Description

The Negro's Complaint is a poem against the slave trade, written by the well-known British poet William Cowper in 1788. This version has colourful woodcuts as it was probably intended for children to read.

The transatlantic slave trade

In the century that this poem was written in, Britain enslaved and sold millions of African people. After being shipped across the Atlantic in horrific conditions and arriving in the Americas and the Caribbean, enslaved Africans were forced to work on plantations, which generated immense wealth for the European owners. These plantations provided Britain with luxuries such as sugar, cotton and rum. The enslaved workers had no rights and were classified as the property of plantation owners.

At the same time, a European movement called the Enlightenment promoted the ideals of liberty and equality for all. In a society whose economy was built on inequality, these ideals were hard to balance with the reality. By classifying African people as a lesser race, wealthy plantation owners justified this treatment.

How was literature used in the abolition movement?

There were groups in Britain who campaigned to abolish the slave trade and slavery. One politically-active lobbying group was called the Sons of Africa. Two of the prominent lobbyists were Ottobah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano. They published their autobiographies in 1787 and 1789, respectively. For the first time, those who had experienced the horrors of slavery gave their personal accounts.

At around the same time in 1787, the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was established. Members were keen to encourage the writers and artists of the day to support their cause. The Negro's Complaint came about when anti-slavery campaigner (and writer of hymns) John Newton asked his friend William Cowper for some verses.

William Cowper’s anti-slavery poem had a significant influence on the abolitionist cause. It was widely distributed in pamphlet form throughout the country, reprinted in newspapers and magazines and sung as a ballad.

Unlike the autobiographies, this poem is written from the imagined perspective of an enslaved man. Although it is not a first-hand account, it is often quoted in other fictional narratives. Among the most famous lines is this one: ‘Skins may differ, but affection / Dwells in white and black the same’.

Transcript