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Hannah More and Eaglesfield Smith, “The Sorrows of Yamba; or, The Negro Woman’s Complaint” (1797)

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“The Sorrows of Yamba; or, The Negro Woman’s

Complaint” By Hannah More and Eaglesfield Smith

Overview

“The Sorrows of Yamba”, was published by Hannah More in 1797 and then later attributed to Eaglesfield Smith as a co-author of the poem. Hannah More’s approach to literature during the Romantic Period can be seen in, “The Sorrows of Yamba”, where More appeals to the masses by writing a forty-seven-stanza poem about the story of Yamba who has been kidnapped from her African land and shipped to Britain to work as a slave. Yamba considers killing herself, seeing death as her only escape. This starts to change when Yamba meets a missionary man who introduces her to Christianity. Yamba is the main character of story, while the missionary plays a significant role. More adds a good deal of pseudo-dialect to the poem. “The Sorrows of Yamba” was one of the most popular and frequently reprinted antislavery poems of its time. The poem has become even more popular in today’s world as a classroom text, making appearances in teaching anthologies, analogies of women’s work, and in editions of Hannah More’s work. The poem was popular during the time of slavery because it showed people the pain and suffering of the slave trade as well as the influence of Christianity and for women who started to become part of the abolitionist movement.

Major Themes/Scenes

There are three major themes that are used in Abolition Literature; the first being an ethical argument which deals with very deep emotional appeals and the horrors of slavery, the second is an economical argument about what slavery brings to the economy, mostly the upper class. The third and most prevalent theme is that of a religious argument, slavery is wholly compatible with Christianity, bringing other individuals over to the pro-abolition stance. It begs the question “How could you be Christian and support slavery and allow these things to happen?” This leads into the biggest scene in the story of the missionary man teaching and trying to convert Yamba to Christianity.

Ethical Theme

In “The Sorrows of Yamba”, there are several times where we are shown the horrors of slavery. In the beginning of the poem, we are told how Yamba has been kidnapped from her home. “In St. Lucie’s distant isle, Still with Afric’s love I burn; Parted many a thousand mile, Never, never to return.” (Damrosch, Dettmar 263) Yamba goes on and on about wanting to kill herself rather than living. “Come Kind death! and Give me Rest; Yamba has no friend but thee.” (Damrosch, Dettmar 263) She talks about how she had a husband and children that she had to leave. “Broken is my heart with grief; Mangled my poor flesh with whipping, Come kind death! and bring relief.” (Damrosch, Dettmar 263) The white men came in and ripped her children from her breast. “From the Bush at even tide, Rushed the fierce man-stealing crew; Seiz’d the children by my side, Seiz’d the wretched Yamba to.” (Damrosch, Dettmar 264) There are several other instances in the poem that show the horrors and the reality of slavery. According to Ricky Andromeda in “What Ethical Theories Were Used to Abolish Slavery?”, Pro-abolitionist writes used the ethical argument to show, “that the practice of humans enslaving other humans constituted the inherent evil and led to many horrible practices…Slaves were kidnapped from their home countries and many died on the ocean voyages. In bondage, slave owners and overseers could do whatever they wanted to slaves, including physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.” There are many other stories that this poem can relate to including, Robert Southey’s, “Poems Concerning the Slave Trade and Anne Yearsley’s, “A poem on the inhumanity of the Slave Trade.” One of the major ethical concepts of the time was that slaves were not property like cattle, but they were human beings. In giving a voice to Yamba, More intended to trigger sympathy in the reader’s mind.

Economical Theme

Pro-abolitionist writers like Hannah More and Eaglesfield Smith wrote about the economical view on slavery like many other pro-abolitionist writers. Slaves were treated like animals/cattle and were even kidnapped and herded into to ships to await their new homes on plantations where they were used for cruel and hard manual labor. In “The Sorrows of Yamba”, Yamba is taken away from her house and home in Africa by the White men. She isn’t able to say goodbye to her family and is immediately taken and put on a ship. “Then for the love of filthy Gold, Strait they bore me to the Sea, Cramm’d me down a Slave Ship’s hold, Where were Hundreds stow’d like me. Naked on the Platform lying, Now we cross the tumbling wave; Shrieking, sickening, fainting, dying; Deed of shame for Britons brave.” (Damrosch, Dettmar 264) This shows slaves were only seen as an investment. “Driven like Cattle to a fair, See they sell us, young and old; Child from Mother too they tear, All for love of filthy Gold.” (Damrosch, Dettmar 264) According to Excerpts from Edmund Ruffin in his “The Political Economy of Slavery”, “For even among a barbarous people, where the aversion to labor is universal, those who could not be induced to labor by their own hands, and in person, if they became slaveholders, would be ready enough to compel the labor of their slaves, and also would soon learn to economize and accumulate the products of their labor.” Slaves were so important to slaveholders who owned land. The Slave owners only worried about the profit they were making and not about the people that they were degrading. Yamba talks about how her Master treated her, “I was sold to Massa hard, Some have Massas kind and good; And again my back was scarr’d, Bad and stinted was my food. Poor and wounded, faint, and sick, All exposed to burning sky, Massa bids me grass to pick, And I now am near to die. (Damrosch, Dettmar 265) Hannah More and Eaglesfield Smith show this side of slavery in “The Sorrows of Yamba”.

