- Abolition Poetry, National Identity, and Religion:The Case of Peter Newby's The Wrongs of Almoona
British antislavery poetry spoke with two voices: one seeking to liberate enslaved Africans, and one struggling to maintain a national movement that cultural historian David Turley has described as an uneasy allegiance divided like English society as a whole. So even though eighteenth-century abolitionism appealed to cosmopolitan benevolence for the enslaved, Linda Colley has argued that it also helped forge a "Britishness" complicit with national and imperial domination.1 Critics such as Moira Ferguson, Tim Burke, and Alan Richardson have investigated how this dual agenda in abolitionist literature shaped cultural models and popular understandings of race, class, gender, and national identity. Ferguson has shown that "in order to successfully propagandize and gain support, white British women writers felt they had to fashion verse in keeping with campaign demands"; these nationalist demands often entailed not only the subordinating representation of Africans as "unproblematized, unvoiced, unthinking, and unnamed" victims but also the promotion of conformist positions on gender and imperialism.2 Likewise, Burke and Richardson have critiqued an incipient racialism that distorted abolitionist literature by working-class and women writers from Liverpool and Bristol, respectively.3 These reconsiderations have complicated our understanding of abolitionist literature by showing the ideological ambivalence of marginalized writers negotiating the pressures of nation and empire as well as the interrelated formal complexity of their often neglected works.
This essay expands this revision of abolitionist culture to discuss religious identity, a particularly important but also potentially fractious element of an abolition movement that brought together mainstream Anglicans, nonconformist dissenters, and evangelicals. To elucidate this tense interaction of religion, ideology, and aesthetics, I will focus on The Wrongs of Almoona, or the African's Revenge (1788), published in Liverpool anonymously under the pseudonym "A Friend to All Mankind."4 A historical narrative poem set in 1655 [End Page 25] Jamaica, this provocative text has attracted critical notice amid the recent recovery of abolitionist texts, but the anonymity of its author and its fraught message have rendered it something of a mystery in accounts of abolitionist culture.5 By here identifying the author as Peter Newby, an English Catholic poet from Lancashire, this essay seeks not only to deepen our understanding of this particular text but also to consider the role of abolitionist anti-Catholicism in the national and imperial project.6 Anti-Catholicism helped secure the abolition alliance and define a sense of Britishness even as the concurrent reform movement for "Catholic emancipation" (the campaign from 1778–1829 to abolish sectarian penal laws and grant civil rights to Catholics) sought to reintegrate Catholics into British civil society. I will argue that Newby's nervous attempt, like those of women and working-class writers, to meet the nationalist expectations of the abolitionist movement breaks down under the pressure of his own countervailing sense of historical oppression and alienation at the hands of British sectarianism. The result is a textual "split consciousness" at the level of poetic structure that registers the hopes and anxieties of marginalized writers struggling with the nationalist discourse of the abolition movement.
This "doubleness" in The Wrongs of Almoona arises from Newby's experience of what Katie Trumpener calls "internal colonialism," a critical term that has received relatively little elaboration in studies of British literature from this period.7 This essay expands the scope of internal colonialism in two ways. First, while Trumpener examines only Scottish and Irish forms of internal colonialism, figures ranging from Edmund Burke to Samuel Taylor Coleridge also viewed English Catholics as a "nation within a nation" who occupied an equally difficult place in national society and culture. Second, my analysis brings Trumpener's study of the national tale and its marriage plot's "act of union" into dialogue with Homi Bhabha's study of the "forked tongue" or "double articulation" of colonizing discourse. For Bhabha, the colonial project results in a split or "partial" colonized subject that is "almost the same, but not quite." In speaking or writing back, however, the divided subject's ambiguity subverts colonizing discourse through "mimicry"—parody, ludic irony, or sly civility.8 On the one hand, through...