Early Abolitionist writings

Thomas Day (1748-89) was sensitive to moral issues and combating the institution of slavery was key from early in his literary career.

The Dying Negro

Thomas Day had been studying law at Middle Temple in London since 1773. Here, he was in close contact with his old school friend John Bicknell. Together, the pair formed a satirical and poetic literary duo, featuring in many of London’s publications under the pseudonym ‘Knife and Fork’. In Day’s first year at Middle Temple, he and Bicknell published ‘The Dying Negro’ in response to a newspaper article. The work imagined a man’s final thoughts for his wife before he died, and his pleas to be remembered.

But the story was true – they had read it in a London newspaper in May 1773. An African slave had escaped from his master, Captain Ordington’s house in the hope that he could secure marriage to one of the household’s servants and secure his freedom. His wish was not granted. Before the ceremony could be performed he was captured and placed on board Ordington’s ship in the Thames. Here, he shot himself in the head, rather than return to the slave plantations.

The story is an alarming one. It is made no less alarming when considered next to the case of James Somersett, who was held captive on board a Jamaica-bound ship docked in the Thames, only two years before (1771) despite refusing to return to a life of slavery. Somersett was set free in a court case before the Lord Chief Justice, who declared that no man, not even a slave, can be forced off Britain’s shores against his will. The Chief Justice clearly said this in the hope that no slave-owner would ever try it again, but the reality was sadly different.

This is the title page from The Dying Negro, a highly successful poem by the writing partners John Bicknell and Thomas Day. Tackling the difficult topic of a man’s suicide in 1773, the poem raised awareness about the true story of an individual in London and the wider moral issue of slavery as a whole. The caption under the image reads ‘To you this unpolluted blood I pour. / To you that Spirit which ye gave restore.’ Source: Google Books.

The success of the poem – the first direct literary attack on West Indies slavery ever published – spurred a second edition the following year which contained an essay opposing slavery. Ironically, the essay was dedicated to Day’s philosopher of choice, Rousseau, who later was fiercely offended by the dedication because he defiantly supported the American cause.

It was an extremely progressive essay, making a case that would be reiterated until the end of American slavery in 1865: ‘these are the men whose clamours for liberty and independence are heard across the Atlantic Ocean’ and yet those same people forced black people to work on plantations.

The American Revolution (1775-83)

Unlike Granville Sharp, one of the founders of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Thomas Day’s abolitionism related to the American world. Day was caught in a muddled position but refused to compromise: though he was a supporter of the American Revolution, he could not support the revolutionaries fully because many of them kept slaves.

Middle Temple, Day’s home in the 1770s, was a hotbed of American Revolutionary sentiment. Many Americans whose fortunes had been made in the slave trade were attracted to Middle Temple’s expensive legal training. John Dickinson, whose rallying cry ‘No taxation without representation’ became emblematic, was a Middle Templar. Thomas Day echoed Dickinson’s sentiments for Parliamentary Reform, during which he called for greater representation in British politics, but he acknowledged the hypocrisy of  Americans whose quest for liberty did not extend to their slaves.

Day’s own passion for American Revolutionary ideals meant that he did not publish his ‘Fragment of an original letter on the slavery of negroes’, a serious treatise undermining slavery, until 1784. This was long after the American War of Independence was over and around a decade after he had finished the article.

The title page of Thomas Day’s ‘Fragment of an original letter on the slavery of the negroes’, which was originally written in 1776. The essay was eventually published in 1784, once war was over. Source: Open Library.

After Erasmus Darwin introduced Day to Benjamin Franklin in Lichfield in 1771,  he invited Day to join his ‘Club of Thirteen’, a thirteen-man dining club. Franklin was one of the United States’ founding fathers and admired Day’s scepticism about organised religion. Franklin hoped to found a multi-denominational church, a monument to religious tolerance, and in 1776 the club built a chapel near Cavendish Square.

Day refused to fully support American independence because the most vocal Revolutionaries like Washington and Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves between them. This contributed to fractures within the Club of Thirteen. Britain has raised its taxes on exports to America and when revolutionaries threw £9,000 worth of finest tea into the sea in Boston in protest (in 1773), Benjamin Franklin was made to defend America in the Privy Council in 1774, putting him and Day at odds.

Thomas Day could easily have pursued a political career, but in reality his work had little political impact, at least in his lifetime. In fact, Day turned down such opportunities in order to try to bring joy to those close to him. This was his concern when he moved to the quiet rural space of Anningsley in Chertsey where he spent the last years of his life dedicated to the welfare of land-labourers and the perfection of children’s literature.

Sean Canty

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