Religious Theme

The religious aspect of the poem is probably the biggest theme. You have hypocritical Christians. It’s economic to spiritual exchange. It’s important because there aren’t a lot of possibilities without conversion. It’s problematic because being converted doesn’t mean they aren’t enslaved. It’s a benevolent view on Christianity. There’s this huge idea that “Christianity could fix it all”. It’s the ultimate weapon that More and Eaglesfield use. It’s stereotypical of a slave’s position. The Missionary can come in and change Yamba’s life. “Now let Yamba too adore Gracious Heaven’s mysterious plan; Now I’ll count thy mercies o’er, Flowing thro’ the guilt of man.” (Damrosch, Dettmar 266)  It appeals to so many different people. This religious theme, really made people during the pro-abolitionist movement think. “How can you be a Christian and allow this to happen?” This religious ideal gives the slaves this idea to forgive their masters and praise God. “All my former thoughts abhorr’d Teach me now to pray and praise; Joy and Glory in my Lord, Trust and serve him all my days.” (Damrosch, Dettmar 266) However, there was little leisure time for religion as slaveowners often required their slaves to work on Sundays. Many masters didn’t want their slaves to practice religion they thought it would make them “saucy” and that they would think of themselves equal to whites. According to Mark Galli in, “The Inconceivable Start of African-American Christianity”, it was considered that,"A slave is ten times worse when a Christian than in his state of paganism." Yamba ends the poem very enthused about converting to Christianity, “There no Fiend again shall sever Those whom God hath join’d and bless’d; There they dwell with Him for ever, There ‘the weary are at rest’.” (Damrosch, Dettmar 267) This leaves the idea that slavery is wholly compatible with Christianity, and it brought individuals over to the pro-abolition stance.

Relevance to Romanticism and Revolution

The three majors themes that I touched on provide extreme insight into the Romantic period especially as it relates to the revolution during the Romantic period. During this time there were several many revolutions going on. The revolution with men and politics, the revolution among women and most importantly the revolutionary idea of slavery during the pro-abolition movement. Hannah More and Eaglesfield Smith write an invoking poem about the horrors of slavery, the economic value of slavery, and the idea of conversion to Christianity. There are many other authors and texts that invoke the same themes and ideas on slavery. “The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano” by Olaudah Equiano, “The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave” by Mary Prince, Anna Barbauld’s “Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq. On the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing Slave Trade”, Robert Southey’s “Poems Concerning the Slave Trade” and Anne Yearsley’s “A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade”. All of these poems invoke the ethical, economic, and religious themes on slavery. These were the main arguments during the Romantic Period leading up to the Abolition of Slavery and the idea of Revolution.

Sources

Andromeda, Ricky. "What Ethical Theories Were Used to Abolish Slavery?" Opposing Views. Demand Media, n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2015. 

Damrosch, David, and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. "The Sorrows of Yamba; Or, The Negro Woman's Complaint." The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 5th ed. Vol. 2A. New York: Longman, 1999. 263-66. Print. 

Galli, Mark. "The Inconceivable Start of African-American Christianity Why Slaves Adopted Their Oppressor's Religion—and Transformed It." Christianity Today. Christianity Today, 21 Feb. 2014. Web. 24 Apr. 2015. 

Ruffin, Edmund. "Excerpts from Edmund Ruffin, The Political Economy of Slavery." Romanticisms. PBS by WGBH, 1963. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.

The Sorrows of Yamba. Digital image. The Abolition Project. E2BN - East of England Broadband Network, 4 Sept. 2007. Web. 24 Apr. 2015. <http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset72551_1136-abolition.html>.

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