Poetry and Slavery
First published in London in 1764, James Grainger’s The Sugar-Cane circulated widely in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Two more editions of the poem were printed in London and Dublin in 1766, and magazines and anthologies also reprinted excerpts of it. Audiences around the British Atlantic world considered Grainger’s poem essential reading because it described the workings of Caribbean sugar plantations, which, by the mid-eighteenth century, were the primary economic engines of the British Empire, as well as other European empires that also possessed plantation colonies in the Caribbean.
To be clear, though, our goal in providing readers with this edition of Grainger’s poem is not to encourage readings that celebrate the might of empire. As scholars have amply documented since the poem was reprinted in the late 1990s, the productivity of Caribbean plantations rested upon the exploitation of enslaved African and indigenous laborers, most of whom were forcibly transported to the Caribbean in order to cultivate sugar. But as scholars have also realized, The Sugar-Cane can serve as a valuable source of information about the experiences of the enslaved. Grainger provides numerous examples of these experiences in the poem, sometimes deliberately and other times not. For example, the often lengthy footnotes that supplement his verse contain extensive descriptions of Caribbean plants, which were particularly interesting to a physician like Grainger, for whom knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants was a critical professional concern. Yet when Grainger includes information about these medicinal properties in his footnotes, he often includes details about the uses that Afro-Caribbean and indigenous peoples made of plants as well. As such, we hope that readers of this edition will come to understand some of the strategies of survival and resistance employed by the enslaved and other marginalized subjects in plantation colonies.
Nevertheless, The Sugar-Cane poses certain political, ethical, and aesthetic challenges for present-day readers. First, Grainger intended the poem to be an endorsement of the Caribbean plantation system. As its sentiments make clear, Grainger was emphatically interested both in Britain’s prosperity and in the continuation of slavery, which he believed could be reformed. He also believed that such reform would simultaneously better the lives of the enslaved and increase the profits of planters. Second, Grainger wrote The Sugar-Cane as a georgic, a poetic genre familiar to his contemporary audience but alien to most twenty-first-century readers. Third, Grainger’s footnotes are often distracting and difficult to decipher, filling up pages on end and assuming specialized knowledge of scientific terms and concepts.
We therefore provide this brief essay as a guide to readers navigating the poem for the first time. Specifically, it provides readers with essential background information about Grainger’s life and the genre of the georgic. At the same time, we raise questions about Grainger’s decision to depict slavery via the medium of poetry, as well as his defense of the plantation system at a moment in history when some of his contemporaries were beginning to embrace the idea of abolition.
James Grainger was destined for neither literary nor scientific greatness. Like so many other eighteenth-century British men, however, he was able to navigate the commercial and intellectual networks that were opened by Britain’s expanding imperial and colonial endeavors. Grainger was born in the mid-1720s in Duns, a small town near Scotland’s southern border with England. His father bankrupted himself with a series of failed investments, and young James was orphaned around the age of ten. He was placed under the guardianship of his half-brother William, apprenticed to an Edinburgh surgeon soon afterward, and enrolled in 1739 to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh, which was already on its way to becoming a center of the global Enlightenment. His career trajectory from there was fairly typical for a man of his background: he enlisted as a regimental surgeon in the mid-1740s and then served in Scotland during the Jacobite uprising (1745) and in the Netherlands during the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748). Upon his return to civilian life, he wrote a dissertation on the treatment of syphilis that was published in 1753, and he moved to London to practice medicine in the mid-1750s.
The move to London brought Grainger into the heart of Britain’s literary world. He soon made friends with literati like Samuel Johnson, Bishop Thomas Percy, Oliver Goldsmith, William Shenstone, and Charlotte Lennox, all of whom would figure in The Sugar-Cane and some of whom also helped Grainger revise and publish it. Before The Sugar-Cane appeared and during his years in London, Grainger published several short poems, reviews, and a longer translation of Tibullus (ca. 55-19 BCE). Nevertheless, he struggled financially. Concluding that he would never make his fortune independently, he decided to accept the patronage of John Bourryau (ca. 1737-1760), his 21-year-old former pupil. Grainger and Bourryau’s patronage agreement would pay the poet a £200 annuity upon his return to Britain from a four-year voyage, during which he would accompany Bourryau to the continent and to St. Kitts, where Bourryau had recently inherited a sugar estate.
