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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

An Early Protest against the Slave-Trade

By Anthony Benezet (1713–1784)

[Born in St. Quentin’s, France, 1713. A Philadelphia Quaker. Died, 1784. A Caution and Warning to Great Britain and her Colonies. 1766.]

AT a time when the general rights and liberties of mankind, and the preservation of those valuable privileges transmitted to us from our ancestors, are become so much the subjects of universal consideration, can it be an inquiry indifferent to any, how many of those who distinguish themselves as the advocates of liberty, remain insensible and inattentive to the treatment of thousands and tens of thousands of our fellow men who from motives of avarice, and the inexorable decree of tyrant custom, are at this very time kept in the most deplorable state of slavery, in many parts of the British Dominions?

The intent of publishing the following sheets is more fully to make known the aggravated iniquity attending the practice of the Slave-Trade; whereby many thousands of our fellow-creatures, as free as ourselves by nature, and equally with us the subjects of Christ’s redeeming Grace, are yearly brought into inextricable and barbarous bondage; and many, very many, to miserable and untimely ends.

The truth of this lamentable complaint is so obvious to persons of candor, under whose notice it hath fallen, that several have lately published their sentiments thereon, as a matter which calls for the most serious consideration of all who are concerned for the civil or religious welfare of their country. How an evil of so deep a dye hath so long, not only passed uninterrupted by those in power, but hath even had their countenance, is indeed surprising, and, charity would suppose, must in a great measure have arisen from this,—that many persons in government, both of the clergy and laity, in whose power it hath been to put a stop to the Trade, have been unacquainted with the corrupt motives which give life to it, and the groans, the dying groans, which daily ascend to God, the common Father of mankind, from the broken hearts of those his deeply oppressed creatures. Otherwise the powers of the earth would not,—I think I may venture to say, could not,—have so long authorized a practice so inconsistent with every idea of liberty and justice, which, as the learned James Foster says, “bids that God which is the God and Father of the Gentiles unconverted to Christianity, most daring and bold defiance; and spurns at all the principles both of natural and revealed Religion.”…

Some who have only seen negroes in an abject state of slavery, broken-spirited and dejected, knowing nothing of their situation in their native country, may apprehend that they are naturally insensible of the benefits of liberty, being destitute and miserable in every respect, and that our suffering them to live amongst us (as the Gibeonites of old were permitted to live with the Israelites), though even on more oppressive terms, is to them a favor; but these are certainly erroneous opinions, with respect to far the greatest part of them: although it is highly probable that in a country which is more than three thousand miles in extent from north to south, and as much from east to west, there will be barren parts, and many inhabitants more uncivilized and barbarous than others; as is the case in all other countries. Yet from the most authentic accounts, the inhabitants of Guinea appear, generally speaking, to be an industrious, humane, sociable people, whose capacities are naturally as enlarged, and as open to improvement, as those of the Europeans; and that their country is fruitful, and in many places well improved, abounding in cattle, grain and fruits. And, as the earth yields all the year round a fresh supply of food, and but little clothing is requisite, by reason of the continual warmth of the climate, the necessaries of life are much easier procured in most parts of Africa, than in our more northern climes. This is confirmed by many authors of note, who have resided there….

Those, who are acquainted with the Trade, agree that many negroes on the sea-coast, who have been corrupted by their intercourse and converse with the European factors, have learnt to stick at no act of cruelty for gain. These make it a practice to steal abundance of little blacks of both sexes, when found on the roads or in the fields, where their parents keep them all day to watch the corn, etc. Some authors say the negro factors go six or seven hundred miles up the country, with goods bought from the Europeans, where markets of men are kept in the same manner as those of beasts with us…. They are put on board the vessels, the men being shackled with irons two and two together. Reader, bring the matter home, and consider whether any situation in life can be more completely miserable than that of those distressed captives. When we reflect that each individual of this number had some tender attachment which was broken by this cruel separation; some parent or wife, who had not an opportunity of mingling tears in a parting embrace; perhaps some infant or aged parent whom his labor was to feed, and vigilance protect; themselves under the dreadful apprehension of an unknown perpetual slavery; pent up within the narrow confines of a vessel, sometimes six or seven hundred together, where they lie as close as possible. Under these complicated distresses they are often reduced to a state of desperation, wherein many have leaped into the sea, and have kept themselves under water till they were drowned; others have starved themselves to death, for the prevention whereof some masters of vessels have cut off the legs and arms of a number of those poor desperate creatures, to terrify the rest. Great numbers have also frequently been killed, and some deliberately put to death under the greatest torture, when they have attempted to rise, in order to free themselves from their present misery and the slavery designed them. An instance of the last kind appears particularly in an account given by the master of a vessel, who brought a cargo of slaves to Barbadoes; indeed it appears so irreconcilable to the common dictates of humanity, that one would doubt the truth of it, had it not been related by a serious person of undoubted credit, who had it from the captain’s own mouth….

Britons boast themselves to be a generous, humane people, who have a true sense of the importance of liberty; but is this a true character, whilst that barbarous, savage Slave-Trade, with all its attendant horrors, receives countenance and protection from the legislature, whereby so many thousand lives are yearly sacrificed? Do we indeed believe the truth declared in the Gospel? Are we persuaded that the threatenings, as well as the promises therein contained, will have their accomplishment? If indeed we do, must we not tremble to think what a load of guilt lies upon our nation generally and individually, so far as we in any degree abet or countenance this aggravated iniquity?