P O E M
O N T H E
A F R I C A N
S L A V E T R A D E.
ADDRESSED TO HER OWN SEX.
BY M. BIRKETT.
"DISGUISE THYSELF AS THOU WILT, STILL, SLA-
"VERY, STILL THOU ART A BITTER CUP."
T H E S E C O N D E D I T I O N.
D U B L I N:
PRINTED BY J. JONES, NO. 111, GRAFTON-STREET.
P R E F A C E
IN presenting this juvenile attempt to the
eyes of the public, I am sensible how much I
lay myself open to the censure of those, whose
superior discernment shall point out all its er-
rors in their full magnitude.—I can only hope
that the merits of the cause will in part plead
my excuse; for the rest, I submit to their
It is with the greatest diffidence that I pre-
sume to offer, to indiscriminate inspection, a
production of so little labour, which never ex-
perienced the correcting hand of judgment, and
which, overwhelmed with confusion, would
shrink from the piercing eye of criticism—as
the owl from the face of day.
P O E M
O N T H E
A F R I C A N
S L A V E T R A D E.
OPPRESSION! thou, whose hard and cruel chain,
Entails on all thy victims woe and pain;
Who gives with tyrant force and scorpion whip,
The cup of mis'ry to a Negro's lip;
Marks with stern frown thy wide, unhallow'd reign,
And broods with gloomy wing o'er Afric's injur'd plain!
( 2 )
Thy voice which spreads pale desolation round,
While trembling myriads groan beneath the sound,
Thy voice more rude than Boreas' chilling breath,
Calls thousands forth to feel a living death!
Which in hoarse thunders bids injustice rise!
While oft beneath the strokes the suff'rer dies:
Yes! thy infernal voice impels my song,
And o'er my soul its crude ideas throng;
A sorrowing sympathy surrounds my heart,
And mild compassion bleeds in every part.
Mov'd at the dire distress my brethren know
My mind in vain participates their woe;
In vain for them I raise the fervent sigh;
Ah! still they bleed!—they languish!—still they die!
How little think the giddy and the gay
While sipping o'er the sweets of charming tea,
How oft with grief they pierce the manly breast,
How oft their lux'ry robs the wretch of rest,
And that to gain the plant we idly waste
Th'extreme of human mis'ry they must taste!
Yes! 'tis no lying fable I relate,
Th'extreme of human mis'ry is their fate!
( 3 )
Let sordid traders call it what they will,
Men must be men, possest with feelings still;
And little boots a white or sable skin,
To prove a fair inhabitant within.
There are, oh! scandal to the Christian name,
Who fierce of blood, and lost to sense of shame,
Dare lave their hands impious in human gore,
And barter living souls for lust of ore;
More rav'nous than the foulest beasts of prey,
They but from Nature's powerful cravings slay;
More cruel than the thief, whose murd'rous knife
At once deprives the trembling wretch of life:
Him poverty, perchance, first taught to stray,
And strongly urg'd her too prevailing plea;
Yet him the justice of our laws condemn:
Beasts we destroy, but seldom think of them.
Strange paradox! we view with shrinking eye,
The murd'rer's crime, and bid him justly die;
But when our traders snatch a thousand lives,
No pain, no punishment on them derives;
The guilt's diminish'd, as increas'd its size,
And they are clear—at least in mortal eyes.
( 4 )
Tell me, ye friends of slav'ry's shameful cause,
Where shall I find the records—where the laws,
Which give to man indubitable power
To sell his brother, and the spoil devour?
And whence do we th'infernal doctrine hold,
To sell th'image of our God for gold?
To our first parents when th'Almighty Cause
Reveal'd his holy will—his hallow'd laws;
When from his lips the wondrous accents broke,
And mortals listen'd while the Godhead spoke;
In that mysterious moment did he say? -
" Man shall his fellow ravage, sell, and slay;
" And one unhappy race shall always be
" Slave to another's pamper'd luxury."
There are, I know, who think and more who say,
That not so injur'd—so opprest are they;
That under master's just they earn their bread,
And plenty crowns the board at which they're fed.
Ah, sophist, vain thy subtle reas'ning's aim!
Look at the Negro's sun-burnt, grief-worn frame!
Examine well each limb, each nerve, each bone,
Each artery—and then observe thy own;
( 5 )
The beating pulse, the heart that throbs within,
All, (save the sable tincture of his skin,)
Say, Christians, do they not resemble you?
If so, their feelings and sensations too:
One moment now with you his burthen rest,
Then tell me, is he happy—is he blest?
