(1789) An Unknown Free Black Author Describes Slavery In 1789

Map of United States in 1789
Map by Golbez, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

We don’t know the name of one of the earliest orators against slavery. He was a West Indian who apparently was a former slave fortunate enough to be educated. He was also intimately familiar with slavery and the slave trade in that region. The themes and arguments advanced in this oration will be repeated by countless anti-slavery speakers for the next eight decades. It is not clear where this address was given but the author who was living in England felt by publishing the text of his speech he would reach a wider audience. The speech appeared in the journal, American Museum in 1789.

I am one of that unfortunate race of men who are distinguished from the rest of the human species by a black skin and woolly hair—disadvantages of very little moment in themselves, but which prove to us a source of greatest misery, because there are men who will not be persuaded that it is possible for a human soul to be lodged within a sable body. The West Indian planters could not, if they thought us men, so wantonly spill our blood; nor could the natives of this land of liberty, deeming us of the same species with themselves, submit to be instrumental in enslaving us, or think us proper subjects of a sordid commerce. Yet, strong as the prejudices against us are, it will not, I hope on this side of the Atlantic, be considered as a crime for a poor African not to confess himself a being of an inferior order to those who happen to be of a different color from himself, or be thought very presumptuous in one who is but a Negro to offer to the happy subjects of this free government some reflection upon the wretched condition of his country¬men. They will not, I trust, think worse of my brethren for being discontented with so hard a lot as that of slavery, nor disown me for their fellow creature merely because I deeply feel the unmerited sufferings which my countrymen endure.

It is neither the vanity of being an author, nor a sudden and capricious gust of humanity, which has prompted this present design. It has long been conceived and long been the principal subjects of my thoughts. Ever since an indulgent master rewarded by youthful services with freedom and supplied me at a very early age with the means of acquiring knowledge, I have labored to understand the true principles on which the liberties of mankind are founded, and to possess myself of the language of this country in order to plead the cause of than who were once my fellow slaves, and if possible to make my freedom, in some degree, the instrument of their deliverance.

The first thing, which seems necessary in order to remove those prejudices which are so unjustly entertained against us is to prove that we are men—a truth which is difficult of proof only because it is difficult to imagine by what argument it can be com¬bated. Can it be contended that a difference of color alone can constitute a difference of species?—If not, in what single circum¬stance are we different from the rest of mankind? What variety is there in our organization? What inferiority of art in the fashion¬ing of our bodies? What imperfection in the faculties of our minds?—Has not a Negro eyes? has not a Negro hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?—fed with the same food; hurt with the same weapons; subject to the same diseases; healed by the same means; warmed and cooled by the same summer and winter as a white man? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you poison us, do we not die? Are we not exposed to all the same wants? Do we not feel all the same sentiments—are we not capable of all the same exertions—and are we not entitled to all the same rights as other men?

Yes—and it is said we are men, it is true; but that we are men addicted to more and worse vices than those of any other complexion; and such is the innate perverseness of our minds that nature seems to have marked us out for slavery.—Such is the apology perpetually made for our masters and the justification offered for that universal proscription under which we labor.

But I supplicate our enemies to be, though for the first time, just in their proceedings toward us, and to establish the fact before they attempt to draw any conclusions from it. Nor let them imagine that this can be done by merely asserting that such is our universal character. It is the character, I grant, that our inhuman masters have agreed to give us and which they have so industriously and too successfully propagated in order to palliate their own guilt by blackening the helpless victims of it and to disguise their own cruelty under the semblance of justice. Let the natural depravity of our character be proved—not by appealing to declamatory in¬vectives and interest representations, but by showing that a greater proportion of crimes have been committed by the wronged slaves of the plantation than by the luxurious inhabitants of Europe, who are happily strangers to those aggravated provocations by which our passions are every day irritated and incensed. Show us that, of the multitude of Negroes who have within a few years transported themselves to this country, and who are abandoned to themselves; who are corrupted by example, prompted by penury, and instigated by the memory of their wrongs to the commission of crimes show us, I say (and the demonstration, if it be possible, cannot be difficult), that a greater proportion of these than of white men have fallen under the animadversions of justice and have been sacrificed to your laws. Though avarice may slander and insult our misery, and though poets heighten the horror of their fables by representing us as monsters of vice—that fact is that, if treated like other men, and admitted to a participation of their rights, we should differ from them in nothing, perhaps, but in our possessing stronger passions, nicer sensibility, and more enthusiastic virtue.

Before so harsh a decision was pronounced upon our nature, we might have expected—if sad experience had not taught us to expect nothing but injustice from our adversaries—that some pains would have been taken to ascertain what our nature is; and that we should have been considered as we are found in our native woods rend not as we now are—altered and perverted by an inhuman political institution. But instead of this, we are examined, not by philosophers, but by interested traders; not as nature formed us, but as man has depraved us—and from such an inquiry, prose¬cuted under such circumstances, the perverseness of our dispositions is said to be established. Cruel that you are! you make us slaves; you implant in our minds all the vices which are in some degree inseparable from that condition; and you then impiously impute to nature, and to God, the origin of those vices, to which you alone have given birth; and punish in us the crimes of which you are yourselves the authors.

