Saturday, 5 September 2015

Slavery: A Narrative of Bristol in Five Partes, 1691 - 1841

Slavery: A Narrative
Parte the Firste: a Bristol Tavern 1691

‘I was there, sir, when Hanging Judge Jefferys
did turn upon the Lord Mayor of Bristol,
And did force him into the prisoner’s dock,
And did harangue him as a kidnapper
Who profited thereby from transportation
To the colonies of the West Indies:
“He goes to the taverne and for a pint of sack he will bind people to the Indies …
You are worse than the pick-pockett who stands there …
They can discharge a felon or a traitor, provided they will go to
Mr. Alderman’s plantation in the West Indies.”
Furious words from Mr. Jefferys, sir, and a fierce fine for the mayor.’

‘Well said, good sirrah, and while it gave me great pleasure to hear you saye
that the mayor was fined a thousand poundes,
you have omitted to saye that the good judge’s patron,
The King Charles the Seconde, had invested much more than his name
and reputationne in the Royal African Companye.
Crocodile tears and hypocrisy, on Mr. Jefferys’ part, my good sirrah?’

‘But, sir, when three blacks work cheaper than one white man,
‘Tis but common sense to buy them in,
Why, sir, if the leaves of tobacco, the fields of cotton and the canes of sugar,
could speak, I wager that they would tell you that themselves.’

‘Pray, good sirs, listen to me. This slave trade is but barbarism.
Imagine, if you can, a voyage of six weeks, chained below deck,
In a space 5 feet six inches in length, and sixteen inches in breadth,
why sirs, the space is less than if in a coffin.
Did not our gracious Queen Elizabeth say to Sir John Hawkins,
that slaves should only be taken of their own free will, otherwise,
“would be detestable and call down the vengeance of Heaven
upon the undertakers”’.

Parte the Seconde: the same tavern, 1791

‘Remember the words of Benjamin Franklin, my friend:
“the hypocrisy of this country, which encourages such a detestable commerce, while it piqued itself on its virtue, love of liberty, and the equity of its courts
in setting free a single negro.”
That, sir, is our country.’

‘Damn the words of that rebel, my friend; listen to the bells instead:
Praise be to God!  Hark to the bells of our noble Bristol belfries!
Such peals of joyous relief!
Wilberforce’s accursed abolition bill has been rejected by Parliament!’

‘Nay, sir, you are wrong.  The bells deceive you. When they fall silent tonight,
So the irresistible tide of emancipation will ceaselessly flow.
When the change will come, no prophet can know,
But for the nonce,
I answer you, sir, with Mr. Defoe’s essay
Reformation of Manners, in which he castigates the evil trade,
I answer you, sir, with Mr. Thomson:
“Here dwells the direful shark. Lured by the scent
Of steaming crowds, of rank disease, and death,
Behold! He rushing cuts the briny flood,
Swift as the gale can bear the ship along;
And, from the partners of that cruel trade,
Which spoils unhappy Guinea of her sons,
Demands his share of prey; demands themselves …
he dyes the purple seas
With gore, and riots in the vengeful meal …”’
I answer you, sir, with Mr. Cowper:
“He finds his fellow guilty of a skin
Not coloured like his own, and having power
To enforce the wrong for such a worthy cause
Dooms and devotes him as his lawful prey.
Lands intersected by a narrow frith
Abhor each other. Mountains interposed
Make nations enemies, who had else
Like kindred drops been mingled into one.
Thus man devotes his brother, and destroys;
And worse than all, and most to be deplored,
As human nature’s broadest, foulest blot,
Chains him and tasks him, and exacts his sweat
With stripes, that mercy, with a bleeding heart,
Weeps when she sees exacted on a beast.
Then what is man? And what man, seeing this,
And having human feelings, does not blush
And hang his head, to think himself a man?
I would not have a slave to till my ground,
To carry me, to fan me while I sleep,
And tremble when I wake, for all the wealth
That sinews bought and sold have ever earned.”

‘This is too much sir. You upset me and make me reflect.
But I must now leave for home and hearth.
I shall be here tomorrow at seven of the evening.
We shall continue our colloquy then.’

