British Abolition Movements and Romanticism

By: Liz Hay ’22

Economics and Humanities majors, Public Health minor

Brief Description: This paper focuses on the connections between British Romanticism and abolition, particularly regarding how each movement influenced the characteristics and trajectory of the other. The paper analyzes specific Romantic representations of slavery and their relevance to the abolition movement. The argument concludes by discussing the role of Romanticism in imbuing British abolition with nationalist rhetoric, which was an effective persuasive tool but ultimately entangled abolition with ideologies which would catalase the next period of British imperialism.

The following was written for HIS 494: Europe in the Age of Revolution

Photo by Armando Lazo on

Romanticism developed in Europe during the late 18th century and was a defining artistic movement of the early 19th century. Simultaneously, some Europeans began to see the Atlantic slave trade as abhorrent and abolition groups began to develop with the goal of outlawing the trade and ownership of slaves. The Atlantic slave trade had direct impacts on the economy and culture of Britain, and the British Romantics addressed the political and ethical discourse surrounding slavery through a variety of artistic and literary means. Aesthetic movements are not often given the same attention as economic or political trends, but they are deeply related to contemporary conditions and therefore offer another means of historical analysis. Romantic artists and writers dealt with the issue of slavery in Britain in the first half of the 19th century to varying degrees. Those who did drew on the aesthetic hallmarks of Romanticism, such as the sublime, and played an important role in supporting abolitionist politics. While these qualities demonstrate that Romanticism as an essential component of the iconography and discourse of the British abolition movement, Romantic art and literature also contributed to the entanglement of abolitionist politics with nationalist and imperialist rhetoric.

The Atlantic slave trade developed centuries prior to the era of Romanticism and played a major role in the trajectory of European history in the intervening centuries. Slavery in various forms had existed throughout the world for centuries, but the transatlantic slave trade overshadowed previous systems of slavery in both scale and brutality.[1]  In the 15th century, the Portuguese initiated the first sale of African slaves to Europeans and dominated the early years of the trade, initially through trade agreements with African leaders, but increasingly through the violent capture of Africans. A few hundred years after its start, the transatlantic slave trade reached a massive scale: “From the sixteenth to the late nineteenth centuries, over twelve million (some estimates run as high as fifteen million) African men, women, and children were enslaved” and used as laborers.[2]  It is estimated that 10 to 19 percent of these Africans perished on the journey across the Atlantic. Those who survived faced dehumanizing and cruel conditions in the Americas.[3]

By the late 18th century, Britain was the leading force both driving and calling for an end to the slave trade. At that point, “the transatlantic slave trade reached its peak, with the British leading the way, and, ironically, it was at this exact moment that the British also began to dominate abolition efforts.”[4] The transatlantic slave trade supplied slave labor to British colonies in the Caribbean, where lucrative goods such as tobacco and sugar were grown and shipped back to Britain.[5] The causes of abolition in Britain in this time of colonial flourishing are still widely debated among historians, with explanations ranging from pure economics to true benevolence.[6] Whatever the cause, the abolition movement was eventually successful in ending both the trade and ownership of slaves in the first half of the 19th century.

While Britain was occupying a contradictory role as both perpetuator and protestor of the transatlantic slave trade, Romanticism was gaining traction as the dominant aesthetic movement of the nation. Romanticism “was a broad cultural movement, which rejected the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason and classical forms derived from ancient Greece and Rome, while embracing its idealization of individual self-determination.”[7] Romanticism was characterized by contradiction and connected to ideas of freedom, nature, individualism, spirituality, nationalism, and expressions of the ineffable. The Romantics placed heavy emphasis on the sanctity of personal liberty and many of their works depicted expressions of individualism against the backdrop of societal oppression. A movement so concerned with freedom was naturally at odds with slavery, but the Romantics were inclined to focus more on motifs and symbols of freedom rather than concrete stories of individuals exerting their liberty.

