Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900

By Philip S. Foner; Robert James Branham | Go to book overview

12 O! AFRICA

William Hamilton

Hamilton's oration in observance of the seventh anniversary of the ostensible abolition of the U.S. slave trade was delivered on January 2, 1815, in the Episcopal Asbury African Church on Elizabeth Street in New York. The speech consists of three main sections, beginning with an evocation of the African past, prior to the onset of the slave trade. Ancient Africa is described as an idyllic and peaceful land, the "first fair garden of God's planting." From the African Eden, Hamilton argues, "fair science first descended and the arts began to bud and grow," particularly in Egypt, which he describes as the point of origin for both African and Asian peoples.

In Hamilton's account, the wisdom, kindliness, and accomplishments of the Africans are shattered by the introduction of the slave trade. In the second and longest section of the speech, Hamilton not only describes the horrors of slavery but also contrasts an essentially moral character of African peoples with that possessed by those of European descent. Hamilton disputes "their boasted superiority" by claiming that there is a "low, sly, wicked, cunning, peculiar to the Europeans." "Some nations have painted their devil in the complexion of a white man," he observes. "View the history of the slave trade, and then answer the question, could they have made choice of a better likeness to have drawn from?"

In the concluding section of his remarks, Hamilton makes an abrupt transition from the graphic description of the lashing of a woman slave with infant strapped to her back to an acknowledgement of the ceremonial occasion at which he speaks. "But, my brethren," Hamilton explains, "we are this day called on to rejoice."

Hamilton's address was published in 1815 by C. W. Bunce for the New York African Society and is reprinted in Dorothy Porter, Early Negro Writing, 1760-1837 ( Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 391-99.

It may not be amiss, my brethren, to commence this part of the exercise of this day, with a description of the country of our parents.

Here let me observe, that when I first turned my mind on the subject of this day, I had intended instead of what would be in me, a vain attempt at oratory, or rhetorical flourishes, to have given as far as in my power lay, a plain instructive address; but I am sorry to say, the resources from whence I intended to draw materials for such an address were entirely without my reach. I am therefore obliged to content myself with what I shall now offer.

We shall first give the geographical situation of Africa, that is, its place

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