The dying Negro, a poetical Epistle, supposed to be written…

The dying Negro, a poetical Epistle, supposed to be written by a Black, (who lately shot himself on board a Vessel in the River Thames;) to his intended Wife … by [DAY, Thomas, and John BICKNELL].

~ The dying Negro, a poetical Epistle, supposed to be written by a Black, (who lately shot himself on board a Vessel in the River Thames;) to his intended Wife … London: Printed for W. Flexney … 1773.

4to (242 × 192 mm) in half-sheets, pp. [2], 19, [1]; crease to upper corner of initial couple of leaves, some light spotting, light mark in the gutter towards the end; modern marbled boards; lightly rubbed.

First edition. of ‘the first significant piece of verse propaganda directed explicitly against the English slave systems’, a core text in Anglo-American abolition poetry, and an important influence on works to follow including The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano in 1789 (Wood, The Poetry of Slavery, Oxford UP, p. 36). What sets this poem apart from subsequent abolitionist writings, however, is its shockingly modern treatment of miscegenation. As the then-anonymous authors allude to in their advertisement, they are sympathetic to and supportive of a black man’s right to love and marry a white woman: ‘[the poem was] occasioned by an article of news which appeared last week in the London papers, intimating that “a Black, who a few days before, ran away from his master, and got himself christened, with intent to marry his fellow-servant, a white woman, being taken, and sent on board the Captain’s ship, in the Thames; took an opportunity of shooting himself through the head”’ (Advertisement). The poem goes on to describe in visceral detail the mistreatment and suicide of the slave, as reported by the papers. Day would add a lengthy polemic against Anglo-American attitudes towards slavery in the second edition.

Thomas Day (1748–1789), a disciple of Rousseau, was a complicated man. Despite such progressive abolitionist views, he famously ‘decided that, if his ideal woman did not exist, she would have to be created. In 1769 he adopted, with scant regard for legal niceties, two girls from foundling hospitals and secretly bore them off to France to see which of them he could educate (in accordance with Rousseau's ideas) into becoming a suitable wife for himself. One, whom he renamed Sabrina Sidney, seemed promising, and in 1770 he brought her back to Stowe House, near Lichfield, for special tuition. But after conducting some extraordinary experiments to test her hardiness, which included dropping hot sealing wax on her arm and firing a pistol at her skirts, Day concluded that she was insufficiently phlegmatic. He cast her off with a small allowance and declared that he wished never to see her again. Sabrina would later marry Day’s friend John Bicknell’ (Oxford DNB). Jackson, p. 19; Sabin 18987.

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