The Moral Ambiguity of Anti-Slavery: How Elizabeth Barrett Browning & Robert Browning Profiting From Slavery Reveals the Dubious Ethics of Early Anti-Slavery Movements
Racial tensions—especially during the nineteenth century—divided the world. While many sought to destroy the system of slavery, others desperately tried to uphold it. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning wanted to see the system destroyed. As poets, the pair aided in the fight the best way they knew how—poetry.
One of Elizabeth’s most influential poems, “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” (published 1847 in the 1848 issue of the anti-slavery annual The Liberty Bell), is written from the perspective of a female slave. The poem is designed to give slaves a voice to challenge the cruelty of slavery; however, did Elizabeth have the authority to do so? Ironically, slavery and racism were an embedded aspect to Elizabeth’s familial life. The Moulton-Barrett family owned a plantation in Jamaica—Cinnamon Hill—that accumulated a significant amount of money, so much so that Elizabeth ended up using that profit to move her and Robert to Florence, Italy after they secretly got married. If Elizabeth profited off slavery and used that money to start her new life in Italy, is it insensitive for Elizabeth to write “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point,” and for Robert to critique and approve of the poem?
“The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” is a dramatic monologue in which a woman runs away from her captors with her child born of rape and contemplates the life of her child. She seems completely broken and detests how much the child reminds her of her oppression.
Consider the following lines of the poem:
“Why, in that single glance I had
Of my child’s face,…I tell you all,
I saw a look that made me mad!
The master’s look that used to fall
On my soul like his lash…or worse!
And so, to save it from my curse,
I twisted it round in my shawl” (141-147).
The speaker is reminded of the pain in which she suffered and chooses to kill her child to prevent him from being oppressed due to his skin color, just as she was. The poem tackles incredibly dark issues such as rape and child murder to emphasize the extent of the mistreatment African American slaves endured during this time. Despite the unapologetic nature of calling out the cruelty of slave owners in the poem, does Elizabeth have the right to do so?
Exhibit created by Alexis Basso
ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING’S “THE RUNAWAY SLAVE AT PILGRIM’S POINT,” MANUSCRIPT.
A manuscript of “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” in which both Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning make suggestions and changes to Elizabeth’s draft. The most notable aspect of the piece comes at the end, in which Robert writes and underlines “My EBB.” Do Robert’s revisions and declaration of “My EBB” showcase his pride over Elizabeth, or do they illustrate how important the issue of slavery also was to Robert?
PHOTOGRAPH OF CINNAMON HILL GREAT HOUSE, JAMAICA.
The Cinnamon Hill Great House was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s family plantation located in Jamaica where they held slaves and procured a great deal of money from the plantation. The money from this plantation ultimately allowed for the Browning’s to move to Florence, Italy. Does Elizabeth’s exploitation of money from this plantation decrease her authority to write “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point”?
PHOTOGRAPH OF CASA GUIDI, FLORENCE, ITALY.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning’s home in Florence, Italy, where Elizabeth and Robert fled with the money from Cinnamon Hill. Does the wealth of their Italian lifestyle negate Elizabeth’s understanding of suffering, enough so that she could never truly understand how a slave is mistreated despite her attempt in the poem?