Slavery and Augustan Literature: Swift, Pope, Gay

By John Richardson | Go to book overview

1

Introduction

Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and John Gay were all connected with the Tory ministry of 1710-14, and with its leader Robert Harley. His ministry made the slave trade a principal - perhaps the principal - element in its financial planning. One of the ministry’s earliest tasks was to solve the problem of the national debt which had built up during the first years of the War of Spanish Succession (1702-13). It founded the South Sea Company in 1711 in order to exploit the Asiento, the lucrative slave-trading contract with Spanish South America, which was expected to be, and eventually was, the major concession of the peace agreed in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. As G. M. Trevelyan’s still trenchant analysis put it, ‘the finances of the country were based in May 1711 on the assumption that the Asiento would be wrested from France’. 1 This is not to suggest that the ministry invented the slave trade or revelled in its cruelty, but simply that Tory financial policy set out to increase its importance to the British economy. Pope, Swift and Gay all supported this ministry and the peace policy in different ways, and all knew leading ministers. The connection is important because of its impact on their lives and literary careers. It was under the ministry’s aegis that they met, became friends, formed the Scriblerus Club, and laid the foundations for their later work. The writings directly produced by the club are of limited interest, but more loosely Scriblerian texts include important works from the 1720s: the Dunciad, Gulliver’s Travels and the Beggar’s Opera. 2 All three employ, in different degrees and different ways, the irony, generic disruption and satire on learning which were part of the club’s social and literary culture. All three, again in different ways, are not only concerned with ethical and political questions but are opposition texts associated with the ousted Tories of more than ten years earlier. There is, in short, a point of contact between Harley’s ministry and a number of major canonical texts.

The contact suggests a starting point for enquiry. There are two sets of facts. On the one hand, we have a country involved in the slave trade, and the country’s leaders, with whom an important group of writers was closely associated, eager to increase the involvement. On the other, we have the same writers producing works which are centrally concerned with the behaviour

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