Poems on the Slave Trade

by Robert Southey

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Composition date uncertain. Published in Southey's volume of Poems (1797) with the Preface. Later editions omit the Preface.

I am Innocent of this Blood, SEE YE TO IT![1] The source of this epigraph is an adaptation of a biblical verse: Matthew 27:24.


When first the Abolition of the SLAVE-TRADE was agitated in England, the friends of humanity endeavoured by two means to accomplish it.--To destroy the Trade immediately by the interference of Government; or by the disuse of West-Indian productions: a slow but certain method. For a while Government held the language of justice, and individuals with enthusiasm banished sugar from their tables. This enthusiasm soon cooled; the majority of those who had made this sacrifice, (I prostitute the word, but they thought it a sacrifice) persuaded themselves that Parliament would do all, and that individual efforts were no longer necessary. Thus ended the one attempt; and the duplicity with which Mr. Wilberforce[2] William Wilberforce was a leading advocate for the abolition of the British slave trade, and succeeded in abolishing the "triangular trade" (or the seizure and importing of Africans as slaves into British colonies) in 1807, though slavery itself was not abolished in the British empire until 1833). has been amused, and the Slave-Merchants satisfied, has now effectually destroyed the other.

There are yet two other methods remaining, by which this traffic will probably be abolished. By the introduction of East-Indian or Maple Sugar, or by the just and general rebellion of the Negroes: by the vindictive justice of the Africans, or by the civilized Christians finding it in their interests to be humane.

To these past and present prospects the following Poems occasionally allude: to the English custom of exciting wars upon the Slave Coast that they may purchase prisoners, and to the punishment sometimes inflicted upon a Negro for murder, of which Hector St. John[3] Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, who vividly described slaves being tortured in South Carolina in Letters from an American Farmer. was an eye-witness.

Sonnet I

Hold your mad hands! for ever on your plain
Must the gorged vulture clog his beak with blood?
For ever must your Nigers tainted flood
Roll to the ravenous shark his banquet slain?
Hold your mad hands! what daemon prompts to rear
The arm of Slaughter? on your savage shore
Can hell-sprung Glory claim the feast of gore,
With laurels water'd by the widow's tear
Wreathing his helmet crown? lift high the spear!
And like the desolating whirlwinds sweep,
Plunge ye yon bark of anguish in the deep;
For the pale fiend, cold-hearted Commerce there
Breathes his gold-gender'd pestilence afar,
And calls to share the prey his kindred Daemon War.

Sonnet II

Why dost thou beat thy breast and rend thine hair,
And to the deaf sea pour thy frantic cries?
Before the gale the laden vessel flies;
The Heavens all-favoring smile, the breeze is fair;
Hark to the clamors of the exulting crew!
Hark how their thunders mock the patient skies!
Why dost thou shriek and strain thy red-swoln eyes
As the white sail dim lessens from thy view?
Go pine in want and anguish and despair,
There is no mercy found in human-kind--
Go Widow to thy grave and rest thee there!
But may the God of Justice bid the wind
Whelm that curst bark beneath the mountain wave,
And bless with Liberty and Death the Slave!

Sonnet III

Oh he is worn with toil! the big drops run
Down his dark cheek; hold--hold thy merciless hand,
Pale tyrant! for beneath thy hard command
O'erwearied Nature sinks. The scorching Sun,
As pityless as proud Prosperity,
Darts on him his full beams; gasping he lies
Arraigning with his looks the patient skies,
While that inhuman trader lifts on high
The mangling scourge. Oh ye who at your ease
Sip the blood-sweeten'd beverage! thoughts like these
Haply ye scorn: I thank thee Gracious God!
That I do feel upon my cheek the glow
Of indignation, when beneath the rod
A sable brother writhes in silent woe.

Sonnet IV

'Tis night; the mercenary tyrants sleep
As undisturb'd as Justice! but no more
The wretched Slave, as on his native shore,
Rests on his reedy couch: he wakes to weep!
Tho' thro' the toil and anguish of the day
No tear escap'd him, not one suffering groan
Beneath the twisted thong, he weeps alone
In bitterness; thinking that far away
Tho' the gay negroes join the midnight song,
Tho' merriment resounds on Niger's shore,
She whom he loves far from the chearful throng
Stands sad, and gazes from her lowly door
With dim grown eye, silent and woe-begone,
And weeps for him who will return no more.

Sonnet V

Did then the bold Slave rear at last the Sword
Of Vengeance? drench'd he deep its thirsty blade
In the cold bosom of his tyrant lord?
Oh! who shall blame him? thro' the midnight shade
Still o'er his tortur'd memory rush'd the thought
Of every past delight; his native grove,
Friendship's best joys, and Liberty and Love,
All lost for ever! then Remembrance wrought
His soul to madness; round his restless bed
Freedom's pale spectre stalk'd, with a stern smile
Pointing the wounds of slavery, the while
She shook her chains and hung her sullen head:
No more on Heaven he calls with fruitless breath,
But sweetens with revenge, the draught of death.

Sonnet VI

High in the air expos'd the Slave is hung
To all the birds of Heaven, their living food!
He groans not, tho' awaked by that fierce Sun
New torturers live to drink their parent blood!
He groans not, tho' the gorging Vulture tear
The quivering fibre! hither gaze O ye
Who tore this Man from Peace and Liberty!
Gaze hither ye who weigh with scrupulous care
The right and prudent; for beyond the grave
There is another world! and call to mind,
Ere your decrees proclaim to all mankind
Murder is legalized, that there the Slave
Before the Eternal, "thunder-tongued shall plead
"Against the deep damnation of your deed."