Thomas Clarkson Recommends

Clarkson was the propagandist/PR side of the abolition campaign, touring Britain showing the shackles used on slaves to the public whilst William Wilberforce slugged it out in parliament. Clarkson claimed the musical play ‘The Padlock’ was the most important abolitionist campaign. It featured the slave ‘Mungo’ played by a white actor, so was probably the first example of blackface. This character is shown as comically stupid, so is deemed as a negative presentation of his race. But it was written at the time of the French Revolution; rebellion was in the air, so part of the propaganda message was that slaves were not to be feared. I include this as a rare instance of an original document. As such you are free to judge it as you please.

The following is The Preface, as printed in ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine’ in 1787

The Gentleman’s Magazine was the biggest selling publication of the late eighteenth century. It was read (or at least bought) by anyone with any pretensions to gentility. It contained news, reviews, features, and original writing and, as one would expect, the debate over the slave trade featured prominently in its pages. Despite the fact that the magazine was in general opposed to abolition of the slave trade, its editors, always hiding behind the pseudonym “Sylvanus Urban”, nonetheless allowed a number of poems, mostly favouring abolition, to be featured in its poetry section or to be reviewed in the reviews section. This poem is a supposed additional speech spoken by the character of Mungo in Isaac Bickerstaffe’s The Padlock: a comic opera: as it is perform’d by His Majesty’s Servants, at the Theatre-Royal in Drury-Lane (London: 1768). Mungo was played by Samuel Dibdin, who performed in blackface. Mungo was a comic figure, a stereotypical black slave, who could be counted on to raise laughs in the eighteenth-century London theatre. Indeed, so popular was the play that the name “Mungo” soon came to be applied in a derogatory way to all black people, as can be seen in many popular prints and newspaper articles of the time. This anonymous poem aims to subvert the comedy and re-establish Mungo as a serious character: as a man. The text given here comes from The Gentleman’s Magazine for October 1787 and includes the prefatory note.

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October 1787
Mr. Urban, Sept.24.
The following Epilogue to “The Padlock” was written by a very worthy Clergyman, soon after the first representation of that opera. The author of this little poem died in the Summer of 1786, and, having never been published, a copy of it is presented to your Magazine, by one who agrees in sentiment with the author, and who thinks it will be readily received by you, as being worthy of a place in your valuable repository. J.D.

EPILOGUE TO THE PADLOCK.
MUNGO speaks:

“TANK you, my massas! have you laugh your fill”——
Then let me speak, nor take that freedom ill.
E’en from my tongue some heartfelt truths may fall
And outrag’d nature claims the care of all.
My tale, in any place, would force a tear,
But calls for stronger, deeper feelings here.
For whilst I tread the free-born British land;
Whilst now before me crouded Britons stand;
Vain, vain that glorious privilege to me,
I am a slave, where all things else are free.
Yet was I born, as you are, no man’s slave,
An heir to all that liberal Nature gave;
My thoughts can reason, and my limbs can move,
The same as yours; like yours my heart can love:
Alike my body food and sleep sustains;
Alike our wants, our pleasures, and our pains.
One sun rolls o’er us, common skies around;
One globe supports us, and one grave must bound.
Why then am I devoid of all to live,
That manly comforts to a man can give?
To live untaught Religion’s sooting balm,
Or life’s choice arts; to live, unknown the calm
Of soft domestic ease; those sweets of life,
The duteous offspring, and th’obedient wife.
To live, to property and rights unknown,
Not ev’n the common benefits my own.
No arm to guard me from opression’s rod,
My will subservient to a tyrant’s nod.
No gentle hand, when life is in decay,
To smooth my pains and charm my cares away;
But helpless left to quit the horrid stage;
Harrass’d in youth and desolate in age.
But I was born in Afric’s tawny strand,
And you in fair Britannia’s fairer land.
Comes freedom then from colour? Blush with shame,
And let strong Nature’s crimson mark your blame.
I speak to Britons—Britons, then, behold
A man by Britons snar’d and seiz’d, and sold.
And yet no British statute damns the deed,
Nor do the more than murderous villains bleed.
O sons of freedom! equalise your laws,
Be all consistent—plead the Negro’s cause;
That all the nations in your code may see
The British Negro, like the Briton, free.
But, should he supplicate your laws in vain,
To break for ever this disgraceful chain,
At least, let gentle usage so abate
The galling terrors of its passing state,
That he may share the great Creator’s social plan;
For though no Briton, Mungo is a man!

2 thoughts on “Thomas Clarkson Recommends

  1. I attended a presentation for woman’s history month the other day. Although I have read the speech by Sojourner Truth (Ain’t I a Woman?) often and to my children, I was reminded at this event how incredibly moving it is. She had 13 children! All lost to slavery.
    I can not remember where, but I recall hearing that the stereotype of the slow and stupid “step n fetch it” slave was in fact an act of purposeful subversion by slaves to thwart their “owners.”

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    • I think in many cases it was a deliberate strategy, to cover what they were really up to. But there’s an amazing book – where the dead voices gather – or something like that – i don’t have access to my books – about how it was also about northerners controlling the media and stereotyping the south. when racial equality came in, stupid blacks were replaced by stupid whites, aka beverly hillbillies etc.

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