The condition of the slave is in nothing more deplorable than in its being so unfavorable to the practice of every virtue. The surest foundation of virtue is love of our fellow creatures; and that affection takes its birth in the social relations of men to one another. But to a slave these are all denied. He never pays or receives the grateful duties of a son he never knows or experiences the fond solicitude of a father—the tender names of husband, of brother, and of friend, are to him unknown. He has no country to defend and bleed for—he can relieve no sufferings—for he looks around in vain to find a being more wretched than himself. He can indulge no generous sentiment—for he sees himself every hour treated with contempt and ridiculed, and distinguished from irra¬tional brutes by nothing but the severity of punishment. Would it be surprising if a slave, laboring under all these disadvantages¬—oppressed, insulted, scorned, trampled on—should come at last to despise himself—to believe the calumnies of his oppressors—and to persuade himself that it would be against his nature to cherish any honorable sentiment or to attempt any virtuous action? Before you boast of your superiority over us, place some of your own color (if you have the heart to do it) in the same situation with us and see whether they have such innate virtue, and such unconquerable vigor of mind, as to be capable of surmounting such multiplied difficulties, and of keeping their minds free from the infection of every vice, even under the oppressive yoke of such a servitude.

But, not satisfied with denying us that indulgence, to which the misery of our condition gives w so just a claim, our enemies have laid down other and stricter rules of morality to judge our actions by than those by which the conduct of all other men is tried. Habits, which in all human beings except ourselves are thought innocent, are, in us, deemed criminal—and actions, which are even laudable in white men, become enormous crimes in Negroes. In proportion to our weakness, the strictness of censure is increased upon us; and as resources are withheld from us, our duties are multiplied. The terror of punishment is perpetually before our eyes; but we know not how to avert, what rules to set by, or what guides to follow. We have written laws, indeed, composed in a, language we do not understand and never promulgated: but what avail written laws, when the supreme law, with us, is the capricious will of our overseers? To obey the dictates of our own hearts, and to yield to the strong propensities of nature, is often to incur severe punishment; and by emulating examples which we find applauded and revered among Europeans, we risk inflaming the wildest wrath of our inhuman tyrants.

To judge of the truth of these assertions, consult even those milder and subordinate rules for our conduct, the various codes of your West India laws—those laws which allow us to be men, whenever they consider us as victims of their vengeance, but treat us only like a species of living property, as often as we are to be the objects of their protection those laws by which (it may be truly said) that we are bound to suffer and be miserable under pain of death. To resent an injury received from a white man, though of the lowest rank, and to dare to strike him, though upon the strongest and grossest provocation, is an enormous crime. To attempt to escape from the cruelties exercised upon us by flight is punished with mutilation, and sometimes with death. To take arms against masters, whose cruelties no submission can mitigate, no patience exhaust, and from whom no other means of deliverance are left, is the most atrocious of all crimes, and is punished by a gradual death, lengthened out by torments so exquisite that none but those who have been long familiarized with West Indian bar¬barity can hear the bare recital of them without horror. And yet I learn from writers, whom the Europeans hold in the highest esteem, that treason is a crime which cannot be committed by a slave against his master; that a slave stands in no civil relation towards his master, and owes him no allegiance; that master and slave are in a state of war; and if the slave take up arms for his deliverance, he acts not only justifiably but in obedience to a natural duty, the duty of self preservation. I read in authors whom I find venerated by our oppressors, that to deliver one’s self and one’s countrymen from tyranny is an act of the sublimest heroism. I hear Europeans exalted as the martyrs of public liberty, the saviors of their country, and the deliverers of mankind—I see other memories honored with statues, and their names immortalized in poetry—and yet when a generous Negro is animated by the same passion which ennobled them—when he feels the wrongs of his countrymen as deeply, and attempts to avenge them as boldly—I see him treated by those same Europeans as the most execrable of mankind, and led out, amidst curses end insults, to undergo a painful, gradual and ignominious deer. dad thus the same Briton, who applauds his own ancestors for attempting to throw off the easy yoke imposed on them by the Romans, punishes us, as detested parricides, for seeking to get free from the cruelest of all tyrannies, and yielding to the irresistible eloquence of an African Galgacus or Boadicea.

Are then the reason and morality, for which Europeans so highly value themselves, of a nature so variable and fluctuating as to change with the complexion of those to whom they are applied?—Do rights of nature cease to be such when a Negro is to enjoy them?—Or does patriotism in the heart of an African rankle into treason?