Lo! where on Afric's shore the sable youth,
Feels each degree of honor, love, and truth;
(Though he ne'er heard the gospel's joyful sound,
Nor call'd on Jesus in his natal ground;
Reproach him not, oh, follower of thy Lord,
Who never knew the blessing of his word;
Think on thy own forefathers savage lore,
He keeps his inward guide, and dost thou more?)
Rear'd in the lap of innocence and ease,
Him simple Nature's genuine bounties please.
For him no palace rears its costly head,
Contented with an humble turf-built shed;
On him no fawning lacqueys proudly wait,
In all the pamper'd insolence of state;
No harmless lives, his taste to gratify,
Opprest with various torture slowly die.
( 6 )
And if his manners suit the savage name,
Uneducated man is every where the same.
There in that plain, when freedom was his guest,
And social love glow'd in his faithful breast;
Then when his soul youth's joyous feelings knew,
And manhood, ripening manhood, rose to view;
He to his parents eye perhaps appears,
The only staff of their declining years;
And he with ceaseless love and anxious care,
Does oft for them the hunted food prepare:
Perchance soft passion does his bosom move,
And his fond nymph returns his constant love;
Perhaps his offspring hail their honour'd sire,
And each to gain the envy'd kiss aspire:
On him a pleasing weight of cares attend,
As father, husband, brother, son or friend:
Haply the hour when their supply he sought,
His soul with ev'ry warm affection fraught,
As o'er the plain he chac'd his wonted prey,
And hope deceitful cheer'd the toilsome way;
When homeward now the lifeless prize he brought,
Already greets the cot his rapid thought;
( 7 )
Him Christian traders see, his path surround,
In vain his feet pursue their nimble bound;
He's seiz'd and dragg'd along—in vain he cries,
Starts, stamps the ground—now groans, now weeps, now
And fill'd with all the agony of grief,
Raves with despair—now supplicates relief:
In vain he strives their pity to command,
The ruffians hear, but will not understand;
Deaf to th'heart-rending groan, the plaintive sigh,
They view his misery with a stoic eye,
And to the vessel haul the wretch along
In chains to mingle with the suffering throng.
Oh thou! whom more than all he loves beside,
Friend of his heart! his chaste and faithful bride!
What was thy anguish on that fatal day
Which bore thy spouse from Afric far away!
In vain for him thou heap'st the chearful fire;
In vain thy little ones demand their sire;
In vain thou chid'st his long delay!—go, mourn,
For never must the youth thou lov'st return!
( 8 )
Lo, now the winds embrace the swelling sail,
And the full bark salutes the rising gale;
While now the desolated shore they leave,
And for Jamaica cut the briny wave.
While o'er the foaming sea their course they steal,
Think what the Negroes suffer!—what they feel!
Opprest with sickness, close confin'd they lie,
No kind, no sympathising friend is nigh:
Grim Death his jaws insatiate shews around,
And bleeding Mem'ry opes the recent wound.
Thrice happy they who feel his icy hand!
No more they dread their tyrant's stern command;
No more expos'd to insult and to pain,
They drag along the hard and cruel chain;
But their freed souls approach the throne of grace,
To meet the proud oppressor face to face.
Oh, tyrants, what will then your anguish be,
When God and men shall your injustice see!
And trust me that important day will come,
Which fixes your irrevocable doom,
When all your basely murder'd slaves shall rise,
And publish all your crimes throughout the skies.
( 9 )
Here cease, oh Muse! nor dare the secret tell,
The dread event, which but with God must dwell.
Now turn our eye to India's sultry shore,
And tell, oh! tell me, are their sorrows o'er?
The bark arrives, with those who yet remain,
They drag to land the feebly tott'ring train:
Their squalid look, and meagre form declare
The soul opprest with sickness, grief and care.
I pass the complicated scenes of woe
Which these sad vassals of our lux'ry know:
Their sickness, fatt'ning, shameful market, past,
And now for life the dreadful die is cast.
Grant a mild master kindly treats them well,
(Few such there are—and they who know can tell);
Grant that those masters plenteous meals prepare,
(Though well 'tis known their food is scant and bare);
Yet then, even then, can comfort on them wait,
Depress'd, degraded to a servile state?
And they once chieftans in their native land,
Shackled, in chains, and trembling at command;
( 10 )
Naked, exposed to Phoebus' piercing beams,
And yok'd (as horse or oxen) to the teams;
Dead to remorse, the overseer stands by,
And oft does he the sounding lash apply.
So Pharaoh's task-masters of yore opprest
Old Jacob's seed—and thus the flock distrest.
Now dead to hope they see resistance vain,
They in their manly breasts conceal their pain;
A silent grief to furious rage succeeds,
And by resentment stung—their whole soul bleeds.
