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Summary of Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq.: The Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade


A couple of weeks ago, my English instructor gave the class an assignment of analyzing a literary work from the Romantic Period. The poem that captured my attention was written by Anna Leitia Barbauld in response to the rejection of William Wilberforce's motion to abolish slavery. Since this is still Black History Month, I thought it would be fitting if I shared my analysis with everybody.

In 1791, William Wilberforce (politician and humanitarian) passed a motion to have slavery abolished; however, the motion was rejected by the House of Commons. In the same year, writer and poet Anna Letitia Barbauld composed a poem describing the institution of slavery as a sin and the adverse punishment slaves had to endure. Involuntarily capturing human beings from their native country to force them to work as slaves in a different country is inhumane, cruel, and degrading. To read Barbauld's poem "Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq. on the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade", click here.

Prior to the slave trade, Africans were pleased and content with life in Africa. To illustrate, in line 71 it uses the terms palmy and spicy groves to describe the attitude and lifestyle of Africans. The word palmy sounds like an adjective meaning prosperous and prosperous signifies someone being successful, wealthy, and pleased. The term spicy groves could denote the type of crops Africans cultivated in their country (e.g., chili peppers, tobacco). So Barbauld could be saying that Africans were well-off, both financially and emotionally, and reaped the benefits from the crops they produced. The description of African life continues into line 72, where it uses other adjectives to describe Africans in a positive view:benign and pleasure. Both terms could be indicating that Africans had the pleasure and free-will to roam around their country without fear of being captured by outsiders. Line 73 continues to paint a picture of Africans being content and satisfied; it speaks of songs and village talk.Singing hymns, dancing, and oral story-telling played an intricate role in African culture. They would do this as part of their religion and for other special occasions (e.g., tribal weddings, celebrations). From what is understood so far, Barbauld effectively used adjectives to validate the point that Africans were indeed prosperous and thriving in Africa.

The attitude of Africans changed from being happy and content to scared and fearful. Thus, line 81 is indicating that screaming and shouting disturbed the peaceful atmosphere of Africa. Usually if a person is disturbed by something or someone, naturally he will feel scared, anxious, nervous, and uneasy. Barbauld’s poem as a whole is describing the enslavement of Africans; therefore, the terms shrieks, yells, and disturb could indicate the British raided Africa to capture Africans for hard labor. To have outsiders invade their country, no doubt the Africans were scared and fearful; yet, little did they know that they were about to embark on a horrific journey to a place they’ve never been.

The Africans were stunned and afflicted by the British. How the Africans reacted when the British captured them is further described in line 82; it uses the terms dumb sullen and woe. What is interpreted from those words is that the Africans were stunned and surprised that outsiders were coming into their country to seize them, and these outsiders were disturbing the peace and freedom they once had. The term woe is commonly used in the Bible to describe affliction or distress. Barbauld cleverly used the term to insinuate that the Africans felt afflicted by the troubles [diseases, raping African women, inhumane punishment, etc.] the British were bringing into their lives.

When the British arrived into Africa, the Africans felt hopeless that they could not resist enslavement. Another term from line 82 depicting this is despair– the word literally means hopelessness. What is understood from the definition is the Africans’ weapons (spears, bow and arrows) were of no match for what the British used during that time period (guns). No doubt, there probably were some Africans trying to fight back and resist being captured. However, the British had the upper-hand with their advance weaponry. Being outnumbered by the British left the Africans feeling hopeless of resisting involuntary servitude.

According to line 83, the British are described as being evil human beings. Once again, Barbauld effective use of words really helps her readers to imagine, not only how the Africans felt about being captured, but also what type of disposition the British had for Africans and slavery. The phrase “angry eyes” (83) is not indicating the British were upset about capturing Africans for involuntary servitude, nor could it be describing how the Africans felt because it would contradict the evidence brought out in the previous paragraphs. However, the phrase could indicate that the British had the appearance of someone who is evil and does bad things. If you see somebody doing something inhumane to a human or animal, what is usually there facial expression? What is that person’s disposition towards the victim they’re harming?

The British are also described as being immoral. Line 85 speaks of sensual riots drowning the finer joy.During the journey from Africa to the West Indies, the shipmates used different forms of control so the Africans would not revolt. One method was raping African women on board–and using horrendous punishment for the African males if they tried to stop it.It could also be a possibility that most of the shipmates just wanted to satisfy their sexual urges.Regardless of the reason, the British men who committed these acts were taking the “finer joy” (85) away from enslaved Africans– their pride, dignity, and freedom.

The enslavement of Africans was indeed inhumane and cruel.Africans had a peaceful and content life in Africa before the slave trade took place. They were prosperous in cultivating their own land, and they willingly labored so they can reap the benefits of their hard work. However, all of that changed when the British came to Africa to capture them for involuntary servitude. The enslaved Africans’ emotions went from content to despair when their freedom was unwillingly taken away. It’s understandable why both Wilberforce and Barbauld described slavery as a sin.

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Barbauld, Anna Letita. “Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq. on the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature . 8th ed. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. Vol D. Ed. Jack Stillinger and Diedre Shauna Lynch. New York and London: Norton, 2006. 32-35. Print.

Miers, Suzanne and Roberts, Richard. The End of Slavery in Africa . University of Wisconsin Press, The, Ltd. 1988. Print.



Debangee Mandal from India on August 31, 2020:

Enjoyed it.

Stacy Ingram vizcarrondo from Norfolk Nebraska on March 12, 2018:

Great artical , I enjoyed this read.

Ausseye on May 17, 2016:

The world has but a moment today is yesterday, what does the Royal birthday bring to Africa I wonder? The world we left is the world we inherit today with all its wisdom, shall we ever leave the black landscape behind us?

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on September 14, 2015:

Wonderful literary analysis.

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