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A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave-Trade               TEI-encoded version

A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave-Trade Humbly Inscribed to the Right Honourable and Right Reverend Frederick Earl of Bristol, Bishop of Derry &c., &c.
by Ann Yearsley
London: G.G.J. and J. Robinson,

Go seek the soul refin'd and strong:
Such aids my wildest pow'r of song:
For those I strike the rustic lyre
Who share the transports they inspire.

To the Right Hon. and Right Rev. FREDERICK, Earl of Bristol, Bishop of Derry, &c. &c.


BEING convinced that your Ideas of Justice and Humanity are not confined to one Race of Men, I have endeavoured to lead you to the Indian Coast. My Intention is not to cause that Anguish in your Bosom which powerless Compassion ever gives: yet, my Vanity is flattered, when I but fancy that Your Lordship feels as I do.

With the highest Reverence, I am,
My Lord
Your Lordship's much obliged,
And obedient Servant,



          BRISTOL, thine heart hath throbb'd to glory.--Slaves,
          E'en Christian slaves, have shook their chains, and gaz'd
          With wonder and amazement on thee. Hence
          Ye grov'ling souls, who think the term I give,
5          Of Christian slave, a paradox! to you
          I do not turn, but leave you to conception


          Narrow; with that be blest, nor dare to stretch
          Your shackled souls along the course of Freedom.

               Yet, Bristol, list! nor deem Lactilla's soul
10          Lessen'd by distance; snatch her rustic thought,
          Her crude ideas, from their panting state,
          And let them fly in wide expansion; lend
          Thine energy, so little understood
          By the rude million, and I'll dare the strain
15          Of Heav'n-born Liberty till Nature moves
          Obedient to her voice. Alas! my friend,
          Strong rapture dies within the soul, while Pow'r
          Drags on his bleeding victims. Custom, Law,
          Ye blessings, and ye curses of mankind,
20          What evils do ye cause? We feel enslaved,
          Yet move in your direction. Custom, thou


          Wilt preach up filial piety; thy sons
          Will groan, and stare with impudence at Heav'n,
          As if they did abjure the act, where Sin
25          Sits full on Inhumanity; the church
          They fill with mouthing, vap'rous sighs and tears,
          Which, like the guileful crocodile's, oft fall,
          Nor fall, but at the cost of human bliss.

               Custom, thou hast undone us! led us far
30          From God-like probity, from truth, and heaven.

               But come, ye souls who feel for human woe,
          Tho' drest in savage guise! Approach, thou son,
          Whose heart would shudder at a father's chains,
          And melt o'er thy lov'd brother as he lies
35          Gasping in torment undeserv'd. Oh, sight


          Horrid and insupportable! far worse
          Than an immediate, an heroic death;
          Yet to this sight I summon thee. Approach,
          Thou slave of avarice, that canst see the maid
40          Weep o'er her inky fire! Spare me, thou God
          Of all-indulgent Mercy, if I scorn
          This gloomy wretch, and turn my tearful eye
          To more enlighten'd beings. Yes, my tear
          Shall hang on the green furze, like pearly dew
45          Upon the blossom of the morn. My song
          Shall teach sad Philomel a louder note,
          When Nature swells her woe. O'er suff'ring man
          My soul with sorrow bends! Then come, ye few
          Who feel a more than cold, material essence;
50          Here ye may vent your sighs, till the bleak North
          Find its adherents aided. --Ah, no more!


          The dingy youth comes on, sullen in chains;
          He smiles on the rough sailor, who aloud
          Strikes at the spacious heav'n, the earth, the sea,
55          In breath too blasphemous; yet not to him
          Blasphemous, for he dreads not either:--lost
          In dear internal imag'ry, the soul
          Of Indian Luco rises to his eyes,
          Silent, not inexpressive: the strong beams
60          With eager wildness yet drink in the view
          Of his too humble home, where he had left
          His mourning father, and his Incilanda.

               Curse on the toils spread by a Christian hand
          To rob the Indian of his freedom! Curse
65          On him who from a bending parent steals
          His dear support of age, his darling child;


          Perhaps a son, or a more tender daughter,
          Who might have clos'd his eyelids, as the spark
          Of life gently retired. Oh, thou poor world!
70          Thou fleeting good to individuals! see
          How much for thee they care, how wide they ope
          Their helpless arms to clasp thee; vapour thou!
          More swift than passing wind! thou leav'st them nought
          Amid th'unreal scene, but a scant grave.

