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“The Iron Hand of Persecution”: Highlights from Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922

Posted on 04/21/2016

The April release of Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922: From the Library Company of Philadelphia includes an English minister's examination of the "United States of America and of the European Settlements in America and the West-Indies," published in 1796. This work includes the color plate of a tobacco plant seen to the right. Also highlighted below are works printed in London offering two perspectives on the slave trade between Africa and the Caribbean.   

An Historical, Geographical, Commercial, and Philosophical View of the United States of America and of the European Settlements in America and the West-Indies (1796) 

By William Winterbotham 

Rev. William Winterbotham (1763-1829) was a British Baptist minister who was imprisoned for including political speeches in his sermons. In 1792 Winterbotham delivered sermons in which he spoke favorably of the French Revolution and in opposition to the African slave trade. The following year he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to four years in Newgate Prison. While imprisoned he wrote both An Historical, Geographical and Philosophical View of the Chinese Empire and this work, in which he remains critical of Europe in general and writes favorably of the United States.  

In the preface, Winterbotham praises America for her “charms of civil and religious liberty,” for remaining “unshackled and unencumbered by heavy and impolitic duties,” and her acceptance of European emigrants “which the iron hand of persecution and the awful prospects of intestine [i.e., internecine] division or abject slavery, will continue to increase.” 

Winterbotham continues to laud the United States and its structure of government, writing: 

…the government of America is making rapid strides toward perfection.…they have exploded those principles by the operation of which civil and religious disqualifications and oppressions have been inflicted on mankind, and…placed upon an equal footing every church sect, and society of religious persons whatsoever. 

Their laws and government have for their basis the natural and imprescriptible rights of man: liberty, security of person and property, resistance against oppression, doing whatever does not injure another, a right to concur, either personally or by their representatives, in the formation of laws and an equal chance of arriving to places of honor, reward or employment, according to their virtues, or talents. These are the principles of their constitution; and laws grafted upon these simple, but substantial principles, and a system of legal jurisprudence is organized, and acting accordingly, form the essence of their government; and if ever the government swerves materially from these fundamental principles, the compact is dissolved, and things revert again to a co-equal state. 

The History of the Negro Slave Trade (1805) 

By Robert Bisset 

Best known for his biography of Edmund Burke, Scottish-born writer and editor Robert Bisset (c. 1759-1805) also wrote this pro-slavery tract.   

Responding to criticism of his pamphlet “A Defense of the Slave Trade, on the Grounds of Justice, Humanity, and Policy,” Bisset rebukes each of his critics’ arguments and restates his stance in favor of continuing the African slave trade. To arrive at his position, he begins by juxtaposing the claims of abolitionists and the slave traders:  

After comparing the whole of the evidence on both sides, I plainly perceived that the abolitionists had totally failed in establishing those charges of atrocious wickedness alleged to be committed in Africa, the middle passage, and the West Indies….their premises were mere assertions, their conclusions were and must be futile. The African and West India merchants, on the contrary, completely disproved the allegations by a body of respectable and eminent evidence as ever was adduced. 

Bisset then reinforces his perspective, arguing:  

In the course of the evidence, it appeared, that by the Slave trade humanity was essentially promoted, instead of being violated; and that purchase of convicts, and other bondmen, by Britons, were the means of annually preserving a great number of lives. 

Referring to his critics, he quipped: 

A kind of flimsy writing called sentimental, and which proposed to sacrifice the decisions of reason to the impulse of feeling, was [i.e., has] become extremely fashionable among great numbers, who happen to be better gifted with nerves than with brains. 

Narrative of a Tour in North America (1834) 

By Henry Tudor, Esq.  

Henry Tudor’s two-volume work was well received in the March 1834 edition of London’s Monthly Review: 

The author introduces himself to his readers under circumstances of no ordinary interest. He commenced the enterprise of an expedition to the American Continents only after having visited the other three quarters of the globe, and after having sailed over every ocean on its surface. It was with no small pleasure that we found one so fully prepared by experience, undertake a duty which require so many rare qualifications, and we concluded, that in Mr. Tudor we could reckon on an umpire whose decision would carry with it a powerful weight. 

Writing about his excursion to Cuba, Tudor initially appears overly optimistic about and easily distracted from the condition of the slaves: 

Monsieur De Pestre appears to be a very humane master; and his slaves as far as I could judge, seem to be treated with great mildness. He has established a social system amongst them highly creditable to his feelings, and performs the ceremony of marriage between the different couples of black lovers, which, on many other estates, is left to the poor negroes themselves to contract and dissolve as they please. I omitted to mention to you the numerous and lovely little hummingbirds I saw flitting about the various gardens and plantations that I visited, and which form, with their brightly-glowing and resplendent plumage, such an interesting object to an inhabitant of a northern climate. 

However, when Tudor encountered the reality aboard a recently arrived slave ship his perception is dramatically altered: 

On proceeding to the quarter where these wretched beings were confined, I found them all huddled together in a large room, in which they were exposed to sale like a drove of pigs, in a state of complete nudity, with the exception of a bandage tied round their loins. They were disposed in lots of graduated ages, and were seated on the floor in groups of eight and ten, feeding out of a parcel of buckets, or rather devouring a miserable mess of the coarsest plantain, with a meager sprinkling of bones and rice, exhibiting a color as black as ink. It was, in truth, a species of pottage that I should have refused giving to my swine. Three of these miserable outcasts were extremely ill, from the effects of close confinement during a long voyage; particularly one of them, who appeared in a dying state, utterly unable to stand up, and who lay prostrate and groaning on the ground as naked nearly as he was born….Not a single person showed him the slightest sympathy, or gave him either clothes, food, or medicine; as if his merciless owners apprehended that the money expended on him would be entirely lost in consequence of his death, which there was too much reason to fear was fast approaching. 

For more information about Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922, or to request a trial for your institution, please contact

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