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  • "African" Songs and Women's Abolitionism in the Home, 1787–1807
  • Julia Hamilton (bio)

During the first wave of antislavery activism in Britain—from about 1787 to 1807—the nation's musical marketplace saw a new trend for scores composed on the themes of West Indian slavery, the transatlantic slave trade, and African identity.1 At least fifty of these scores were so-called "African" songs: that is, songs by white British composers and poets whose texts used first-person narration from the imagined point of view of an African.2 These songs ranged in tone and subject matter from sentimental complaints about the slave trade to expressions of hospitality for white travelers in Africa to songs of cheerful slavery. Whether their texts advocated for the abolition, amelioration, or continuation of slavery, all of the songs promoted racialized thinking by producing and circulating stereotypes about Africans. Yet these problematic songs are important historical sources, particularly as they bring to light new musical performance contexts in which the debates over abolition played out.

Scholars have already begun to explore the relationship between music and popular abolitionism, studying the texts of antislavery ballads sung on the streets and so-called "Negro" songs performed on the stage.3 Brycchan Carey's work on abolitionist ballads by William Cowper has pointed to another performance venue for "African" songs: the home.4 Indeed, the format in which most "African" songs were published—short musical scores for voice with accompaniment by a keyboard instrument or harp—was [End Page 153] ideally suited for domestic consumption. Women in particular were encouraged to cultivate their keyboard, harp, and vocal skills, and their music collections were filled with such scores.5 In fact, I have located personal copies of "African" songs and keyboard pieces on African themes that were originally owned by nineteen different British women. Eleven of these women owned at least one "African" song whose text contained explicitly antislavery rhetoric.6 For instance, Lady Maria Beauclerk (ca. 1779–1822) transcribed into her manuscript copybook John Wall Callcott's "Forc'd from Home and all it's [sic] Pleasures" (ca. 1799), a new setting of Cowper's "The Negro's Complaint."7 Lydia Hoare Acland (1786–1856) of Killerton House likewise owned two antislavery songs by William Carnaby: "The Negro Girl" (ca. 1801) and "Azid, or the Song of the Captive Negro" (ca. 1802)."8 Mary Edmeades (1772–1840) of Owletts included Edward Miller's "The Negro Boy, Who was Sold by an African Prince, for a Metal Watch" (1792) and William Reeve's "The Desponding Negro" (ca. 1793) in a single binder's volume, which was later used by her two daughters.9

The existence of these scores in women's music collections is especially significant because we already know that British women actively supported abolition by writing antislavery literature, abstaining from slave-produced sugar, and wearing antislavery medallions.10 The scores, therefore, introduce to scholarship a previously unknown group of women who opposed the slave trade and recast domestic music-making as a potentially abolitionist activity. With that said, the specifics of women's day-to-day musical practices are notoriously difficult to uncover. Amateur musicians rarely left written evidence of the music that they played on any given day, let alone descriptions of how the political message in a song's text affected their worldview. How then might we understand a musical score as evidence of antislavery activism?

This article thinks through what it might have meant for a contemporary British woman who opposed the slave trade to use the score of one abolitionist "African" song, William Howard's "The Negro's Lamentation" (1800), in her home.11 I outline some of the musical activities that are likely to have been involved in the domestic consumption of this score: studying the meaning and sentiment of the song's text, singing the words of the first stanza to the tune, working to find suitable text-settings for later stanzas, and accompanying oneself while singing. Each of these activities, I argue, would have entailed spending time working through the lyrics. And since the song's text forces the reader to reflect on her complicity in Britain's...


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