75               I know the crafty merchant will oppose
          The plea of nature to my strain, and urge
          His toils are for his children: the soft plea
          Dissolves my soul--but when I sell a son,
           Thou God of nature, let it be my own!

80               Behold that Christian! see what horrid joy


          Lights up his moody features, while he grasps
          The wish'd-for gold, purchase of human blood!
          Away, thou seller of mankind! Bring on
          Thy daughter to this market! bring thy wife!
85          Thine aged mother, though of little worth,
          With all thy ruddy boys! Sell them, thou wretch,
          And swell the price of Luco! Why that start?
          Why gaze as thou wouldst fright me from my challenge
          With look of anguish? Is it Nature strains
90          Thine heart-strings at the image? Yes, my charge
          Is full against her, and she rends thy soul,
          While I but strike upon thy pityless ear,
          Fearing her rights are violated. --Speak,
          Astound the voice of Justice! bid thy tears
95          Melt the unpitying pow'r, while thus she claims
          The pledges of thy love. Oh, throw thine arm


          Around thy little ones, and loudly plead
          Thou canst not sell thy children. --Yet, beware
          Lest Luco's groan be heard; should that prevail,
100          Justice will scorn thee in her turn, and hold
          Thine act against thy pray'r. Why clasp, she cries,
          That blooming youth? Is it because thou lov'st him?
          Why Luco was belov'd: then wilt thou feel,
          Thou selfish Christian, for thy private woe,
105          Yet cause such pangs to him that is a father?
          Whence comes thy right to barter for thy fellows?
          Where are thy statutes? Whose the iron pen
          That gave thee precedent? Give me the seal
          Of virtue, or religion, for thy trade,
110          And I will ne'er upbraid thee; but if force
          Superior, hard brutality alone


          Become thy boast, hence to some savage haunt,
          Nor claim protection from my social laws.

               Luco is gone; his little brothers weep,
115          While his fond mother climbs the hoary rock
          Whose point o'er-hangs the main. No Luco there,
          No sound, save the hoarse billows. On she roves,
          With love, fear, hope, holding alternate rage
          In her too anxious bosom. Dreary main!
120          Thy murmurs now are riot, while she stands
          List'ning to ev&ry breeze, waiting the step
          Of gentle Luco. Ah, return! return!
          Too hapless mother, thy indulgent arms
          Shall never clasp thy fetter'd Luco more.
125          See Incilanda! artless maid, my soul
          Keeps pace with thee, and mourns. Now o'er the hill


          She creeps, with timid foot, while Sol embrowns
          The bosom of the isle, to where she left
          Her faithful lover: here the well-known cave,
130          By Nature form'd amid the rock, endears
          The image of her Luco; here his pipe,
          Form'd of the polish'd cane, neglected lies,
          No more to vibrate; here the useless dart,
          The twanging bow, and the fierce panther's skin,
135          Salute the virgin's eye. But where is Luco?
          He comes not down the steep, tho' he had vow'd,
          When the sun's beams at noon should sidelong gild
          The cave's wide entrance, he would swift descend
          To bless his Incilanda. Ten pale moons
140          Had glided by, since to his generous breast
          He clasp'd the tender maid, and whisper'd love.


               Oh, mutual sentiment! thou dang'rous bliss!
          So exquisite, that Heav'n had been unjust
          Had it bestowd less exquisite of ill;
145          When thou art held no more, thy pangs are deep,
          Thy joys convulsive to the soul; yet all
          Are meant to smooth th'uneven road of life.

               For Incilanda, Luco rang'd the wild,
          Holding her image to his panting heart;
150          For her he strain'd the bow, for her he stript
          The bird of beauteous plumage; happy hour,
          When with these guiltless trophies he adorn'd
          The brow of her he lov'd. Her gentle breast
          With gratitude was fill'd, nor knew she aught
155          Of language strong enough to paint her soul,
          Or ease the great emotion; whilst her eye


          Pursued the gen'rous Luco to the field,
          And glow'd with rapture at his wish'd return.

               Ah, sweet suspense! betwixt the mingled cares
160          Of friendship, love, and gratitude, so mix'd,
          That ev'n the soul may cheat herself.--Down, down,
          Intruding Memory! bid thy struggles cease,
          At this soft scene of innate war. What sounds
          Break on her ear? She, starting, whispers "Luco."
165          Be still, fond maid; list to the tardy step
          Of leaden-footed woe. A father comes,
          But not to seek his son, who from the deck
          Had breath'd a last adieu: no, he shuts out
          The soft, fallacious gleam of hope, and turns
170          Within upon the mind: horrid and dark
          Are his wild, unenlighten'd pow'rs: no ray


          Of forc'd philosophy to calm his soul,
          But all the anarchy of wounded nature.

