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William Cowper’s "The Negro’s Complaint"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

William Cowper

Introduction and Text of “The Negro’s Complaint”

William Cowper wrote this poem around 1788; it appeared in The Gentleman's Magazine, in the December 1793 issue. Cowper has created a character who is speaking in first person to elucidate and question the motives of those who captured and sold slaves.

The Negro's Complaint

Forc'd from home and all its pleasures,
Afric's coast I left forlorn;
To increase a stranger's treasures,
O'er the raging billows borne.
Men from England bought and sold me,
Paid my price in paltry gold;
But, though theirs they have enroll'd me,
Minds are never to be sold.

Still in thought as free as ever,
What are England's rights, I ask,
Me from my delights to sever,
Me to torture, me to task?
Fleecy locks, and black complexion
Cannot forfeit nature's claim;
Skins may differ, but affection
Dwells in white and black the same.

Why did all-creating Nature
Make the plant for which we toil?
Sighs must fan it, tears must water,
Sweat of ours must dress the soil.
Think, ye masters, iron-hearted,
Lolling at your jovial boards;
Think how many backs have smarted
For the sweets your cane affords.

Is there, as ye sometimes tell us,
Is there one who reigns on high?
Has he bid you buy and sell us,
Speaking from his throne the sky?
Ask him, if your knotted scourges,
Matches, blood-extorting screws,
Are the means which duty urges
Agents of his will to use?

Hark! he answers—Wild tornadoes,
Strewing yonder sea with wrecks;
Wasting towns, plantations, meadows,
Are the voice with which he speaks.
He, foreseeing what vexations
Afric's sons should undergo,
Fix'd their tyrants' habitations
Where his whirlwinds answer—No.

By our blood in Afric wasted,
Ere our necks received the chain;
By the mis'ries that we tasted,
Crossing in your barks the main;
By our suff'rings since ye brought us
To the man-degrading mart;
All sustain'd by patience, taught us
Only by a broken heart:

Deem our nation brutes no longer
Till some reason ye shall find
Worthier of regard and stronger
Than the colour of our kind.
Slaves of gold, whose sordid dealings
Tarnish all your boasted pow'rs,
Prove that you have human feelings,
Ere you proudly question ours!

The first stanza in song

Commentary

This poem is narrated in first person from the point of view of an African slave questioning the motives of his captors.

First Stanza: What Happened to Him

Forc'd from home and all its pleasures,
Afric's coast I left forlorn;
To increase a stranger's treasures,
O'er the raging billows borne.
Men from England bought and sold me,
Paid my price in paltry gold;
But, though theirs they have enroll'd me,
Minds are never to be sold.

The speaker begins his complaint by stating what has happened to him. He was bought by Englishmen, taken from his home in Africa, and forced to endure a grueling voyage across the "raging billows."

Those buyers purchased the slave with "paltry gold," but though they own him, they now must train the heretofore free man to be a slave. But the "slave" avers that "[m]inds are never to be sold." The mind is far superior to money, as freedom is superior to slavery.

Second Stanza: The Strength of the Mind

Still in thought as free as ever,
What are England's rights, I ask,
Me from my delights to sever,
Me to torture, me to task?
Fleecy locks, and black complexion
Cannot forfeit nature's claim;
Skins may differ, but affection
Dwells in white and black the same.

Why did all-creating Nature
Make the plant for which we toil?
Sighs must fan it, tears must water,
Sweat of ours must dress the soil.
Think, ye masters, iron-hearted,
Lolling at your jovial boards;
Think how many backs have smarted
For the sweets your cane affords.

The speaker again testifies to the strength of the mind when he says, "Still in thought as free as ever." He adds that England has no legitimate controls over him. His dark skin and hair do not give those of differing complexion the right to take him from his home, "torture" him, and compel him to labor. The inner life of each human possess the same "affection," which "Dwells in white and black the same."

Third Stanza: Complaint on the Physical Level

Why did all-creating Nature
Make the plant for which we toil?
Sighs must fan it, tears must water,
Sweat of ours must dress the soil.
Think, ye masters, iron-hearted,
Lolling at your jovial boards;
Think how many backs have smarted
For the sweets your cane affords.

Now addressing the issue of the cotton plant for which the slave toils for his captors, the speaker asks, "Why did all-creating Nature / Make the plant for which we toil?" He metaphorizes "God the Creator" as "all-creating Nature" in order to distinguish his complaint from the internal spiritual search. His complaint is solely focused on the physical and mental plane.

The "nature" of the plant requires much labor to thrive. The speaker colorfully describes that labor as "sighs must fan it, tears must water, / Sweat of ours must dress the soil." He thus personifies nature's wind and rain by likening their part in sustaining the cotton plant to his own labor in that same endeavor.

Fourth Stanza: A Higher Power

Is there, as ye sometimes tell us,
Is there one who reigns on high?
Has he bid you buy and sell us,
Speaking from his throne the sky?
Ask him, if your knotted scourges,
Matches, blood-extorting screws,
Are the means which duty urges
Agents of his will to use?

Delving into the religious realm, the speaker wonders, if there is a Higher Power, that is, "one who reigns on high," does he condone the brutal methods of those who toil to keep slaves in line? He commands his listeners to "ask him"—that Creator—if he means for them to use "knotted scourges / Matches, blood-extorting screws."

Fifth Stanza: The Answer is No

Hark! he answers—Wild tornadoes,
Strewing yonder sea with wrecks;
Wasting towns, plantations, meadows,
Are the voice with which he speaks.
He, foreseeing what vexations
Afric's sons should undergo,
Fix'd their tyrants' habitations
Where his whirlwinds answer—No.

The speaker thinks he knows the answer to his question, and the answer is no. The Creator "on high" shows the wrong done by the captor's cruelty, which has heralded catastrophes such as tornadoes that demonstrate that answer.

Sixth Stanza: Against the Holy and Moral

By our blood in Afric wasted,
Ere our necks received the chain;
By the mis'ries that we tasted,
Crossing in your barks the main;
By our suff'rings since ye brought us
To the man-degrading mart;
All sustain'd by patience, taught us
Only by a broken heart:

Again the speaker offers evidence that the miseries produced through enslavement go against all that is holy and moral. The misery of any man diminishes the stature of all men.

Seventh Stanza: Change Their Thoughts

Deem our nation brutes no longer
Till some reason ye shall find
Worthier of regard and stronger
Than the colour of our kind.
Slaves of gold, whose sordid dealings
Tarnish all your boasted pow'rs,
Prove that you have human feelings,
Ere you proudly question ours!

The speaker again commands his captors to change their thoughts from being "slave of gold" — mere money grubbers, to reasonable people. They should judge Africans not by the pigmentation of their skin but by their behavior. He commands his captors to "Prove that you have human feelings, / Ere you proudly question ours!"

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so eloquently put it: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream"

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes