2826. Robert Southey to William Wilberforce, 25 July 1816

2826. Robert Southey to William Wilberforce, 25 July 1816⁠* 

Keswick. 25 July. 1816

My dear Sir

The Portugueze, or Brazilian, Government is neither by prejudice, or mistaken principle friendly to the continuance of the slave trade, or of slavery. [1]  Every argument moral & religious which during two centuries the Jesuits enforced with admirable perseverance in behalf of the Indians, holds good at this day for the Negroes, & the abolition of the Indian slave trade & emancipation of the Indian race are precedents in point. [2]  The laws are favourable to manumission, – the Priests encourage it, – there is no prejudice against the people of colour, & the very few laws which establish a distinction are very generally disregarded. But owing to the immense extent of the country, & the lax habit of obedience which must always be found in distant colonies & thinly peopled regions, the Sovereign [3]  may be said to hold his authority only during pleasure. The Government (not from any disposition to tyranny, – but from the inveterate diseases which have eaten like a cancer into the heart of the state) is oppressive & vexatious; the most abominable abuses exist in every department; – the leaven of revolution is at work; & were the Court to take any direct steps towards the abolition, the very persons, who from their hearts abhor slavery, would take advantage of the discontent & tumult which such measures would inevitably produce, & join with the slave party to bring about what they look forward to as the deliverance of their country. Before therefore xxx xxx xxx the abolition can be effected in Brazil, a change must be wrought in the public mind.

The same disgraceful error which you had to combat with in France [4]  prevails in Brazil, – a belief that the Abolition in England was the work of selfish policy. It is an unhappy xxx xxx characteristic of these times that nations & sovereigns never obtain credit for any thing generous or good when they really deserve it. Arguments addressed directly to themselves the Brazilians would receive with suspicion, – a faithful history of what was done in this country, of the efforts which were made, the enthusiasm which was excited, & the perseverance which after so many years xxx triumphed over so many & such formidable obstacles, – is liable to no such distrust: it would not come in a questionable shape; – it would be read with interest, & I have every reason to believe, with effect also, by the Priests, – who have most influence over the public mind. Let me add also that the Portugueze have been as much undervalued for their literary inclinations & attainments as they were for their military spirit & <their> patriotism. By leaving out the introductory matter, curtailing the debates, & condensing such parts of the narrative as will bear abridgement, Clarksons work might be reduced to half its bulk, & in that state a small volume might contain it, – ordinary paper with no unnecessary margin or space between the lines xxxxxxx will being best adapted to a people who have little money & no taste for typographical luxuries. [5]  Something of this kind would be more effectual than anything argumentative & addressed to themselves. The arguments upon the Impolicy (so ably treated in Clarksons essays) are inapplicable to Brazil.

In this country the battle is to be fought again, but there is no doubt of the event. [6]  I suppose the letters which were so singularly announced in the Courier some weeks ago, are no other than these villainous & impudent tissues of calumny & falsehood. [7]  I am preparing a paper for the Quarterly Review upon the West India Islands, – with the view of making it bear upon this subject. [8] 

I have sent to inquire if Mr Francis be in Keswick. [9]  – It is not two years since your excellent friend Mr J Bowdler was here, [10]  – & xx xxx after a day which I am sure all the party at one time must [MS obscured] eminently xxx <delightful>, I dined with him & poor John Calthorpe in the kitchen of an old farm house. [11]  They are gone! & I who survive them, – have survived also my best earthly hopes, & highest earthly enjoyments. They only who knew me in my daily habits can imagine, or believe, how great has been the extent of my loss, or how it is possible that a child of ten years should have been so entirely the companion as well as pupil of his father. I was recovering my Greek in the process of teaching Herbert, – we were learning German together, – & were to have begun Saxon in the same manner, as soon as the Saxon Chronicle should have been published. [12]  For his age there was no better Latin scholar, <in Greek he was fit for the fifth form at Westminster [13] > & he was acquiring with little expence of time, & no trouble, the French & Spanish. – With all these acquirements going on, his life was like a continued holyday, so much was it his disposition & mine to mingle sport with study, & find recreation in all things. He was the constant companion of my walks, & felt as much interest in my pleasures as I did in his. Xxx His disposition was as beautiful as his intellect, – & therefore I had ever an ominous apprehension that he was not intended to grow up on earth, – where it was not possible that his nature could be improved, & but too certain that it must in some degree be sullied. The feeling which thus prepared me for this privation, has not been without its use in enabling me to bear submit to it with resignation. I hope & believe that I have borne this affliction as it becomes a Christian. The stoicism which I endeavoured to practice in youth, (& not without signal benefit) might have supported, – but it could not have consoled me. My heart is weaned from the world, – & the brightest spot in the prospect before me is when the <a> light from Heaven shines upon the grave. [14]  –Yet do not imagine that I give way to sorrow, or indulge in vain retrospects & guilty regret. – The Lord gave – the Lord hath taken away – blessed be the name of the Lord! [15]  Never were these words pronounced with more heartfelt sincerity than when I repeated them in the most painful scenes & moments of my life. I am thankful for the abundant blessings which I still possess, – but of all things most thankful for having possessed a son whom I loved so entirely, who was so entirely worthy to be loved, & whom I shall one day rejoin. [16] 

Believe me, my dear Sir

Respectfully and truly yours,



* Endorsement: Poet Southey LLD/ * his Son’s death
MS: Berg Collection, New York Public Library. AL; 4p.
Previously published: R. I. Wilberforce and S. Wilberforce, The Correspondence of William Wilberforce, 2 vols (London, 1840), II, pp. 349–351 [in part].
Note on MS: the end of the final paragraph of the letter and the signature are missing from the MS; the text of these is supplied from The Correspondence of William Wilberforce. BACK

[1] The slave trade was legal in Brazil until 1850 and slavery itself was not abolished until 1888. BACK

[2] The enslavement of indigenous peoples in Brazil was not legal from 1537 onwards, but was widely practiced until the importation of African slaves in the eighteenth century gradually reduced the demand for native slaves. BACK

[3] John VI (1767–1826), Prince Regent 1799–1816, King of Portugal 1816–1826. He fled to Brazil in 1807–1808 to escape the French invasion and did not return to Portugal until 1821. BACK

[4] The French government was required to abolish the slave trade by an Additional Article to the Treaty of Paris (1815); when the French government recovered its West African colonies in 1817 it did not reinstitute the trade, though it continued clandestinely. BACK

[5] Thomas Clarkson, History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave–Trade by the British Parliament (1808). Southey was proposing a Portuguese translation of this work by his friend, Henry Koster. Southey’s arguments on the situation with regard to slavery in Brazil are very similar to those put forward by Koster in his Travels in Brazil (London, 1816), pp. 445–456. BACK

[6] Despite the 1807 abolition of the African slave trade to British colonies, slavery itself was not abolished until 1833. BACK

[7] Possibly The Edinburgh Review and the West Indies; with Remarks on the Slave Registry Bill; Observations on the Pamphlets of Messrs. Stephen and Macaulay, &c. In Forty Letters, Addressed to the Editor of the Glasgow Courier (1816), which opposed Wilberforce and the Registry Bill of 1816. The letters had first been published in the Glasgow Courier in 1816 and then collected and expanded into book form. BACK

[8] No article by Southey on this subject was published in the Quarterly Review, after Murray made it clear he did not wish Southey to write from a pro-abolitionist standpoint. BACK

[9] Clement Robert Francis (1792–1829), clergyman, Fellow of Caius College, Cambridge and nephew of Southey’s friend, James Burney. BACK

[10] John Bowdler (1783–1815; DNB), a lawyer, religious writer, friend of Wilberforce’s and prominent member of the Clapham Sect, met Southey in the Lakes in 1814. The day Southey recalls is probably that described in Southey to Henry Herbert Southey, 22–[23] October 1814, The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part Four, Letter 2492. Bowdler had died, after suffering from tuberculosis for some years, on 1 February 1815. BACK

[11] John Calthorpe (1793–1816), a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, the younger brother of another of Wilberforce’s friends, George Gough-Calthorpe, 3rd Baron Calthorpe (1787–1851). Wilberforce was MP for Bramber, one of whose seats Calthorpe controlled, in 1812–1825. John Calthorpe was killed in a riot in Jamaica on 10 June 1816. BACK

[12] In 1815 ‘A new edition of the Saxon Chronicle, with an English translation and notes’, edited by James Ingram (1774–1850; DNB), Rawlinsonian Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford 1803–1808, was advertised as ‘In the Press’, The Tradesman, 14 (January 1815), 55. However, it did not appear until 1823. Southey had two copies, nos 2593 and 2594 in the sale catalogue of his library. BACK

[13] In other words a public schoolboy of 13–14 years old. BACK

[14] The manuscript of the letter ends here; the remainder of text is supplied from the version published in The Correspondence of William Wilberforce, 2 vols (London, 1840), II, pp. 349–351. BACK

[15] Job, 1: 21. BACK

[16] Southey was mourning the death of his son Herbert on 17 April 1816. BACK

People mentioned

Clarkson, Thomas (1760–1846) (mentioned 2 times)
Southey, Herbert (1806–1816) (mentioned 2 times)
Koster, Henry (1793–1820) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 2 times)