copyright © 2007
in The Guardian
5 May 2007
I've been reading about Blake, inspired and
in part provoked by an essay by David Bindman in the catalogue
for the current exhibition Mind-Forg'd Manacles: William Blake
and Slavery, which opened at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull
and will travel to Glasgow and Manchester. Tate Britain has
just opened a similar show, marking the 250th anniversary of
Blake's birth and the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave
trade. The issues involved are topical and interesting, and
of course controversial.
Not much seems to be known about Blake and
the movement for abolition. It was not a subject that interested
the author of the first full-length biography of Blake, Alexander
Gilchrist, and there is practically nothing to be found on the
subject in that great book Blake Records. We know from his poems
that Blake was opposed to cruelty to animals, as to humans,
and given that slavery was abominably cruel, we would not expect
him to be in favour of it.
The only relevant story I can find is told
by Frederick Tatham in the 1830s. Blake is standing at his window
when he sees a boy hobbling along with a log attached to his
foot, "such a one as is put on a Horse or Ass to prevent
their straying". Blake calls his wife and asks her why
this has been done. She suggests that the boy is being punished.
Tatham tells us: "Blake's blood boiled & his indignation
surpassed his forbearance, he sallied forth, & demanded
in no very quiescent terms that the Boy should be loosed &
that no Englishman should be subjected to those miseries, which
he thought were inexcusable even towards a Slave."
From this you might be rash enough to conclude
that Blake considered that Englishmen should be treated in one
way, slaves in another. But maybe the formulation "inexcusable
even towards a slave" reflects Tatham's views, or his slack
expression. Anyway, there is indignation at the humiliation
of children, and that seems typical of Blake.
Among his commercial commissions, Blake was
involved in engraving John Gabriel Stedman's illustrations for
his Narrative of a Five Years Expedition Against the Revolted
Negroes of Surinam. The resultant images look nothing like Blake:
they are renditions of Stedman's own primitive drawings. Three
of these plates show the punishments meted out to Negroes, a
flagellation of a woman, the hanging of a man and "The
Execution of the Breaking on the Rack" - in which the prisoner
is killed by having his limbs smashed and lopped, without ever
being granted the mercy of a coup de grâce.
Stedman, when in Surinam, had owned slaves,
whom he had had tattooed with his own initials. One of Blake's
illustrations (not in the Hull catalogue) shows a man bearing
the initials JGS on his chest. This placing of an ownership
mark was one way of treating slaves like cattle. In Blake's
"Visions of the Daughters of Albion", the evil Bromion
is made to say: "Thy soft American plains are mine, and
mine thy north & south: / Stampt with my signet are the
swarthy children of the sun."
This would seem to be an attack on Stedman
or on people like him. But the evidence is that Blake became
friendly with Stedman, who had retired to Devon, but who visited
the Blakes and stayed with them when in London. GE Bentley,
the editor of Blake Records, is at pains in his biography to
emphasise the uniqueness, and genuineness, of this friendship
between two very different men. Stedman had not only owned slaves
- he had married one. He had played a full role in the system.
Indeed, although the cruelties of the Dutch
in Surinam were attacked in Stedman's book, the expedition that
he had been part of was itself a piece of outstanding cruelty.
Stedman had fought specifically against the "maroons",
the runaway slaves who had taken to the jungle and formed their
own communities (which were ultimately successful and exist
to this day) in isolation from the plantations. The maroons
formed secret villages in the forest, where they made clearances
and practised agriculture until the forces such as Stedman's
caught up with them, when they would burn their villages and
There is an extract from Stedman's account
of this guerrilla war in Richard Price's fascinating book, Maroon
Societies, and it is clear from this that Stedman had a soldier's
ability to admire the courage and resourcefulness of the people
he was fighting against. What seems to get forgotten, when Stedman
is described, is the inexorability of the persecution he was
involved in. The slaves were not going to live long anyway,
if they remained where they were as slaves: they were disposable
people. Their only slender hope lay in escape, in marronage.
But slavery would allow no opting out. All the maroons had to
be returned to their rightful owners.
Stedman's campaign had taken place during the
1770s. Two decades later, he could of course have had time to
reflect. Who knows what his conversations with the Blakes were
like? One biographer (James King) thinks that Blake would have
felt a venomous hatred towards his supposed friend. But there
seems to be no evidence for this hatred. Quite the opposite.
Bindman thinks that the poem "The Little
Black Boy" was probably meant ironically, that it was a
satire on "the expectation by abolitionists that liberated
slaves would willingly continue to serve their liberators out
of gratitude". But I think that Songs of Innocence really
was addressed to children, and that it would have been impossible
for a child to detect this kind of irony.
What does seem present in the poem is a melancholy
sense that love between the black and the white boy is not to
be expected in the immediate future. It is something that will
happen at the end of time, when the cloud that surrounds their
bodies (the appearance of whiteness and blackness) vanishes,
and the two children can be in joy around the tent of God. Only
then will the black boy be like the white boy, and only then
will the white love the black. But the black boy, born in the
wilds of African nature, has already received this promise of
love at his mother's knee. He already loves the white boy -
something that makes this vision so poignant, so singular and
so far in advance of the merits of the whites.