Parte the thirde: the next evening

‘Sir, you gave me much food for thought.
Your poetry interests and my pecuniary ones, what?
So I went to my books and my library and look here, sir.
Mr. Snelgrave’s A New Account of Guinea and the Slave Trade,
Look, sir, at this passage:
“Tho’ to traffic in human creatures, may at first sight appear barbarous, inhuman, and unnatural; yet the traders herein have as much to plead in their own excuse, as can be said for some other branches of trade, namely the advantage of it … In a word, from this trade proceeds benefits, far outweighing all, either real or pretended mischiefs and inconveniences.”
No wonder the good Mr. Boswell has damned that hypocrite Wilberforce as a “dwarf with a big resounding name”.
Mr. Wood has described the slave trade as “the spring and parent whence the others flow” and Mr. Postlethwayt wrote thus of the trade:
“the first principle and foundation of al the rest, the mainspring of the machine which sets every wheel in motion”.
What have you to say to this sir?
Facts are what we need sir, numbers in the ledger books.
Not flights of fancy and imagination.’

‘ Sir, I shall continue to plow my poetical furrow.
Wheels and mainsprings are but a metaphor, not a fact.
You mistake your imagery for certainty.
You will discover that my imagery is, to the contrary of yours, truthful.
You are, no doubt, unacquainted with Mr. William Blake and his
Songs of Innocence and Experience;
Allow me to declaim these lines from The Little Black Boy,
I learned them last night, and I hope I remember well:
“My mother bore me in the southern wild
And I am black, but oh! My soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav’d of light.

My mother taught me underneath a tree
And sitting down before the heat of day,
She took me on her lap and kissed me
And pointing to the east, she began to say,

Look on the rising sun: there God does live
And gives his light, and gives his heat away.
And flowers and trees and men receive
Comfort in morning joy in the noonday.

And we are put on earth a little space
That we may learn to bear the beams of love,
And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.

For when our souls have learn’d the heat to bear
The cloud will vanish, we shall hear his voice
Saying: come out the grove, my love & care,
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.

Thus did my mother say and kissed me,
And thus I say to little English boy,
When I from black and he from white cloud free,
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy:

I’ll shade him from the heat till he can bear
To lean in joy upon our father’s knee.
And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him and then he will love me.”

‘Well spoken sir, but does Mr. Blake not agree with me? Is the little black boy not saying that we English are as angels? Is he therefore not admitting that slavery is not at variance with God’s will?’

‘No sir, he is not. Is he not in fact saying that the colour of skin is but a cloud, an illusion, and that we are in fact equal in the sight of God?’

‘I am not sure, sir. There seems to be an ambiguity in the poem: a submissiveness on the part of the little black boy, perhaps. I am not sure what the poem means, sir. But I do know that I have to sail for Barbados this month and will be away some years. If, by God’s grace we are still alive, then I say that we should meet here, ten years to the day hence. What say you, sir?’

‘I shall await you, sir, but shall continue to campaign for the abolition of this trade, sir. I am hopeful that when we meet, slavery will be no more. But until that time, a glass of sugared rum, a pipe and then to the coffee house, and a farewell, sir.’

Parte the fourthe, the same tavern, 1801

‘Well sir, here we are. I returned from the West Indies a month ago, since when I have taken the waters at Cheltenham, Epsom, Bath and Hot Wells, here in town.  And I have to say, sir, I met with a goodly number of my fellow plantation owners and their wives and daughters at the spas. These heiresses, sir, taking the waters, make my own mouth water.’

‘Sir, I am obdurate. I can think only of slaves drowning themselves to escape their fate, jumping overboard to feed the flowing sharks. That is the only image I have of water in a mouth. But I must be hospitable: one more poem, sir, to whet your appetite. Mr. Southey, sir, and a few stanzas from The Sailor, who had served in the Slave Trade:
“O I have done a cursed deed
The wretched man replies,
And night and day and everywhere
‘Tis still before my eyes.

I sail’d on board a Guinea-man
And to the slave-coast went;
Would that the sea had swallowed me
When I was innocent!

And we took in our cargo there,
Three hundred negro slaves,
And we sail’d homeward merrily
Over the ocean waves.

But some were sulky of the slaves
And would not touch their meat,
So therefore we were forced by threats
And blows to make them eat.

One woman sulkier than the rest
Would still refuse her food, --
O Jesus God! I hear her cries –
I see her in her blood!

She groan’d, she shriek’d – I could not spare
For the Captain he stood by –
Dear God! That I might rest one night
From that poor woman’s cry!

She twisted from the blows – her blood
Her mangled flesh I see –
And still the Captain would not spare –

Oh he was worse than me!