Due to the clear temporal correlation, philosophical connection, and concentration of prominent Romantics based in Britain and steeped in British politics, “it seems obvious that British Romanticism should be interpreted in the context of the debate on slavery.”[8] Conventional scholarship, however, has tended to characterize the factors which shaped Romanticism as largely political, particularly in the case of the French Revolution. More recent historians have sought to highlight the impacts of violence and globalization on the subjects and methods of the Romantics, which then functioned as “a significant cultural force” of contemporary British politics.[9]

The Romantics dealt with the realities, ethics, and horrors of slavery in a variety of ways in the early 19th century. Their representations can be broadly divided into direct and indirect representations of slavery and abolition politics. In general, the Romantics conceived of themselves as not just artists and writers, but as political actors with a global outlook and a stake in shaping history. For the Romantics, “writing was activism.”[10] Romanticism was associated with the development of print culture, meaning the British public enjoyed relatively widespread access to printed media such as pamphlets, newspapers, and, in the case of Romantic works, poetry and books. The movement was also highly intertwined with contemporary discourse on a variety of issues since “antislavery can be identified as one of the key movements of the Romantic era.”[11] The British public benefited from the goods produced by slave labor, but their main exposure to the experiences of the slaves as people was through printed and visual works of Romantics.[12]  Some Black writers published widely read slave narratives in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, including the notable autobiographies of Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince, but these narratives were not as well circulated as the works of white authors in that period. Therefore, depictions of slaves’ experiences that reached the British public were filtered through the perspective of white Romantic writers.[13]

The direct engagement of Romantics with slavery was influenced by the pervasive Romantic obsession with the sublime. As described by Edmund Burke in his influential 1757 treatise on the subject:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.[14]

The idea of the sublime’s function as a form of beauty was a new and powerful challenge to previous artistic and literary philosophies. Romanticism expanded artists’ subject material to include depictions not just of important figures, historical events, and military scenes, but also of moments of contemporary tragedy and depictions of slavery.[15]

Many of the writers and artists who explicitly addressed slavery did so in an emotional, graphic fashion in line with other expressions of the sublime. This had the effect of invoking empathy for slaves by bringing their suffering to the forefront of British people’s minds: “Graphic descriptions of slave atrocities were regarded as a powerful cultural tool for critiquing European ‘civilized’ values…The reader had to be made to feel the injustice of the crime and to be inspired to take action.”[16] Sentimentalism was characterized by theatric language and imagery, such as extensive descriptions of tears, intensely patriotic allegories, and generally dramatic style.[17] The emotional characteristics of the Romantics were not confined to art and literature; sentimentalism bled into the political rhetoric surrounding abolition at the time and was a popular persuasive tool of the time.

Romanticism was in many ways defined by contradiction, and the Romantics’ depictions of slavery simultaneously drew on personal connection while also dehumanizing its subjects through impersonal exploitation of generalized suffering. Descriptions of slaves’ suffering were highly personal in the sense that each audience member was intended to have a strong personal reaction of sympathy, but also impersonal in due to the general absence of representation of the African slaves as individuals themselves in these portrayals.[18]  20th century analyses of abolitionist language have pointed to the literary construction of “pseudo-Africans” from “pseudo-Africa” which replaced real people and specific places and were “aesthetically hollow” because they allowed writers to tap into the aesthetics of horror and the sublime without recognizing Africans’ individuality and equal humanity.[19] The first-hand, individual narratives of slavery did not become more widespread until later in the 19th century, making Romantic aesthetics the dominant narratives of slavery and abolition in Britain.

Some Romantics expressed the sublime in conjunction with direct calls for abolition, but others merely drew on the aesthetics of suffering without directly guiding the audience’s emotional response toward a moral obligation to support abolition. The poet and artist William Blake was among the most innovative and radical of the British Romantics, but his work was not successful during his lifetime and only came to be appreciated in more recent years.[20] His art and writing focused in general on the struggle between freedom and tyranny and often highlighted the enslavement of Africans as an affront to humanity in his poetry.[21] Blake also created engravings for John Stedman’s book Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, a work which sought to convey a sensationalized and empathy-inducing account of slave life to the British public.[22]

