Slavery and Cowper

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“The Negro’s Complaint” by William Cowper

In “The Negro’s Complaint”, which was published in The Gentleman’s Magazine in December 1793, William Cowper successfully creates a dramatic monologue in which the Negro slave is given the full chance to give a fervent, heartfelt account of the journey of suffering, cruelty, and disdain from the pleasures of freedom in Africa to the tortures of slavery in England. The Negro is further allowed to defend the humanity of the African race, refute all the slave traders’ pretexts for racial discrimination, and finally, investigate the validity of the European domineering power over their fellow human beings.

The Negro begins his pathetic complaint by a logical discussion of the basic pillar of slave trade, namely, financial benefits. He wonders how he could be bereaved of all the pleasures of his homeland in Africa, brutally carried to England, deprived of his freedom, bought and sold, tortured and forced to hard work only to increase the slave traders’ profits. He further argues that though his body is enslaved, his mind can never be bought and sold. The Negro’s refutation of the claims of slave traders begins with the assertion that:

Fleecy locks and black complexion
Cannot forfeit Nature’s claim;
Skins may differ, but affection
Dwells in white and black the same (13-16)

Bidding the iron-hearted masters to reconsider the validity of their pretexts, the African slave discusses slave trade from the spiritual religious perspective. God has created plants for all men alike, not for a certain species of human beings, to urge them to work and toil. So, lethargically enjoying the sweets of Negroes’ sweat is against God’s will. In a satirical tone, the Negro again wonders:

Is there,–as ye sometimes tell us,–
Is there One who reigns on high?
Has He bid you buy and sell us,
Speaking from his throne, the sky? (25-28)

Tangled whips, matches and blood-extorting nails can never be the objects, God approves of, for urging slaves to work.

Ask Him, if your knotted scourges,
Matches, blood-extorting screws,
Are the means that duty urges
Agents of his will to use? (29-32)

This point is further stressed through a well-structured dialogue between God and the Wild Tornadoes:

Hark! He answers!–Wild Tornadoes
Strewing yonder sea with wrecks,
Wasting towns, plantations, meadows,
Are the voice with which He speaks.
He, foreseeing what vexations
Afric’s sons should undergo,
Fixed their tyrants’ habitations
Where his whirlwinds answer – “No.” (33-40)

Foreseeing the tortures inflicted upon the Africans, God has created ferocious twisters, and granted them the power of destroying towns, plantations, and meadows. Hence, all the “tyrants’ habitations” and treasures, for the sake of which they viciously enslave and torture Africans, are only transient pleasures which can be eventually devastated.

The Negro sums up the terrible vices of slavery starting from malicious hunting of the poor defenseless Africans, chaining them up in the irons of enslavement, experiencing the horrors of the slave-carrying ship, going through the sufferings at the man-degrading mart, and finally, perceiving terrible spiritual and psychological agony for the remainder of the slaves’ lives. The eloquent Negro challenges received ideas about civilization, and asks slave-traders for any pretext proving that their human feelings are, in any respect, superior to the Africans they enslave and exploit:

Slaves of gold, whose sordid dealings
Tarnish all your boasted powers,
Prove that you have human feelings,
Ere you proudly question ours! (61-64)

To clarify his protests against slave trade, Cowper has chosen to dress his thought in the ballad form, which according to Stephen Matterson and Darryl Jones, is “essentially a popular narrative song characterized by uncomplicated verse-structure and diction,” and hence, “frequently used as a vehicle for the articulation of...
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