She could not be more glad than I
When she was taken down,
A blessed minute – ‘twas the last
That I have ever known!

I did not close my eyes all night,
Thinking what I had done;
I heard her groans and they grew faint
About the rising sun.

She groan’d and gron’d, but her groans grew
Fainter at morning tide,
Fainter and fainter still they came
Till at the noon she died.

They flung her overboard; -- poor wretch
She rested from her pain, --
I But when – O Christ! O blessed God!
Shall I have rest again!”

‘I need not continue and, indeed, I have omitted the opening stanzas, but the poem continues to its damnable conclusion. That is the story of the slave trade, sir; it is against the will of God and God will punish those who transgress. Take heed, sir, while you can. Your children who have taken the Grand Tours in Italy and are now schooled in the Classics; your grand house with its Palladian architecture and its grottoes and its follies and its contrived perspectives – all this sir, is damnable and you suffer from myopia or, indeed, amnesia, if you do not understand that. This is not the Age of Enlightenment. It is a benighted age.’

‘Sir, enough! I can tolerate your pious, poetical canting no more. This is goodbye sirrah. Your hypocrisy nauseates me. You have wined and dined in this fair town, courtesy of the trade that you affect to despise. You have investments in the sugar refining factories in Bristol; you live in elegant Clifton, whose very foundations were built from the slave trade. You are a sanctimonious, smug hypocrite, sir. I bid you goodbye. If ever we meet again, it will be through chance not my design.’

Part the fifth, and the final part: the same tavern 1841

‘Is that you sir? My eyes fail me sometimes. Is that you, my old adversary from past times? I have been coming to this tavern these past two weeks in the hope of seeing you before I die in the equal hope of leaving this earth as friends. Is it you, sir?’

‘It is indeed, and I too have just commenced revisiting my old haunts to pay respects to past times. I have just come from a funeral at St. Mary Redcliffe and thought a pipe and a glass might cheer me. Let us sit together and have one last disquisition and colloquy.’

‘You have been proved right, sir. The times have indeed moved against me. I scarce imagined the last time we met, forty years ago, that Parliament would abolish the slave trade just six years later. And now, our slaves are free in the colonies these past seven years. The navy patrols the Atlantic coasts of Africa to hunt out any slavers headed for Brazil, and it won’t be long before my former slaves look me equal in the eye. You can claim the victory, sir. The fashion is with you.’

‘Alas, I dispute the victory, sir. The laurels does not sit on my head, but rather yours I think.’
‘How so, sir?”

‘The navy might patrol the coasts of Africa but we not only buy our sugar from Brazil, but many of the manacles and chains dragged by the slaves in that accursed country are exported from our country, sir. Our banks, our insurers, our factories, our mills, indeed, our very shipping companies are investing in this vile sugar trade, sir. I further talk of factories and mills: Manchester‘s and King Cotton ‘s smoke belching factory chimneys are fuelled with slave cotton from the Americas.’

‘But, sir, the slaves in our colonies are free. You cannot dispute that. The game is yours.’

‘Sir, I will not embarrass you by asking you how much compensation you received for your slaves on your plantations in Jamaica, Nevis, Antigua and St Kitts. And that compensation marks a victory for you not only in terms of money, but in terms of fundamental principles, sir. Financial recompense denotes the fact that the slaves were viewed as personal property, sir; mere goods and chattels, not human beings with the same rights as you and me. If this is a victory, it is bitter-sweet, sir.’

‘I cannot argue with you, sir. You are too doctrinaire. I am a man of the world, sir, who tries to use his money wisely and well. And I think that sound investments helped African slaves have a productive life on the plantations, with a roof over their heads and food in their bellies. What will they do now? And as regards, my compensation – benefits will accrue to all from this. My money will help the working classes of our country in the here and now, not in some fanciful heaven of working class votes and Chartist equality. I will provide jobs, sir, with my investments in the Great Western Railway Company.’

‘At last, sir! We find common ground! I too am an investor in the Great Western Railway! The dividends are extremely promising. Come let us walk together to Temple Meads. I have a meeting with Mr. Brunel in an hour. It would be a pleasure and an honour to meet Isambard with you too. Come, sir. One last drink and we bury the hatchet, as it were. The past is a foreign country, is it not? But the railway, sir, that is our new and British destiny; a toast, sir, to the future.’
Exeat together to Temple Meads

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