Figure I: J.M.W. Turner, The Slave Ship, oil on canvas, 1840, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Blake was not the only Romantic to directly incorporate slavery into his work; Maria Edgeworth, William Earle, J.M.W. Turner, and others also explicitly addressed slavery in their writing and art. Turner’s painting Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhon coming on, more commonly referred to as The Slave Ship, was created in 1840 as a reflection on the British legacy of slavery and call to action against international slavery. The scene depicts a slave ship in the distance with its jettisoned human cargo drowning in the foreground among chains, fish, and sea monsters. The ship sails into a horizon as red as the slaves’ blood in the water while a storm approaches to cast the slavers into the sea as punishment for their actions. When this painting was created, British political efforts had turned toward international goals.[23]   Turner’s Slave Ship, which was deemed notable enough to go on display at the Royal Academy itself, reminded his audience of the divine consequences faced by those who support slavery through his visceral depiction of the fate of those on the slave ship. Turner’s painting inspired horror at Britain’s colonial past and kept the public’s emotions engaged in political action against slavery even as the main period of both Romanticism and British abolition movements waned.

The themes represented visually in Turner’s painting are evident in many written works, as well. Prominent poet Thomas Cowper includes dramatic scenes of divine retribution against Britain for their participation in the slave trade in his widely circulated poem “The Negro’s Complaint”:

Hark! He answers!—Wild tornadoes

                        Strewing yonder sea with wrecks,

Wasting towns, plantations, meadows,

                        Are the voice with which he speaks.

He, foreseeing what vexations

                         Afric’s sons should undergo,

Fixed their tyrants’ habitations

                         Where his whirlwinds answer—”No.”[24]

This poem was immensely popular and was intended to be sung along to the tune of a well-known ballad, which made it spread rapidly throughout the common population.[25] Abolitionist Clarkson “credited Cowper’s poem with spreading the abolitionist gospel as effectively as prose tracts,” referring to official political pamphlets in his comparison.[26]  These scenes of slavery and suffering functioned as a literary and artistic awareness campaign for the abuses of slavery and utilized the fear of divine consequences to help the abolitionist movement to garner support in the public.

Other Romantics drew on slavery as thematic inspiration. “Writers like [Romantic poet Samuel Taylor] Coleridge took great care to subtly, not brazenly, embroider their poetry with topics that had been treated with ideological righteousness or soggy sentimentalism in most of the literature of the day.”[27]   By imbuing his famous poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and other works with overtones of national guilt and moral stain, Coleridge encouraged his readers to consider what they ought to feel guilty for: upholding the slave trade. Prominent Romantic novelists were also influenced by the political discourse around slavery in the era. There have been many interpretations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but postcolonial historians have specifically highlighted the master/slave dynamic constructed between Frankenstein and his monster.[28] There is evidence that Shelley participated in abolition politics directly through actions such as boycotting sugar, and her work reflected her political ideologies through its themes and tropes.[29] Both Shelley and Coleridge commented on slavery in their works.

Other Romantics drew on the value of individualism to express anti-slavery sentiments, but also contributed to the erasure of the African individual in favor of sublime depictions of sensationalized suffering. The Romantics’ love of individuality and genius was not an egalitarian phenomenon. This prioritization of identities is directly tied to yet another contradictory strain in abolition and related Romantic representations: alienation of the “other” under nationalism. “Clearly, many writers who were fascinated with their own vibrant identities were the same ones who were quick to watch slave identities drown in the Atlantic or waste away from a diet of dirt.”[30] Individual uniqueness was extrapolated by writers and artists to interactions among discrete political groups across the globe, and thus Romantic individualism “stimulated movements for national awakening and national self-determination everywhere in Europe.” This inception of national identity, however, entrenched the distinction between those defined as part of the British nation and its associated characteristics, and those who were not. 