Grainger and Bourryau left for the Caribbean in the spring of 1759. During the crossing, Grainger was called upon to treat a woman who had been infected with smallpox just prior to embarking. As he nursed the woman back to health, he made the acquaintance of her daughter, Daniel Matthew Burt, whom he married soon after their arrival in St. Kitts. Having decided to remain in the Caribbean in order to establish himself as a physician, Grainger annulled his patronage agreement with Bourryau. Moreover, because Burt came from a family of wealthy planters, Grainger soon became a plantation physician, a potentially lucrative position that he hoped would eventually allow him to establish a plantation of his own—if not in St. Kitts, then in St. Vincent. He also decided to write a long poem about the Caribbean soon after his arrival on the island, and he completed an early draft of The Sugar-Cane in 1762, when he sent the manuscript off to his friend Percy for comments. The first edition of the poem was published in 1764, the same year that his prose Essay on the More Common West India Diseases appeared in print. In 1765, Percy also included Grainger’s “Bryan and Pereene, a West-Indian Ballad” in Reliques of Ancient English Poetry.
Grainger complained bitterly about the isolation he felt in St. Kitts and about what he saw as his fellow colonists’ lack of culture. Nevertheless, he only returned to England briefly in 1763, perhaps in part to help supervise the publication of The Sugar-Cane. He died in St. Kitts in December 1766, leaving behind his wife and a young daughter named Louise. At the end of the eighteenth century, Percy collaborated with Robert Anderson to produce a collection of his works, which appeared in 1802.
Taking its name from the Greek word for agriculture (γεωργικά), the georgic is one of the major classical poetic genres alongside the epic (which treats heroic events) and the pastoral (which treats the rural lives of shepherds). In eighteenth-century Britain, the most famous and praised georgic was Virgil’s Georgics (ca. 29 BCE). Split into four books, the traditional georgic poem aims both to instruct readers in the art of agriculture (including planting and animal husbandry) and to praise the effects of agricultural labor on farmers and society. John Dryden led a resurgence of interest in the georgic when he translated Virgil’s poem from the Latin in 1697. Following Dryden, a number of writers composed traditional georgics that highlighted the virtues of British agriculture. These poems included John Philips’ The Cyder (1708), William Somerville’s The Chace (1735), Christopher Smart’s The Hop-Garden (1752), and John Dyer’s The Fleece (1757), all of which feature in Grainger’s poem. In praising British agricultural goods, these georgics performed important cultural work, emphasizing Britain’s natural resources, as well as the commercial power the nation wielded in trading these goods across the globe.
Although The Sugar-Cane was published relatively late in the British georgic revival, Grainger’s decision to write the poem as a georgic makes a decisive statement about his ambitions: he wanted to establish himself as a great writer able to follow in the footsteps of classical figures like Virgil, and he wanted to underscore the importance of the Caribbean colonies to the British Empire. At the same time, Grainger had to address one obvious difference between The Sugar-Cane and its predecessors: The Sugar-Cane was set in St. Kitts, whereas the other eighteenth-century georgics that had already appeared were set in Britain. Moreover, sugarcane was not a plant indigenous to Britain, and most British readers had never seen a sugarcane plant since it could grow only in tropical regions. Indeed, most of the tropical plants found in the Caribbean were unfamiliar to British readers, as was the process of sugar production itself. How, then, could Grainger get readers to understand and appreciate a poem that largely described phenomena they would have trouble imagining?
Grainger tries to address the question of imagination directly in his preface and even to turn readers’ unfamiliarity with the Caribbean to his advantage. First, he explains that the Caribbean landscape is so novel and beautiful that it cannot help but “enrich poetry with many new and picturesque images” (v). Second, he claims that he will use the poem to introduce British readers to new words and concepts, particularly by providing extensive notes that would act as a natural history or account of Caribbean nature. Aware that the addition of notes and scientific information could open him up to criticism from poetic traditionalists, Grainger coined the term “West-India georgic” to describe his hybrid work, asking that his readers consider him “a physician, and not a poet” when he veered too much into botany and medicine (vii).
Slavery in The Sugar-Cane
In writing The Sugar-Cane, Grainger faced another difficult challenge. On the one hand, the georgic traditionally emphasized the healthful benefits of labor and sought to demonstrate that a nation’s power and liberty were rooted in its commerce. On the other hand, the eighteenth-century production of sugar depended on the labor of enslaved persons. As such, Grainger adopted various and ultimately contradictory strategies for managing the task of depicting enslavement as a beneficial and even desirable state of being for African people.
For example, Grainger chooses to use classical georgic vocabulary to describe enslaved laborers. Georgic poets before him had referred to shepherds and agricultural workers as “swains” and “hinds,” and he uses the terms liberally to cover over the violence that was inherent to plantation slavery.1 Second, Grainger also uses his poem to advocate for amelioration. Ameliorationists like Grainger believed that if enslavers treated the enslaved “humanely,” then the practice could be both profitable to enslavers and pleasant for the enslaved. This belief is clearly abhorrent, yet it was used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to perpetuate plantation slavery and to counter the rising popularity of the abolitionist movement.