               Now he arraigns his country's gods, who sit,
175          In his bright fancy, far beyond the hills,
          Unriveting the chains of slaves: his heart
          Beats quick with stubborn fury, while he doubts
          Their justice to his child. Weeping old man,
          Hate not a Christian's God, whose record holds
180          Thine injured Luco's name. Frighted he starts,
          Blasphemes the Deity, whose altars rise
          Upon the Indian's helpless neck, and sinks,
          Despising comfort, till by grief and age
          His angry spirit is forced out. Oh, guide,
185          Ye angel-forms, this joyless shade to worlds
          Where the poor Indian, with the sage, is prov'd


          The work of a Creator. Pause not here,
          Distracted maid! ah, leave the breathless form,
          On whose cold cheek thy tears so swiftly fall,
190          Too unavailing! On this stone, she cries,
          My Luco sat, and to the wand'ring stars
          Pointed my eye, while from his gentle tongue
          Fell old traditions of his country's woe.
          Where now shall Incilanda seek him? Hence,
195          Defenceless mourner, ere the dreary night
          Wrap thee in added horror. Oh, Despair,
          How eagerly thou rend'st the heart! She pines
          In anguish deep, and sullen: Luco's form
          Pursues her, lives in restless thought, and chides
200          Soft consolation. Banish'd from his arms,
          She seeks the cold embrace of death; her soul
          Escapes in one sad sigh. Too hapless maid!


          Yet happier far than he thou lov'dst; his tear,
          His sigh, his groan avail not, for they plead
205          Most weakly with a Christian. Sink, thou wretch,
          Whose act shall on the cheek of Albion's sons
          Throw Shame's red blush: thou, who hast frighted far
          Those simple wretches from thy God, and taught
          Their erring minds to mourn his2 partial love,
210          Profusely pour'd on thee, while they are left
          Neglected to thy mercy. Thus deceiv'd,
          How doubly dark must be their road to death!

               Luco is borne around the neighb'ring isles,
          Losing the knowledge of his native shore


215          Amid the pathless wave; destin'd to plant
          The sweet luxuriant cane. He strives to please,
          Nor once complains, but greatly smothers grief.
          His hands are blister'd, and his feet are worn,
          Till ev'ry stroke dealt by his mattock gives
220          Keen agony to life; while from his breast
          The sigh arises, burthen'd with the name
          Of Incilanda. Time inures the youth,
          His limbs grow nervous, strain'd by willing toil;
          And resignation, or a calm despair,
225          (Most useful either) lulls him to repose.

               A Christian renegade, that from his soul
          Abjures the tenets of our schools, nor dreads
          A future punishment, nor hopes for mercy,
          Had fled from England, to avoid those laws


230          Which must have made his life a retribution
          To violated justice, and had gain'd,
          By fawning guile, the confidence (ill placed)
          Of Luco's master. O'er the slave he stands
          With knotted whip, lest fainting nature shun
235          The task too arduous, while his cruel soul,
          Unnat'ral, ever feeds, with gross delight,
          Upon his suff rings. Many slaves there were,
          But none who could supress the sigh, and bend,
          So quietly as Luco: long he bore
240          The stripes, that from his manly bosom drew
          The sanguine stream (too little priz'd); at length
          Hope fled his soul, giving her struggles o'er,
          And he resolv'd to die. The sun had reach'd
          His zenith--pausing faintly, Luco stood,
245          Leaning upon his hoe, while mem'ry brought,


          In piteous imag'ry, his aged father,
          His poor fond mother, and his faithful maid:
          The mental group in wildest motion set
          Fruitless imagination; fury, grief,
250          Alternate shame, the sense of insult, all
          Conspire to aid the inward storm; yet words
          Were no relief, he stood in silent woe.

               Gorgon, remorseless Christian, saw the slave
          Stand musing, 'mid the ranks, and, stealing soft
255          Behind the studious Luco, struck his cheek
          With a too-heavy whip, that reach'd his eye,
          Making it dark for ever. Luco turn'd,
          In strongest agony, and with his hoe
          Struck the rude Christian on the forehead. Pride,
260          With hateful malice, seize on Gorgon's soul,


          By nature fierce; while Luco sought the beach,
          And plung'd beneath the wave; but near him lay
          A planter's barge, whose seamen grasp'd his hair
          Dragging to life a wretch who wish'd to die.