Nationalism in British Romanticism was characterized by representations of allegorical figures such as Britannia, the human woman who personifies Britain in art, and depictions of the countryside, culture, and morality of Britain. While constructing the images and culture of a nation served a variety of progressive political movements, including abolition, it also created specific expressions of identity which only certain people qualified to take part in. “Romantic nationalism challenged the elite universalism of the Enlightenment, but in the process…established a shooting gallery of essentialist, introspectively self-celebrating, mutually intolerant vernaculars.”[31] Abolition was often framed in these Romantic nationalist terms as a cause that ought to be undertaken by the British because of their national character and values. In 1789, William Wilberforce introduced abolition legislation to the British House of Commons which “objected to the slave trade on the grounds of British national guilt.”[32]  He was one of many politicians who spoke of abolition in terms of national obligation, a concept which cannot exist without the ideological construction of the nation itself. The abolitionist movement encouraged the public to support abolition because they are British, not because Africans have equal moral standing. While this strategy was an effective tool to garner popular support for abolition, the connection between morality and nationalism which was cemented into British culture in part due to the Romantics has serious consequences when looking ahead to the trajectory of imperial Britain. “Most [historians] agree, in fact, that abolitionists acted, to a greater or lesser degree, in tandem with the British desire to colonize the world.”[33] The same politicians, writers, and artists who drew on nationalist pride and morality to argue for abolition also believed that “exploration” of Africa would bring enlightenment and progress to the people there.[34] Romantic nationalism constructed barriers between cultures and people which would have serious consequences later in the 19th century when paired with other ideologies.

The threads of nationalism and colonialism that accompanied British abolition movements are evident in even the most explicitly anti-slavery examples of Romantic writing. Early British Romantic poet Hannah More draws on Romantic notions of reason, nature, nation, and empathy throughout her poem “Slavery” to convey her political stance that slavery is an affront to humanity. She goes on at length about the plight of slaves to invoke empathy in her audience and ends her poem with a lyrical destruction of the personification of oppression, joyously declaring that “Oppression’s fallen, and slavery is no more!”[35] More’s poem is a prime example of explicit abolitionist language in Romantic writing, but in the same poem writes:

Though dark and savage, ignorant and blind,

They claim the common privilege of kind;

Let Malice strip them of each other plea,

They still are men, and men should still be free.[36]

More justifies the abolition of slavery based on the shared humanity of mankind, but she also implies the contemporary belief that varying levels of power, civility, and intellect were—and ought to be—ascribed to different races.

It is evident from an overview that the Romantics did, to varying extents, concern themselves with the contemporary politics of slavery. A deeper analysis of even one Romantic artist or writer would reveal a higher degree of complexity in those works than can be represented here, but it is still evident that these works were widely circulated and the influence of the Romantics on popular culture was extensive and enduring. Slavery and abolition are subjects which require multiple approaches to fully understand. Artistic movements contributed much to the course of abolition in Britain, even if most analyses tend to prioritize economic or political interpretations. It must be adequately recognized, though, that “many of their works were immensely popular and were reissued in numerous editions and under various titles throughout Great Britain and America during the seventy years or so following their publication.”[37] Artists and writers throughout the Romantic period either explicitly or implicitly engaged their audiences with abolitionist messaging, enhancing the reach of their politics through these creative works.

Until quite recently, abolitionists were often depicted as saintly and altruistic, a one-dimensional reading which followed the lead of the first book on the history of abolition written by Thomas Clarkson in the year after the slave trade was outlawed. “In the mid-20th century, however, historians, led by C. L. R. James and Eric Williams, began to question this view, arguing that slavery was abolished not for reasons of national virtue, but because it was no longer profitable.”[38] Analysis of abolitionist representations in Romantic art and writing underscore the flaws of the British abolition movement by transforming political rhetoric into media which can be popularly consumed and critically analyzed. Recent attempts to understand the rhetoric and iconography of moral distinctions and nationalism add nuance to previous historical viewpoints on both the abolition movement and the Romantics who supported it.

The historiography of British abolition has long been concerned with determining exactly why the British eliminated the slave trade at a time of peak involvement and economic expansion.[39] This debate regarding the cause of British abolition has posited many potential explanations for abolition over time, and any other explanations should recognize that Romanticism in Britain served as an important artistic component of abolitionist messaging and reflected the wider cultural discussion around the slave trade. Further, its tendency toward pairing these politics with nationalistic and alienating messaging is representative of the developing notions of race and nation which would define Britain’s empire-building period. Aesthetic movements are not always given the same weight as economic and political phenomena as architects of history, but in the case of abolition in Britain, it cannot be fully analyzed or understood if divorced from Romanticism.  