It is not necessarily surprising that Grainger would have taken on an ameliorationist position: he married into a family of enslavers and hoped to profit from the system of plantation slavery himself. Nevertheless, there are moments in the poem when the cruelties of life on the plantation become too great for Grainger to ignore or erase with aestheticized language. Indeed, one could even argue that, in these moments, Grainger’s attempts at aestheticization inadvertently highlight the paradoxes in his position and the impossibility of portraying slavery in a positive light. For example, in one passage of the poem that describes cane milling, a process during which enslaverd laborers hand-fed cane stalks into large steel rollers that would then crush the plant and extract the sugar-filled juice inside, Grainger writes,
AND now thy mills dance eager in the gale;
Feed well their eagerness: but O beware;
Nor trust, between the steel-cas’d cylinders,
The hand incautious: off the member snapt
Thou’lt ever rue; sad spectacle of woe! (III.165-169)
Grainger personifies the mills by emphasizing their “eagerness” to process the cane themselves and thereby avoids discussion of the human beings who were forced to do the actual labor of feeding the mills. At the same time, his commitment to providing a full account of sugar production compels him to acknowledge both the dangers of mill work and the serious harm it could do to the people who performed it under the coercive threat of punishment. Admitting this harm, Grainger immediately turns to sentimental language (“sad spectacle of woe”) in order to avoid dwelling further on the physical toll of enslavement. Grainger elaborates this language further in his footnote to line 168, where he blames such accidents on the “unfortunate wretch” and his “imprudence or sleepiness.”
There are other moments that similarly draw attention to themselves for their incongruity, and some of these were even criticized by Grainger’s contemporaries as glossing over the harsh realities of slavery in a too insensitive or unfeeling manner. For example, in a review of The Sugar-Cane for the Critical Review, Grainger’s friend Johnson largely praised the poem but complained about the following passage, where Grainger turns to the subject of examining African captives newly arrived in the Caribbean:
Clear roll their ample eye; their tongue be red;
Broad swell their chest; their shoulders wide expand;
Not prominent their belly; clean and strong
Their thighs and legs, in just proportion rise. (IV.74-77)
It was common practice for enslavers to perform the kind of physical inspection Grainger describes, and scenes such as these would become set pieces in abolitionist writings later in the century. Indeed, these lines disturbed Johnson, who wrote in response, “[H]ere we think that tenderness and humanity, with which the former part of the poem seems replete, is, in some measure, forgotten. The poet talks of this ungenerous commerce without the least appearance of detestation; but proceeds to direct these purchasers of their fellow-creatures with the same indifference that a groom would give instructions for chusing an horse” (277). Johnson does not condemn Grainger completely and even seems to endorse his ameliorationist agenda by praising his “tenderness and humanity” in earlier parts of the poem, but he also calls the slave trade an “ungenerous commerce” and objects to Grainger’s implicit equation of the enslaved with animals or mere objects.
Although Grainger’s ameliorationist and other pro-slavery positions were shared by many of his contemporaries, abolitionist ideas became increasingly prevalent and popular in the years immediately following the publication of The Sugar-Cane. In the 1772 Somerset v. Stewart case (also known as the Somerset ruling), presiding judge William Murray, first earl of Mansfield, made it illegal for enslaved persons in England to be seized and detained in preparation for deportation and sale outside the country. Although this decision did not formally abolish slavery in England, it was understood by many to have done so in practice, since it meant that, when an enslaved person was brought to Britain from the Americas, that person could not be forcibly sent back across the Atlantic in a state of bondage. In 1773, the publication of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects further catalyzed public debate over the equality, treatment, and status of the enslaved. Then, in 1775, Philadelphia-based Quaker Anthony Benezet founded the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, one of the first abolitionist organizations in the Atlantic world.
Grainger himself veers into abolitionism for one brief interlude in The Sugar-Cane. This break comes in Book IV, when the narrator wishes that poetry could grant freedom to all. He laments,
OH, did the tender muse possess the power,
Which monarchs have, and monarchs oft abuse:
‘Twould be the fond ambition of her soul,
To quell tyrannic sway; knock off the chains
Of heart-debasing slavery; give to man,
Of every colour and of every clime,
Freedom, which stamps him image of his God. (232-238)
It is worth asking why Grainger would include these lines in a work defending slavery. To what extent did the conflict between the sentiments of the classical georgic and the realities of eighteenth-century slavery create tension and paradox in his writing? Are there other signs of ambivalence, doubt, or dissent in The Sugar-Cane? Can we read for those signs, and can we possibly even use the poem as a source for information and knowledge about the plantation that would undermine Grainger’s intention of validating it?
Readers familiar with the history of the georgic will point out that Virgil’s farmers also relied on enslaved labor, but the distinction between first-century BCE Roman slavery and the racial slavery of eighteenth-century Caribbean plantations bears careful scrutiny. ↩︎