nevertheless powerful, moving the sensibilities of their middle-class English readers. Erdman (1966: 90) states, that there were nu­merous publications of well-known writers addressing the issue, for example Wil­liam Cowper’s street ballads The Negro’s complaint and Sweet Meat has Sour Sauce. Together with the 1787 founded “Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade”, that organized town meetings, and enlisted the help of writers and artists, this added up to, what Erdman (1966: 90) calls, “the most agitated reform movement of the time”. Coinciding with the early phase of this movement was William Blake’s poem Little Black Boy that will be analyzed more closely in the following passages.

3. William Blake: The Little Black Boy

In 1789, William Blake published Songs of Innocence, a collection of several poems. Even though, on its first appearance, the book was not an overwhelming suc­cess (cf. Ackroyd 1995: 120), today, the date of its publication is often seen as the beginning of the Romantic period in Britain (Ferber 2010: 12) and William Blake as one of the most important writers of this time.

Blake was a mystic and lived in the world of spirit, endeavouring to restore the “Golden Age”, as manifested to us by the purity of the little child, which was one of the keynotes of his poetry (Guibillon 1969: 426). Therefore, many of his Songs of Innocence are religious, and three of them mention God by name, however the poem in which Blake shows innocence most closely associated with Christian ideas is The Little Black Boy.


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Race, Slavery and Abolitionism in the Romantic Period - William Blake’s 'Little Black Boy'
University of Würzburg
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William Blake, Little Black Boy, Racism, Slavery, Romanticism, Abolitionism, Songs of Innocence, William, Blake, Innocence, Slave, Race
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Uli Dürr (Author), 2011, Race, Slavery and Abolitionism in the Romantic Period - William Blake’s 'Little Black Boy', Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/186930


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