[1] Debbie Lee, Slavery & the Romantic Imagination (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 18.

[2] “The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” Lowcountry Digital History Initiative, accessed Nov. 12, 2021.

[3] “The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.”

[4] Lee, 17.

[5] “The Slave Trade – a historical background,” British Library, accessed December 13, 2021.

[6] Brycchan Carey, British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility: Writing, Sentiment, and Slavery, 1760-1807 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 10.

[7] Winks and Neuberger, 41.

[8] Lee, 28.

[9] Ian Haywood, Bloody Romanticism: Spectacular Violence and the Politics of Representation,

1776-1832, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 8.

[10] Lee, 27.

[11] Brycchan Carey, “Slavery and Romanticism,” Literature Compass 3, no. 3 (2006): 397.

[12] Lee, 25.

[13] “Slavery and Romanticism,” 403-404.

[14] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (J. Dodsley, 1764), 58.

[15] Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, “Géricault’s Severed Heads and Limbs: The Politics and Aesthetics of the Scaffold,” The Art Bulletin 74, no. 4 (1992): 610.

[16] Haywood, 11.

[17] British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility, 18.

[18] British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility, 5.

[19] British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility, 3.

[20] Helen Thomas, Romanticism and Slave Narratives : Transatlantic Testimonies (Cambridge Studies in Romanticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 84.

[21] Julia Wright, Blake, Nationalism, and the Politics of Alienation (Athens: Ohio University

Press, 2004), 30-33.

[22] “Slavery and Romanticism,” 405.

[23] “The slave trade – a historical background.”

[24] Cowper, William, “The Negro’s Complaint,” SUNY Geneseo, accessed December 14, 2021.

[25] Haywood, 22.

[26] Haywood, 22.

[27] Lee, 28.

[28] Lee, 189.

[29] Lee, 173.

[30] Lee, 31.

[31] Joep Leerssen, “Notes toward a Definition of Romantic Nationalism,” Romantik: Journal for the Study of Romanticisms 2, no. 1 (2013): 27.

[32] Lee, 18.

[33] Lee, 22.

[34] Lee, 22.

[35] Hannah More, “Slavery” Poetry Foundation, accessed Nov.13, 2021.

[36] More.

37 Thomas, 6.

38 Slavery and Romanticism, 406.

39 British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility, 10.


Primary Sources

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. United Kingdom: J. Dodsley, 1764.

Cowper, William. “The Negro’s Complaint.” SUNY Geneseo. Accessed December 14, 2021.

More, Hannah. “Slavery.” Poetry Foundation. Accessed November 13, 2021.

Turner J.M.W. The Slave Ship. 1840. Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Secondary Sources

Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, Nina. “Géricault’s Severed Heads and Limbs: The Politics and Aesthetics of the Scaffold.” Art Bulletin 74, no. 4 (1992): 599–618.

British Library. “The Slave Trade – a Historical Background.” Accessed December 13, 2021.

Carey, Brycchan. British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility: Writing, Sentiment, and Slavery, 1760-1807. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

—. “Slavery and Romanticism.” Literature Compass 3, no. 3 (2006): 397–408.

Haywood, Ian. Bloody Romanticism: Spectacular Violence and the Politics of Representation, 1776-1832. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Lee, Debbie. Slavery & the Romantic Imagination. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Leerssen, Joep. “Notes toward a Definition of Romantic Nationalism.” Romantik: Journal for the Study of Romanticisms 2, no. 1 (2013): 9–35.

“The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.” Lowcountry Digital History Initiative. Accessed November 12, 2021.

Thomas, Helen. Romanticism and Slave Narratives: Transatlantic Testimonies. Cambridge Studies in Romanticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Winks, R.W., and J. Neuberger. Europe and the Making of Modernity, 1815-1914. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Wright, Julia M. Blake, Nationalism, and the Politics of Alienation. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004.

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