Four Black Poets from British History
Here at Live Canon, we’ve been reading and researching lots of twentieth century Black British poets for some new courses we’re developing. But we realised there were some gaps in our knowledge, and decided to look further back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784)
Phillis Wheatley is the most famous Black poet of the eighteenth century, both in Britain and the US. She wrote on biblical and classical themes, often fusing the two: her poem ‘To Maecenas’ takes Horace’s ode and weaves Christlike symbolism throughout. Over a third of her body of work is in the form of elegies, writing both from a personal perspective, and as a hired poet writing for salary. She makes great use of heroic couplets, writing lines that thundered and sang:
Soon as the sun forsook the eastern main
The pealing thunder shook the heav'nly plain;
Majestic grandeur! From the zephyr's wing,
Exhales the incense of the blooming spring.
Soft purl the streams, the birds renew their notes,
And through the air their mingled music floats.
Through all the heav'ns what beauteous dies are spread!
But the west glories in the deepest red:
So may our breasts with ev'ry virtue glow,
The living temples of our God below!
(the opening of Wheatley’s ‘A Hymn to the Evening’)
Wheatley was born in West Africa, in probably what is now Sengal or The Gambia, and sold into slavery in America aged about seven. She was bought by the Wheatley family to be a domestic servant, and named after the slave ship that had brought her to America. The Wheatleys taught Phillis to read and write and encouraged her poetry, bringing her out to impress at parties. After fruitlessly trying to get her work published in Boston, Phillis and Nathaniel Wheatley (a son of the family) travelled to England, where her collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in 1773. Her poetry caused a stir, and was used by the fledgling anti-slavery movement to demonstrate that Black people were equal in humanity and intelligence to white people. However, sceptics were unconvinced that Wheatley had written her poems, and she had to defend her authorship in court in 1772 – the judges ultimately ruled that the poems were her own work, and their signed attestation was published with her poems.
Wheatley was freed in 1774, and married a man called John Peters. Her fame drifted away with the deaths of the Wheatley family, and she lived in severe poverty, before dying aged 31.
Olaudah Equiano (c.1745-1797)
Equiano is most famous for his extraordinary autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African, published in 1789 (you can read it here: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/15399/15399-h/15399-h.htm). It was one of the first testimonies of slavery, that was key to enlightening people about the horrors of the slave trade, arguing for its abolition, and demystifying views and misconceptions of African civilisations. The book combines first-hand narrative, petitions and letters, and a few scattered poems, used to emphasise particularly heightened moments of emotion or spiritual reflection. They often prove bleak, thought-provoking reading:
‘Well may I say my life has been
One scene of sorrow and of pain;
From early days I griefs have known,
And as I grew my griefs have grown:
Dangers were always in my path;
And fear of wrath, and sometimes death;
While pale dejection in me reign'd
I often wept, by grief constrain'd.
When taken from my native land,
By an unjust and cruel band,
How did uncommon dread prevail!
My sighs no more I could conceal.
(the opening of ‘Miscellaneous Verses’)
From Equiano’s own account, he was born in the Eboe province of what is now Nigeria, kidnapped and sold into slavery aged 11, and taken first to Barbados, and then Virginia. He was sold to a Royal Navy officer who decided to rename him after a Swedish king, Gustavus Vassa. Equiano was sold several times to different sea captains and merchants, and eventually was able to trade for himself on the side and earn enough money to buy his freedom and travel the world – he became both the first Black man to explore the Arctic, and to be employed by the British government.
As well as publishing his autobiography, Equiano became involved with the London group ‘Sons of Africa’, campaigning for abolition. He married the Englishwoman Susanna Cullen, and died in 1797.
Francis Williams (c.1700-1770)
Very little poetry by Francis Williams survives. He’s popularly thought to have composed the song ‘Welcome, welcome, brother debtor’, but the only surviving poem that we can be sure was his is an ‘Ode to George Haldane’ on the occasion of Haldane becoming the governor of Jamaica in 1759:
Ere now our guiltless isle, her wretched fate
Had wept, and groan'd beneath th' oppressive weight
Of Cruel woes; save thy victorious hand,
Long fam'd in war, from Gallia's hostile land;
And wreaths of fresh renown, with generous zeal,
Had freely turn'd, to prop our sinking weal.
(lines from ‘Ode to George Haldane)
Williams was born free in Jamaica, and travelled to England to study. It’s unclear whether his family’s wealth and ambition were the reason he went, or whether there’s any truth in the legend that the Duke of Montagu paid for him to go as a ‘social experiment’. The legend also states that Williams studied at the University of Cambridge – the university holds no record of his time there, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t happen. Williams became a British citizen, but then returned to Jamaica, hoping to fill a role in government. After being rejected he founded a successful school, and gained a reputation as a gifted writer and poet, especially in Latin. As the V&A explains, ‘Today, Francis William's status as a postcolonial 'hero' is made problematic by the fact that he and his family profited from the labour of enslaved Africans. However, his existence as a rich, educated free black man who wrote Latin verse was a direct challenge to the theories of white supremacy which underpinned the transatlantic slave trade’.
John Jea (1773-?)
John Jea’s work is often seen as the ‘missing link’ between 18th century narratives written by slaves that focused on spiritual redemption, and 19th century works that more explicitly and politically called for abolition. He wrote an autobiography, entitled The Life, History, and Unparalleled Sufferings of John Jea, the African Preacher – you can read the book online here: https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/jeajohn/jeajohn.html. The book is scattered with poems and hymn lyrics, and powerfully and movingly combines spiritual reflection with arguing the injustice of slavery.
The love of God did me constrain,
To seek the wandering souls of men;
With cries, intreaties, tears, to save,
To snatch them from the burning blaze.
For this let man revile my name,
No cross I shun, I fear no shame;
All hail reproach and welcome shame;
Only thy terrors Lord restrain.
(inset poem, p. 56)
Jea was born in what is now Nigeria, and was sold into slavery with his family at the age of two. According to his own account, Jea gained his liberty when God gave him the miraculous ability to read the bible, although nothing else, and a court of magistrates decided that he should therefore be freed. Jea travelled extensively around America and Europe, preaching and teaching as he went, before finally settling in England. His autobiography was only rediscovered in 1983.