"Am I Not a Man and a Brother?" "Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?": The Trans Atlantic Crusade against the Slave Trade and Slavery

By Williams, Carolyn | Caribbean Quarterly, March-June 2010 | Go to article overview

"Am I Not a Man and a Brother?" "Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?": The Trans Atlantic Crusade against the Slave Trade and Slavery


Williams, Carolyn, Caribbean Quarterly


The title of this essay is taken from a motto on medallions created by employees of the eighteenth century English industrialist and champion of antislavery reform, Josiah Wedgwood. This first phrase of the motto indicates the involvement of the men, both enslaved sub-Saharan Africans and the European men who worked to liberate them from the chains installed by their countrymen. The second phrase reflects the experiences of black women and the role of women and in the international crusade to eliminate slavery. The motto generally illustrates the pivotal role that words played in the campaign that took centuries to succeed, and that generated another movement, advocating the emancipation of women and the elevation of females to the status of equality.

As historian James Basker stated, the English were latecomers to the Slave trade that dealt in the capture and sale of black Africans.. In fact, the trade that became a major economic endeavour of the age of European expansion and imperialism that began in the fifteenth century - the forced transportation of sub-Saharan Africans from their native land for labour - was initiated by Arabs centuries before. After thrusting the Arab threat from the Mediterranean world, first the Portuguese then the Dutch took over the African Slave trade and used this source of labour as they proceeded to colonize the various areas of the globe that European imperialists would call the 'New World'.

Ironically it was at the suggestion of a Spanish cleric, the Dominican monk Bartolomé de las Casas, that sub-Saharan Africans would replace the indigenous people of the Americas as the chief source of captive labour. In 1540 as aresult of the treatise by de las Casas the pope would prohibit the enslavement of the natives of the Americas and the Caribbean. The head of the Catholic Church also gave the Portuguese permission to capture and take black Africans to the colonies being created by the Spanish and on a much smaller scale, the Portuguese.. After throwing off Spanish rule, the Dutch soon took over the trade.

A series of circumstances brought the English into the trade and promoted slavery as the primary source of labour. These include the arrival of a Dutch Slave vessel in 1619, in the first successful British colony in America, Virginia, twelve years after it was founded, and the capture of Barbados by England in 1625. A greater factor was the possession by England of the vast former Spanish colony of Jamaica (more than twenty times as large as Barbados) in 1655. Development in the 1660s further entrenched the English involvement in the trans- Atlantic trade in Africans. During that decade England gained control of other colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, and America (mainly the former Dutch colony of New Netherlands resulting from wars with Holland, and England's acquisition of Carolina). This prompted the English to establish administrative mechanisms to secure their new economic resources. The Royal Company of Adventurers to Africa established in 1663 was replaced a decade later by the Royal African Company..

The involvement of the English in the trade in Africans stimulated the literary imagination of British writers of the period. One of the first was the Poet Laureate and prominent Restoration writer, John Dryden, (1631-1700) who addressed the dilemma of captive Africans in his poem 'The Rival Ladies' in the following verse composed in 1664:

"Slaves, who before, did cruel Masters serve,

May fly to Deserts, and in Freedom starve.

The noblest part of Liberty they loose,

Who can but shun, and want the Pow'r to choose"..

Dryden was also among the Restoration poets who addressed the clash between Christians and Muslim Moors. Of course the most famous of this genre was Shakespeare's Othello, reflecting the growing preoccupation with the issue of race and ethnicity among English peoples. This topic was also the subject of another Restoration author, Aphra Behn, one of the first English women to win recognition for her writing. …

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