Edward Jerningham, "The African Boy" (1788)


AH, tell me, little mournful MOOR,
Why still you linger on the shore?
Haste to your play-mates, haste away,
Nor loiter here with fond delay:
When Morn unveil'd her radiant eye,
You hail'd me as I wander'd by;
Returning at th' approach of Eve,
Your meek salute I still receive.

"Benign Enquirer, thou shalt know
Why here my lonesome moments flow:
'Tis said thy Countrymen (no more
Like rav'ning sharks that haunt the shore)
Return to bless, to raise, to cheer,
And pay Compassion's long arrear.

"'Tis said the num'rous Captive Train,
Late bound by the degrading Chain,
Triumphant come, with swelling sails,
'Mid smiling skies, and western gales;
They come with festive heart and glee,
Their hands unshackled---minds as free;
They come at Mercy's great command,
To repossess their native land.

"The gales that o'er the Ocean stray,
And chase the waves in gentle play,
Methinks they whisper as they fly,
JUELLEN soon will meet thine eye!
'Tis this that sooths her little Son,
Blends all his wishes into one:
Ah! were I clasp'd in her embrace,
I wou'd forgive her past disgrace:
Forgive the memorable hour
She fell a prey to tyrant pow'r;
Forgive her lost, distracted air,
Her sorrowing voice, her kneeling pray'r;
The suppliant tears that gall'd her cheek,
And last, her agonizing shriek.
Lock'd in her hair, a ruthless hand
Trail'd her along the flinty strand;
A ruffian train, with clamours rude,
The impious spectacle pursu'd:
Still as she mov'd, in accents wild,
She cried aloud, My child! my child!
The lofty bark she now ascends;
With screams of woe, the air she rends:
The vessel less'ning from the shore,
Her piteous wails I heard no more;
Now as I stretch'd my last survey,
Her distant form dissolv'd away.

"That day is past: I cease to mourn---
Succeeding joy shall have its turn,
Beside the hoarse-resounding deep
A pleasing anxious watch I keep:
For when the morning clouds shall break,
And darts of day the darkness streak,
Perchance along the glitt'ring main,
(Oh, may this hope not throb in vain!)
To meet these long-desiring eyes,
JUELLEN and the Sun may rise."

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Notes on the poem

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Edward Jerningham (1737-1812), poet, dramatist, and compleat gentleman. Jerningham was the third son of Sir George Jerningham, Baronet of Costessey Park, Norfolk, and Mary Plowden. He was educated in France, at the English College at Douai and, later, at the University of Paris. Witty and fashionable, his company was enjoyed by the upper crust of British society, including the Prince of Wales. Friends referred to him as "the charming man" and a new acquaintance described him as "a mighty delicate gentleman: looks to be painted and is all daintification in manner speech and dress" (cited in Lewis Bettany, Edward Jerningham and His Friends: A Series of Eighteenth Century Letters [Great Britain, 1919], p. 8.) Kind and generous, his patronage was sought by many people needing help. His acquaintances came from all social classes and professions, including people active in the anti-slave trade movement, like Hannah More and friends of William Cowper. His intimate friend, Horace Walpole, wrote a book on Thomas Chatterton, another antislavery poet.

Jerningham wrote several plays and numerous poems throughout his life. His first literary success, a poem on the Foundling Hospital, was said to have been influential in the establishment of the institution. Poems on Various Subjects, a collection of all his published poetry, was issued in 1767. It was later simply called Poems in its next eight printings (the latest dated 1806) with new pieces added to the later editions. Jerningham also contributed poems to The World, a London daily, and to The British Album. Jerningham's poems were severely criticized during his time. Jerningham was satirized as "snivelling" and "weeping at the age of fifty o'er love-lorn oxen and deserted sheep" and that his verses were "fit to be put into the vase of Lady Miller" (Gifford and Macaulay, respectively, cited in Bettany, Edward Jerningham and His Friends, p. 13). His plays did not fare much better than his poetry.

"The African Boy" is certainly not about "love-lorn oxen and deserted sheep." The poem has for its subject matter an event related to the most pressing issue in England during his time: the situation of the African slaves. "The African Boy" commemorates the establishment of the Sierra Leone colony for freed black slaves by English philanthropists and abolitionists in 1787.

In the 1780's, hundreds of black Americans had fled to London after the War of Independence, having been promised land and freedom in return for supporting the British against the Americans. Most of these freed slaves could not find jobs in London and thus lived in destitution. Many of them died of starvation and cold on the streets. Their suffering elicited public sympathy and many English citizens from all social classes donated money for food and relief of the "Black Poor." English philanthropists and abolitionist Evangelicals who were members of the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor proposed to the British government to found a settlement for the Black Poor in Sierra Leone and to give them assisted passage. The proposal received widespread support as the best long-term solution to the situation of the freed blacks and to the problem presented by the presence of a big population of destitute blacks to the city government. The project presented to English philanthropists and Evangelical abolitionists the possibility of enfleshing a utopia, a "Province of Freedom," where the former slaves could be educated and Christianized. The proposal too was received with rejoicing by the Black Poor. The settlers left Portsmouth aboard the sloop Nautilus in February 1787.

However, this celebrated expedition turned out to be a disastrous failure. Although initially 700 people signed up to join the venture, the fear of the blacks that they would be transported to a convict settlement reduced the number to 456. Even before the ship left England for Sierra Leone, bitter fighting among the leaders of the expedition erupted. Olaudah Equiano, a freed African slave and leading African anti-slavery activist in London who was assigned by the government to be the Commissary for the venture, charged that some of the white leaders of the expedition had misappropriated the equipment and food meant to support the black settlers. Some white leaders counter-charged that Equiano was fomenting division and conflict between the black settlers and the white leaders. Equiano was dismissed from the expedition and left the group in Plymouth. By this time, already 100 out of the 456 members of the group had either died or deserted. The sloop left Plymouth for Sierra Leone on 8 April 1787 and arrived in Sierra Leone in May 1787 at the beginning of the rainy season. They had not set up their shelter when the rains began. Nothing could be planted, too, because of the rains and the provisions soon ran out. A third of the settler population died, wearied by the travel and vulnerable to diseases. The survivors had to fight with the neighbouring African tribe, who burned down the settlement.

Several years later, other freed black slaves from Nova Scotia, Canada, a British colony, would come to reestablish the Sierra Leone settlement. Their difficulty would be no less than what was experienced by the original settlers but the colony would grow, and by 1811, it had a population of 2,000 liberated blacks.

"The African Boy" first saw print in the 15 May 1788 issue of The World under Jerningham's pseudonym, "The Bard," and was included in The Poetry of the World (later called The British Album), a collection of poems printed in The World, published in 1788. The poem was added to Poems in its 1790 and subsequent editions.

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Bibliographical note

Jerningham, Edward, "The African Boy," The World (15 May 1788); rpt. The Poetry of the World, ed. Edward Topham (London: John Bell, 1788), pp. 138-140.
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This hypertext was created on October 30, 1999, by Lorenzo Puente.