Firm in despair their hands refuse the yoke,
We call them stubborn—and apply the stroke;
Their reeking backs the dire correction shew,
Yet they unmov'd, nor fear nor tremor know;
Their strength heroic claims a nobler name,
And shews not their's—but their oppressor's shame.
Say not, that if not humbled they rebel;
Tyrant! the cause, the guilt with thee must dwell;
For when they view the authors of their woe,
No wonder if fierce passion aims the blow!
They all their blasted hopes and comforts see,
Condemn'd to linger life in misery.
( 11 )
What son of thine, oh Albion, would bow down,
Would tremble at the upstart planter's frown?
What son of thine, oh Albion, thus opprest,
Nor feel revenge inflame his haughty breast?
They not the joys of mild Religion know,
The ransom'd soul they to a Saviour owe.
For this, oh Britain, shall I dare to blame,
Nor can I with the Turk enrol thy name.
The Turk to Mah'met would convert his slave;
He gives him freedom and his soul would save:
The Spaniards to the mine their vassals send,
But first the rites of baptism them attend:
Our Albion, when opprest her captives lie,
Shews not the way to suffer and to die;
Nor gives the gospel to each erring mind,
Nor points to Jesus merciful and kind.
Ah, Negro, think not hardly of our God,
Tho' high o'er thee affliction lifts her rod;
Ill do his followers ways his goodness prove,
Whose laws breathe mercy and whose precepts love;
And ill our manners with our maxims suit,
These dignify—while those degrade us to the brute.
( 12 )
Lysander, did I really hear thee say,
Self-preservation bids us on them prey,
Or what vast nation could supply the bread,
For such encreasing myriads to be fed!
Think'st thou that form'd on this erroneous plan
The world was made—and God's last, best work—
Think'st thou that He who erst seven thousand fill'd,
With what a few small loaves and fishes yield,
Think'st thou he's insufficient to supply,
Who hears the tender raven's croaking cry?
"Must we abandon then, Camillus cries,
"The wealth abundant which in Afric lies?
"Shall our fam'd commerce languish and decay,
"And we no more send fleets for slaves away?"
No, wise Camillus, search her fertile land,
Let the mild rays of commerce there expand;
Her plains abound in ore, in fruits her soil,
And the rich plain scarce needs the ploughman's toil;
Thy vessels crown'd with olive branches send,
And make each injur'd African thy friend:
( 13 )
So tides of wealth by peace and justice got,
Oh, philanthropic heart! will be thy lot.
Plant there our colonies, and to their soul,
Declare the God who form'd this boundless whole;
Improve their manners—teach them how to live,
To them the useful lore of science give;
So shall with us their praise and glory rest,
And we in blessing be supremely blest;
For 'tis a duty which we surely owe,
We to the Romans were what to us Afric now.
Hibernian fair, who own compassion's sway,
Scorn not a younger sister's artless lay;
To you the Muse would raise her daring song,
For Mercy's softest beams to you belong;
To you the sympathetic sigh is known,
And Charity's sweet lustre—all your own;
To you gall'd Mis'ry seldom pleads in vain,
Oh, let us rise and burst the Negro's chain!
Yes, sisters, yes, to us the task belongs,
'Tis we increase or mitigate their wrongs.
If we the produce of their toils refuse,
If we no more the blood-stain'd lux'ry choose;
( 14 )
If from our lips we push the plant away
For which the liberties of thousands pay,
Of thousands once as blest, and born as free,
And nurs'd with care, (tho' not so soft,) as we;
If in benev'lence firm, we this can dare,
And in our brethrens sufferings hold no share,
In no small part their long-borne pangs will cease,
And we to souls unborn may whisper peace.
Sisters! another theme, did fancy choose,
Far from your view had shrunk my blushing Muse;
And still from you conceal'd my trembling form,
But here—I must, I dare, I will be warm -
Shall we who dwell in pleasure, peace and ease,
Shall we who but in meekness, mildness please,
Shall we surrounded by each dear delight,
To soothe the heart, or gratify the sight,
Say, shall for us the sable sufferers sigh?
Say, shall for us so many victims die?
Shall still for us the sable maid bewail?
Shall still the doating parent's fondness fail?
Shall groans for ever ring thro' Afric's grove,
Of deep distess and disappointed love?
( 15 )
Oh, how would thorns of care enthral each breast,
How would it rob the passing hours of rest,
If from our arms our nearest kindred torn,
And we for ever doom'd their loss to mourn?
No, let Ierne's gentle daughters prove
The kindling force of sympathetic love;
Now shew their virtues, be humane indeed,
And plead for those "who have no power to plead."
