Literature Incorporated by John O'Brien;

Literature Incorporated by John O'Brien;

Author:John O'Brien; [O'Brien, John]
Language: eng
Format: epub
ISBN: 9780226291260
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Published: 2015-12-15T16:00:00+00:00

Chapter Four

“Bodies of Men”: Abolitionist Writing and the Question of Interest

First issued in 1787, the jasper-ware cameo of a kneeling, manacled African slave obliquely beseeching the viewer to recognize the grounds of their common humanity (fig. 4.1) was the central icon of the first wave of abolitionism, the movement in Britain to end the trade in African people who were captured to endure lives of slavery in the British colonies in the Americas.1 The movement ultimately succeeded when, in March 1807, Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act, ending Britain’s involvement in the African slave trade. The United States ended its involvement in the African slave trade at the start of 1808, but commerce in slaves within the United States lasted until the start of the U.S. Civil War. Originally imagined by Josiah Wedgwood as a seal for impressing the wax used to close envelopes, the emblem was used (as we shall see) much more widely, as local currency and even as a kind of de facto copyright stamp. It was distributed in physical form in both Great Britain and the early United States. Wedgwood sent a shipment to Benjamin Franklin, who was the president of the Philadelphia Society for the Abolition of Slavery; Franklin thanked Wedgwood for “your valuable present of Cameo’s, which I am distributing among my Friends: in whose Countenances I have seen such Marks of being affected by contemplating the Figure of the Suppliant, (which is admirably executed) that I am persuaded it may have an Effect equal to that of the best written Pamphlet in procuring Favour to those oppressed People.”2 Franklin immediately grasped how the emblem took part in what Diedre Lynch has called “the economy of character,” the way in which faces, pages, and coins or other emblems shared common cause in a representational system whereby meaning was conveyed by marks on a surface.3 Here Franklin makes explicit the association between the power of the emblem, the printed page, and the moral character of the viewer whose “Marks” testified to the extent that they had been impressed by the Wedgwood emblem’s message, to which Franklin attributes significant power. As a composite of image and text that achieved wide circulation in the service of a political-economic message, the Wedgwood emblem even calls to mind the plan that Joseph Addison, as described in chapter 2, articulated in the Guardian in 1713, to issue medals impressed with the “glorious events” of Queen Anne’s reign as a way of keeping them in the collective consciousness. But the ideological differences are even more striking than the formal similarities, because the Wedgwood’s emblem’s message is far more morally vexed than anything that Addison imagined. Here at least some of the facts of the African slave trade, its dehumanizing assumptions and effects, its racism, its brutal incarceration of human bodies, are brought into intelligibility in a way that was thoroughly displaced or elided in the 1710s when Britain first gained the asiento and began the domination of the African slave trade


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