The innovative aspect of our project English Literature and Slavery 1772-1834: From the Beginning of the Abolitionist Movement to the Abolition of Slavery consists in a thorough reappraisal of the discourse on slavery. This is achieved by analysing the rhetorical and aesthetic strategies in texts of different genres and by closely studying the argumentative areas – e.g. moral, religious, economic, political, ethnic, social, and scientific – as well as central terms used in texts by British writers dealing with the topic. An in-depth study of the paradigm shift from pro- to anti-slavery discourse in literary and non-literary texts written at and around identified key dates (1772, 1787, 1807, and 1834) in the discourse on slavery is being undertaken by subjecting them to both a diachronic and synchronic analysis.
The selection of texts is guided by the following considerations: Anti-slavery discourse gained more and more influence in the late 18th century. When in 1772 a slave was freed and slavery was declared illegal in England, the issue of slavery became central in the public discourse and concepts of liberty and equality gained new relevance in Great Britain. The Abolition Society was formed in London in 1787, supported by William Wilberforce, and parliamentary discussion and action followed leading to the ending of the slave trade in 1807 and the complete abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834. Therefore, the arguments and strategies applied in literary and non-literary key texts in favour of and against enslaving people produced around the main dates in the fight for the abolition of slavery, i.e. 1772, 1787, 1807 and 1834, are at the centre of our attention. Our text corpus is therefore selective rather than comprehensive and has to be flexible enough in that it also takes texts of central importance into account which were not produced at the dates mentioned but nevertheless exerted a great influence on all later argumentations.
In our analysis, the project focuses on the rhetorical and aesthetic strategies used in the controversy about slavery and the paradigmatic changes in this discourse. It also analyses which terminology was used and which underlying concepts formed the basis of this argumentative confrontation between defenders of slavery and abolitionists. The investigation includes research into the question about the introduction, history and use of the problematic word ‘race’ and of other terms relating to the relationship between Europeans and Africans in the discourse on slavery.