Say not that small's the sphere in which we move,
And our attempts would vain and fruitless prove;
Not so—we hold a most important share,
In all the evils—all the wrongs they bear,
And tho' their woes entire we can't remove,
We may th'increasing mis'ries which they prove,
Push far away the plant for which they die,
And in this one small thing our taste deny;
We must, we ought, 'tis Justice points the way;
Mercy and Charity loudly call—"obey."
Can you refuse to soothe, methinks they cry,
The heart of sorrow, or bid cease the sigh?
Can you whom plenty, wealth and peace surround,
Who in society's mild joys abound?
( 16 )
Commerce to you does its choice stores impart,
With all the gifts of Nature and of Art;
For you gay Flora animates the scene,
And spreads with vast parterres the smiling green;
Her mingled pow'rs and varied charms unite,
And does each sense—not satiate but delight;
On you brown Ceres sheds her richest powers,
Pomona's fruits nectareous—all are yours;
For you Hygeia, maid of blooming mien,
With joy abounding, fills the mirthful scene;
Can you whose hearts these heav'n-crown'd blessings
Refuse one sacrifice their wounds to heal?
A plant of which 'tis lux'ry gives the use,
Which our sad brethrens slav'ry does produce!
No, daughters of Ierne, you will give
This self-denying proof and bid them live!
See where Religion's holy banners rise,
And to your view presents immortal skies!
List, for methinks I hear the Matron say,
Can you whose hearts confess my hallow'd sway;
Can you before my altar bow the knee,
And yet refuse to set a brother free?
( 17 )
In humble faith you hope for heaven's high crown,
Yet press with grief so many spirits down:
"Preserve us, Lord, from evil," can you pray,
Yet wilfully pursue the evil way?
And how can you his blessing think to prove,
Whose first, best law is universal love?
Man was his fav'rite work—he form'd him free;
His fav'rite work whate'er his colour be;
And far more dark's the sinful soul within,
Than the poor harmless Negro's sable skin.
"Strange!" cries Flavilla, "if so foul the trade,
"Why has wise heaven its thunders thus delay'd?
"And if the traffic of mankind were wrong,
"Would heaven's dread Lord have suffer'd it so long?
"Sure rather he'd his sore displeasure shew,
"And crush the tyrants 'neath his vengeful blow."
Shalt thou, Flavilla, with too curious eye,
In his mysterious causes dare to pry?
Shalt thou, short-sighted mortal, wish to know,
Why thus thy Maker orders things below?
Ask why the thief who steals thy purse away,
Still feels the warm reviving light of day?
( 18 )
Ask why the wretch who lifts the murd'ring knife,
(Escap'd thy search) still breathes the air of life?
Or, ask why he who robs the houseless poor,
In safety yet enjoys his ill-got store?
Or why throughout the globe's capacious round,
Virtue oft droops where Vice is prosp'rous found?
Seek not the hidden ways of God to know,
Sure is his justice though 'tis often slow.
Enough for us—his mercy suffers long,
And man's free will may chuse or right or wrong;
His sacred judgments are reserv'd in store,
'Tis ours to chuse the right—and silently adore.
Oh! may that Power, whose wondrous wisdom
Myriads of worlds, with beauteous order fraught,
Whose fingers gave to heav'n's wide arch its bound,
And scatter'd those fair orbs which glitter round;
Who bade the moon to shine each night—each day
The sun to cheer us by his vital ray;
At whose command the rolling thunders rise,
And livid lightnings flash through blazing skies,
Whose word creative peopled earth with charms,
Whose grace preserves us and whose bounty warms:
( 19 )
May the mild dictates of his love impart
The path of virtue to each wand'ring heart!
Before him flee the mists of error blind,
And Truth's whole force irradiates all the mind.
So when Aurora through the gates of night,
Leads forth the ruddy blaze of opening light,
Bursts o'er the horizon with golden fire,
And bids the hovering shades of night expire;
Her foot-steps chase the sable clouds away,
And usher in the glorious light of day.
END OF THE FIRST PART.
A Note on the Text
Mary Birkett, A Poem on the African Slave Trade. Addressed to her own Sex. Part I, 2nd edition (Dublin: J. Jones, 1792)
This e-text is located at www.brycchancarey.com/slavery/mbc1.htm
Copy Text: The text of the poem was transcribed by Josephine Teakle, who kindly made it available for this website. See Teakle, Josephine. The Works of Mary Birkett Card 1774-1817, Originally Collected by her Son Nathaniel Card in 1834: An Edited Transcription with an Introduction to her Life and Works, 2 vols. (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Gloucestershire, 2004).
This is the full text of Part One of the poem. The poem is in two parts, which appeared seperately. Click Here for Part Two of the poem.
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