Commodifying Humanism: Profit Motive, Capitalism, and Slavery

In Robert Cruishank’s picture entitled “John Bull Taking a Clear View of the Negro Slavery Question!!,” the drawing draws questions and scrutinizes the financial and economic interests of slave emancipators, abolitionists, and slave sympathizers. Personally, I don’t believe this picture belongs in either category, “pro-slavery” or “anti-slavery;” rather, this picture is anti-abolitionist.

Along the left side of the picture, the blue sign reads “Petitions to both Houses of Parliament for removing the duties on East India sugar,” hanging directly above pictures of a cracked whip and abused slaves. Another individual, just left of the center of the picture, is dressed in a Quaker garb, holding a sign that reads “Buy only East India sugar, ’tis sinful to buy any other,” where the man has an invoice from E.I. Sugar.  These two signs , in addition to the invoice, essentially accuse the abolitionists of having vested interests in economic gain. The picture accuses their pure intentions as being a veil for their their true interests, economic compensation for their progressive social movement.

Additionally, the “clear view” highlighted at the bottom of the picture is ironic, given that John Bull is not looking with the clarity of the telescope at the “negroes” in question, but, instead, is hyperfocused on the pictures of slavery’s injustices, rather than the joyous socialization of the slaves on the right side of the picture. This proposes that abolitionists do not want their supporters to see the true nature of slavery, with its happy, dancing captives, but, because of their economic interests, they encourage their supporters to only see the immoral abuse of slaves by malicious slave owners.

This economic argument in the discourse of slavery can also be found in and contrasted with The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, where Equiano argues against the current treatment of slaves with another economic argument. Equiano explains that “neglect certainly… cause[s] a decrease in the births as well as in the lives of the grown negroes” (108). He states that he can “quote many instances… [where] the negroes are treated with lenity and proper care, by which their lives are prolonged, and their masters are profited” (108). These “negroes” were treated so well that their owners “needed no fresh stock of negroes at any time” (108). Concluding his argument, Equiano states that, with the common, brutal mode of slave treatment, “it is no wonder taht the decrease should require 20,000 new negroes annually to fill up the vacant places of the dead” (108). This argument of treating slaves with “lenity” and “proper care” is a purely economical one, not catering to the idea that slaves are lives and, hence, should be treated with the respect that a life is due. Instead, Equiano makes a purely economical appeal to the psychology of his enslaving, rich, and white audience. He is aware that a purely moralistic or humanistic argument would simply not suffice; therefore, he will appeal to their wallets rather than their souls. A furitive master of rhetoric and logic, Equiano realizes that the cost of abolition would, first and foremost, be the loss of free labor, and, hence, he makes an appeal to that horrible, amoralistic side of the “Negro Slavery Question.”

With our modern, 21st century perspective, it would be easy to write-off Equiano as some sort of slavery sympathizer. Yet, we must be conscious of the rhetorical strategies needed to pierce the thick shell of slavery psychology, and, clearly, Equiano tries every rhetorical strategy in his power to do so.


—Nathaniel Schwass


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