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Lot Number: 215
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1788 “The Negro’s Complaint” Manuscript Poem Originally William Cowper Written and Composed by Contemporary

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c. 1788, Manuscript Poem, “The Negro’s Complaint” with another on the reverse, titled “Yonder sets my Love” by William Cowper Known for his Anti-Slavery Poems, Fine.

Cowper wrote a number of Anti-slavery poems, and his friendship with Newton, who was an avid Anti-slavery campaigner, resulted in Cowper's being asked to write in support of the Abolitionist campaign. Cowper wrote this poem called, "The Negro's Complaint" (1788) which rapidly became very famous, and was often quoted by Martin Luther King Jr. during the 20th-century Civil Rights movement. This Anti-slavery poem by William Cowper titled, “The Negro's Complaint” talks about Slavery from the perspective of the Slave. It was intended to be sung to the tune of a popular ballad, “Admiral Hosier's Ghost.” Here, "The Negroes Complaint" is presented handwritten in brown ink on an 8” x 13” sheet of handmade watermarked “GREEN VILLE / Co R J” laid period paper. This poem was first published in 1788 by William Cowper, and this period copy was probably done by a contemporary sometime in the late 18th century. It is complete but for two lines, and its final three verses. On the reverse side of this laid paper is written yet another poem, titled: “Yonder sets my Love”. William Cowper wrote six notable Anti-Slavery Poems including: “From Charity” (1782) - “From The Task” (1784) - “The Negro's Complaint” (1788) - “Pity for Poor Africans” (1788) - “The Morning Dream” (1788) - “Sweet Meat has Sour Sauce: or, the Slave Trader in the Dumps” (1788).

William Cowper's "The Negro's Complaint" is about a person who is bought in Africa and taken to America to work as a slave. The speaker is bought as a slave and is working to "increase a stranger's treasures." The speaker says, "But, though theirs they have enroll'd me, / / Minds are never to be sold." Although the speaker is bought as a slave, their thoughts are still their own. The speaker questions what right England has to steal people from their homes and sell them as slaves. The speaker remarks that even though the slaves look different on the outside, they are very much the same on the inside.

The speaker turns their attention to the sugarcane plant that the slaves are forced to toil over. The speaker asks nature why it created such a plant that requires so much effort to raise it. This transitions to the speaker talking directly to the slave owners. The speaker asks the slave owners to reflect on all of the people they have hurt in their sugarcane production.

The conversation turns religious when the speaker asks the slave owners about God. The speaker bids the slave owners to ask God if how they are treating the slaves is right. The speaker states that God does not support slavery. God "speaks" with wild tornadoes that destroy the plantation owners' towns and ships. The speaker laments about all of the horrors that the slaves have gone through and calls for slave owners to end slavery.
William Cowper was an English poet and Anglican hymnwriter. One of the most popular poets of his time, Cowper changed the direction of 18th-century nature poetry by writing of everyday life and scenes of the English countryside. In many ways, he was one of the forerunners of Romantic poetry.

William Cowper's poem "The Negro's Complaint" is a call for white slave owners to look closely at their actions. The poet pulls on moral and religious questions through the character of an African slave to argue against slavery

Cowper wrote "The Negro's Complaint" in the first person to speak with the voice of an enslaved African and to make the argument more convincing. William Cowper hoped to give the slaves a voice and to humanize them in the eyes of their captors. Cowper wrote "The Negro's Complaint" to appeal to slave owners' humanity and sense of religious and moral values. An analysis of the first two stanzas follows:

Stanza 1

The speaker is an African slave and the poem begins describing how Africans were taken from their home in Africa. The speaker knows that the slaves are being taken away to ultimately make slave owners wealthy. The speaker's journey is "o'er the raging billows borne" alluding to the dangers that slaves faced on the high seas in the cramped slave ships. The speaker is bought in "paltry gold." Paltry means meager or trivial. The stanza ends with the speaker cautioning the slave owners that "... though theirs they have enroll'd me, / Minds are never to be sold." The speaker is still free to think.

The speaker starts the poem off forcefully, not mincing words to get to the evils of slavery. The first lines of the poem use words that have strong connotations such as "forced" and "forlorn." These are more powerful and imbue stronger emotions than their counterparts "made to" and "sad." The speaker reminds the reader that no one can control their thoughts. This initial stanza illustrates that slaves are more than just property, they are living, feeling, and thinking humans.

Stanza 2

The speaker starts the second stanza by highlighting freedom of thought and using it to ask a question. The speaker complains by asking what gave England the right to steal people from their homes and force them to work. The speaker highlights that the difference in the color of their skin is not a valid reason for enslavement. The speaker says, "but affection / Dwells in white and black the same." This is meant to pull on the heartstrings by calling attention to the fact that all humans love. This reminder is a subtle call to the slave owners to look out for their fellow men.


William Cowper POEM: “The Negro's Complaint” (1788)

Sung To the tune of 'Hosier's Ghost' or 'As near Porto Bello lying'.

FORCED 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 slave they have enrolled 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.

End of Manuscript Poem
Lot Number: 215
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Estimate Range: $1,800 - $2,400
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