265               Rumour now spreads the tale, while Gorgon's breath
          Envenom'd, aids her blast: imputed crimes
          Oppose the plea of Luco, till he scorns
          Even a just defence, and stands prepared.
          The planters, conscious that to fear alone
270          They owe their cruel pow'r, resolve to blend
          New torment with the pangs of death, and hold
          Their victims high in dreadful view, to fright
          The wretched number left. Luco is chain'd
          To a huge tree, his fellow-slaves are ranged
275          To share the horrid sight; fuel is plac'd


          In an increasing train, some paces back,
          To kindle slowly, and approach the youth,
          With more than native terror. See, it burns!
          He gazes on the growing flame, and calls
280          For "water, water!" The small boon's deny'd.
          E'en Christians throng each other, to behold
          The different alterations of his face,
          As the hot death approaches. (Oh, shame, shame
          Upon the followers of Jesus! shame
285          On him that dares avow a God!) He writhes,
          While down his breast glide the unpity'd tears,
          And in their sockets strain their scorched balls.
          "Burn, burn me quick! I cannot die!" he cries:
          "Bring fire more close!" The planters heed him not,
290          But still prolonging Luco's torture, threat
          Their trembling slaves around. His lips are dry,


          His senses seem to quiver, e'er they quit
          His frame for ever, rallying strong, then driv'n
          From the tremendous conflict. Sight no more
295          Is Luco's, his parch'd tongue is ever mute;
          Yet in his soul his Incilanda stays,
          Till both escape together. Turn, my muse,
          From this sad scene; lead Bristol's milder soul
          To where the solitary spirit roves,
300          Wrapt in the robe of innocence, to shades
          Where pity breathing in the gale, dissolves
          The mind, when fancy paints such real woe.

               Now speak, ye Christians (who for gain enslave
          A soul like Luco's, tearing her from joy
305          In life's short vale; and if there be a hell,
          As ye believe, to that ye thrust her down,


          A blind, involuntary victim), where
          Is your true essence of religion? where
          Your proofs of righteousness, when ye conceal
310          The knowledge of the Deity from those
          Who would adore him fervently? Your God
          Ye rob of worshippers, his altars keep
          Unhail'd, while driving from the sacred font
          The eager slave, lest he should hope in Jesus.

315               Is this your piety? Are these your laws,
          Whereby the glory of the Godhead spreads
          O'er barb'rous climes? Ye hypocrites, disown
          The Christian name, nor shame its cause: yet where
          Shall souls like yours find welcome? Would the Turk,
320          Pagan, or wildest Arab, ope their arms
          To gain such proselytes? No; he that owns


          The name of 3 Mussulman would start, and shun
          Your worse than serpent touch; he frees his slave
          Who turns to Mahomet. The Spaniard4 stands
325          Your brighter contrast; he condemns the youth
          For ever to the mine; but ere the wretch
          Sinks to the deep domain, the hand of Faith
          Bathes his faint temples in the sacred stream,
          Bidding his spirit hope. Briton, dost thou
330          Act up to this? If so, bring on thy slaves
          To Calv'ry's mount, raise high their kindred souls
          To him who died to save them: this alone
          Will teach them calmly to obey thy rage,
          And deem a life of misery but a day,


335          To long eternity. Ah, think how soon
          Thine head shall on earth's dreary pillow lie,
          With thy poor slaves, each silent, and unknown
          To his once furious neighbour. Think how swift
          The sands of time ebb out, for him and thee.
340          Why groans that Indian youth, in burning chains
          Suspended o'er the beach? The lab'ring sun
          Strikes from his full meridian on the slave
          Whose arms are blister'd by the heated iron,
          Which still corroding, seeks the bone. What crime
345          Merits so dire a death?5 Another gasps


          With strongest agony, while life declines
          From recent amputation. Gracious God!
          Why thus in mercy let thy whirlwinds sleep
          O'er a vile race of Christians, who profane
350          Thy glorious attributes? Sweep them from earth,
          Or check their cruel pow'r: the savage tribes
          Are angels when compared to brutes like these.

               Advance, ye Christians, and oppose my strain:
          Who dares condemn it? Prove from laws divine,
355          From deep philosophy, or social love,


          That ye derive your privilege. I scorn
          The cry of Av'rice, or the trade that drains
          A fellow-creature's blood: bid Commerce plead
          Her publick good, her nation's many wants,
360          Her sons thrown idly on the beach, forbade
          To seize the image of their God and sell it:--
          I'll hear her voice, and Virtue's hundred tongues
          Shall sound against her. Hath our public good
          Fell rapine for its basis? Must our wants
365          Find their supply in murder? Shall the sons
          Of Commerce shiv'ring stand, if not employ'd
          Worse than the midnight robber? Curses fall
          On the destructive system that shall need
          Such base supports! Doth England need them? No;
370          Her laws, with prudence, hang the meagre thief
          That from his neighbour steals a slender sum,


          Tho' famine drove him on. O'er him the priest,
          Beneath the fatal tree, laments the crime,
          Approves the law, and bids him calmly die.
375          Say, doth this law, that dooms the thief, protect
          The wretch who makes another's life his prey,
          By hellish force to take it at his will?
          Is this an English law, whose guidance fails
          When crimes are swell'd to magnitude so vast,
380          That Justice dare not scan them? Or does Law
          Bid Justice an eternal distance keep
          From England's great tribunal, when the slave
          Calls loud on Justice only? Speak, ye few
          Who fill Britannia's senate, and are deem'd
385          The fathers of your country! Boast your laws,
          Defend the honour of a land so fall'n,


          That Fame from ev'ry battlement is flown,
          And Heathens start, e'en at a Christian's name.

               Hail, social love! true soul of order, hail!
390          Thy softest emanations, pity, grief,
          Lively emotion, sudden joy, and pangs,
          Too. deep for language, are thy own: then rise,
          Thou gentle angel! spread thy silken wings
          O'er drowsy man, breathe in his soul, and give
395          Her God-like pow'rs thy animating force,
          To banish Inhumanity. Oh, loose
          The fetters of his mind, enlarge his views,
          Break down for him the bound of avarice, lift
          His feeble faculties beyond a world
400          To which he soon must prove a stranger! Spread
          Before his ravish'd eye the varied tints


          Of future glory; bid them live to Fame,
          Whose banners wave for ever. Thus inspired,
           All that is great, and good, and sweetly mild,
405          Shall fill his noble bosom. He shall melt,
          Yea, by thy sympathy unseen, shall feel
          Another's pang: for the lamenting maid
          His heart shall heave a sigh; with the old slave
          (Whose head is bent with sorrow) he shall cast
410          His eye back on the joys of youth, and say,
          "Thou once couldst feel, as I do, love's pure bliss;
          "Parental fondness, and the dear returns
          "Of filial tenderness were thine, till torn
          "From the dissolving scene." --Oh, social love,
415          Thou universal good, thou that canst fill
          The vacuum of immensity, and live
          In endless void! thou that in motion first


          Set'st the long lazy atoms, by thy force
          Quickly assimilating, and restrain'd
420          By strong attraction; touch the soul of man;
          Subdue him; make a fellow-creature's woe
          His own by heart-felt sympathy, whilst wealth
          Is made subservient to his soft disease.

               And when thou hast to high perfection wrought
425          This mighty work, say, "such is Bristol's soul."

F I N I S.


1. An e-text that more closely resembles the original in layout and typography is available edited by Brycchan Carey. [Poetess Archive Editor.] BACK

2. Indians have been often heard to say, in their complaining moments, "God Almighty no love us well; he be good to buckera [White man]; he bid buckera burn us; he no burn buckera." [Ann Yearsley.] BACK

3. The Turk gives freedom to his slave on condition that he embraces Mahometism. [Ann Yearsley.] BACK

4. The Spaniard, immediately on purchasing an Indian, gives him baptism. [Ann Yearsley.] BACK

5. A coromantin slave in Jamaica (who had frequently escaped to the mountains) was, a few years since, doomed to have his leg cut off. A young practitioner from England (after the surgeon of the estate had refused to be an executioner) undertook the operation, but after the removal of the limb, on the slave's exclaiming, You buckera! God Almightly made dat leg; you cut [p. 24 / p. 25] it off! You put it on again? was so shocked, that the other surgeon was obliged to take up the vessals, apply the dressings, &c. The Negro suffered without a groan, called for his pipe, and calmly smoaked, till the absence of his attendant gave him an opportunity of tearing off his bandages, when he bled to death in an instant. Many will call this act of the Negro's stubbornness; under such circumstances, I dare give it a more glorious epithet, and that is fortitude. [Ann Yearsley.] BACK

Date: 1788 (Coding Revisions: 01/11/2006). Author: Ann Yearsley (Coding Revisions: Laura Mandell).
The editorial work appearing here is copyrighted; the page is available according to the terms of fair use.