Southey & Slavery
By Nathan Trimble
God often uses ordinary means to accomplish extraordinary feats in culture and in society. And all too often, Christians ignore one of the greatest tools that God has given them, namely, those talents with which He has gifted them. Several examples shine forth through the centuries, which represent attempts to redefine the cultural norms and to effect change in the name of Christ. Robert Southey was such a man. This 18th century, Englishman employed poetry to help promote peace among the races at a time when slavery plagued the world. This essay will explore the contributions of this man, and then consider what they mean for us as 21st century Americans.
England in the Eighteenth Century & A Poet Named Southey
At the end of the eighteenth century, the slave trade still spanned the globe, including England. Despite this, societal leaders such as Granville Sharpe (1735-1813), Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), and William Wilberforce (1759-1833) fought against the slave trade. One such leader was Robert Southey (1774-1843), a devout Christian and the Poet Laureate of England for nearly 35 years. However, whereas other leaders campaigned against the slave trade through politics and other means, Southey did so through poetry.
In his poem “The Sailor Who Had Served in the Slave Trade” (1798) , Southey invites his English-Protestant audience to see the horrors of the slave trade. He accomplishes this through two characters, the Sailor and the Stranger—two characters who are representative of the English populace. The Sailor represents the slave trade, and the Stranger represents the audience. As the details of the story unfold, Southey hopes to prompt his audience to action through these characters: We must end the slave trade, and now!
The Devil, a Slave Woman, and Christ
The poem begins with the Sailor on his knees in prayer. He confesses that he cannot find rest because of the “wicked thing” he has done (line 25). What is this “wicked thing”? Whatever it is, he establishes a clear connection between this “wicked thing” and the “wicked one” (line 34)—namely, the devil (line 44). Southey further employs the language of “Hell” (line 42) and “fire” (line 44) to invoke the image even further. His point is clear: the Sailor’s crimes are associated with the “he” that resides in “endless fire” (line 44).
As the Sailor continues his prayer, he begins to focus on a slave woman and his regrettable treatment of her. In order to portray these graphic events in the manner most effective, Southey draws at least three parallels between the woman’s treatment and Christ’s Passion: (1) like Christ, she is beaten; (2) like Christ, she is made to bleed; and (3) like Christ, she is made a public spectacle.
First, the Sailor explains in detail his treatment of this slave. If she did not eat, she was severely beaten. Though he does not want to do it, the Sailor is forced to execute such punishment by his Captain. The Christian imagery is inescapable. Just as Christ was beaten for no fault of His own, so is the woman. Reminiscent of the torment and agony experienced by Christ, Southey states of the woman, “She groan’d, she shriek’d – I could not spare / For the Captain he stood by … She twisted from the blows – her blood / Her mangled flesh I see” (lines 77-78, 81-82).
Second, Southey makes an explicit reference to the slave woman’s blood . The “blood” plays a significant role in the poem. Over and over again, this word is repeated, and this notion elaborated upon. Through the Sailor, Southey makes at least two points about this blood: (1) It is this same blood that Britain used to build its Empire; and (2) it is this same blood that will need to be washed by Christ’s blood for the remission of sins by the poem’s end. Finally, Southey makes a third parallel between the woman and Christ when he states, “[S]he was taken down” (line 86). Not only was she beaten, like Christ; and not only did she bleed, like Christ; but she was made a public example, like Christ.
The Sailor continues his prayer, and explains to the Stranger how the slave woman died at noon the next day due to her pains (line 96). The Sailor is filled with repentance for his crimes. He pleas, “O give me comfort if you can – Oh tell me where to fly – And bid me hope, if there be hope / For one so lost as I” (lines 113-116). The Sailor knows the depths of his sin. Though he did not intend to commit the sin of such mistreatment and eventual death of another human being, the Sailor recognizes that he has the blood of an innocent person on his hands. He recognizes that he is guilty for his part in the slave trade, and so asks for forgiveness.
Southey Indicts Society
Through this gripping story, Southey asks his 18th century audience to assume their guilt in the slave trade, to ask forgiveness of their sin, and to help change it: “He bade him pray, and knelt with him, And join’d him in his prayers … and some who read the dreadful tale / Perhaps will aid with theirs” (lines 125-128). By the poem’s end, the English-Protestant audience was face-to-face with their own sin and guilt for the English slave trade. No longer is the audience an innocent bystander, and no longer is the audience as one who views this institution from afar. They are all guilty.
Like the Sailor, readers would find themselves guilty of these crimes. Southey effectively makes the following point: Even those Englishmen and women who did not benefit directly or monetarily from the slave trade were still guilty. Why? First, they used coffee, cotton, sugar, rum, and tobacco, and thereby reaped the benefits of the slave trade. Second, they were content not to stop it; even passivity speaks to one’s position. Southey states that this “tale” should be spread abroad and made known so that all may know the horrors of the slave trade, and stop this crime against humanity. Thus Southey conclusively defines his position in the slave trade and leaves his audience with the impetus to act against the indecencies and injustices of slavery.
Southey & the 21st Century
The reader is left with the impression that true Christianity does not condone slavery; rather, true Christianity is the means by which those in slavery are liberated. Southey uses his ability as a talented poet to invoke change in society through Christianity. Yet what does this mean for Christians today? What does Southey’s life illustrate for those who desire such change to take effect within their own cultural context?
God uses the talents and vocations of His children to carry out the Great Commission. Christian ministry does not occur in a vacuum. It does not occur only within the walls of a church. And it does not rest solely on the shoulders of the pastor. Rather, it includes all Christians of all vocations. Any thought to the contrary stands against Scripture’s own testimony: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19), exhorted Jesus before a Galilean crowd just prior to His ascension. Put simply, all Christians are called to “make disciples” of Christ.
Southey recognized this basic truth, and pursued the Great Commission call upon his life by using his God-given talents, namely, poetry. The Great Commission call is accomplished by a variety of means, including one’s talents and vocation. Like Southey, we must recognize our God-given talents and allow God to use them in whatever manner He desires. For Southey, it was poetry.
Sometimes God employs Christians’ talents and vocations to invoke change in society. Despite the acceptability of a cultural norm (whether in the church, society, or both), Christians must stand against the tide where the Gospel of Christ demands it. As Southey recognized, the labor of Christians can faithfully address the injustices of society. Although this may be accomplished in a variety of ways, the point is that God gifts His people with the ability to produce such change. God accomplishes the extraordinary by the ordinary. To some, such efforts may seem futile, but history has proven otherwise. But for the efforts of leaders such as Southey, the slave trade may have continued even longer in 18th century England. The same is true of our society: But for the efforts of her leaders, America will also continue in certain injustices. May Christians be counted among those who take a stand where the Gospel demands it.
 This poem will be referred to frequently throughout this essay, and may be accessed at the following address: http://poetry.poetryx.com/poems/13042/.
 This is the same blood that will later haunt the Sailor in his dreams as he remembers how she bled from her exposed “mangled flesh” (line 82).
About the Author: Nathan Trimble recently graduated from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee where he studied history, focusing on Early American History. Nathan is also a commissioned Officer in the United States Army, serving as a Second Lieutenant in the Infantry Branch. He serves in ministry as a volunteer Young Life Leader at John Overton High School where he is able to present the Gospel to high school students in the Nashville Metro area. His academic interests are history, theology, and early modern English Literature.