William Cowper (1731–1800) revolutionised the act of allyship in the 18th century through his poems. Seen as his supreme achievement, The Task: A Poem, in Six Books became one of the first imminent written attacks on slavery and support of the Abolitionist campaign by a White author. Published in 1785, Cowper uses this poem as call for freedom and liberty for slaves while effectively undermining the very system of oppression that has long existed in the United Kingdom and United States. He affirms that slavers have no real need for slaves, appealing to both the rational and emotional in his readers to paint a heart-wrenching image.
The Task was an outrageous and bold publication of its time. As a White man, his outspoken support for the Blacks and criticism of the slave trade at its height was a scandalous move in English society. His poems would go on to be quoted by Martin Luther King Jr. during the 20th century civil rights movement. It’s a must read for everyone interested in the history of slavery and Abolitionist movement all over the world.
Slavery. From “The Timepiece”: The Task, BK. II. William Cowper 1785 O for a lodge in some vast wilderness, Some boundless contiguity of shade, Where rumor of oppression and deceit, Of unsuccessful or successful war, Might never reach me more! My ear is pained, My soul is sick, with every day's report Of wrong and outrage with which earth is filled. There is no flush in man's obdurate heart; It does not feel for man; the natural bond Of brotherhood is served as the flax, That falls asunder at the touch of fire. He finds his fellow guilty of a skin Not colored like his own, and, having power To enforce the wrong, for such a worthy cause Dooms and devotes him as his lawful prey. Lands intersected by a narrow frith Abhor each other. Mountains interposed Make enemies of nations, who had else Like kindred drops been mingled into one. Thus man devotes his brother, and destroys; And, worse than all, and most to be deplored As human nature's broadest, foulest blot, Chains him, and tasks him, and exacts his sweat With stripes, that Mercy, with a bleeding heart, Weeps, when she sees inflicted on a beast. Then what is man? And what man, seeing this, And having human feelings, does not blush, And hang his head, to think himself a man? I would not have a slave to till my ground, To carry me, to fan me while I sleep, And tremble when I wake, for all the wealth That sinews bought and sold have ever earned. No; dear as freedom is, and in my heart's Just estimation prized above all price, I had much rather be myself the slave, And wear the bonds, than fasten them on him. We have no slaves at home.—Then why abroad?” And they themselves, once ferried o'er the wave That parts us, are emancipate and loosed. Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs Receive our air, that moment they are free; They touch our country, and their shackles fall. That's noble, and bespeaks a nation proud And jealous of the blessing. Spread it then, And let it circulate through every vein Of all your empire; that, where Britain's power Is felt, mankind may feel her mercy too.