John Collins, "The Desponding Negro, A Song" (1804)



On Afric's wide Plains, where the Lion now roaring,
With Freedom stalks forth, the vast Desert exploring,
I was dragg'd from my Hut, and enchain'd as a Slave,
In a dark floating Dungeon, upon the salt Wave.

Spare a Halfpenny    spare a Halfpenny    spare a
        Halfpenny to a poor Negro.

Toss'd on the wild Main, I all wildly despairing,
Burst my Chains, rush'd on Deck, with mine Eye-balls
        wide glaring,
When the Lightning's dread Blast struck the Inlets of
And its glorious bright Beams shut for ever away.

        Spare a Halfpenny, &c.

The Despoiler of Man, then, his Prospect thus losing, Of Gain by my Sale, not a blind Bargain choosing,
As my Value, compar'd with my Keeping, was light,
Had me dash'd overboard, in the Dead of the Night.

       Spare a Halfpenny, &c.

And but for a Bark, to Britannia's Coast bound then,
All my Cares by that Plunge in the Deep had been
        drown'd then;
But by Moonlight descry'd, I was snatch'd from the
And reluctantly robb'd of a watery Grave.

       Spare a Halfpenny, &c.

How disastrous my Fate, Freedom's Ground though I
        tread now,
Torn from Home, Wife, and Children, and wand'ring
        for Bread now;
While Seas roll between us, which ne'er can be
And Hope's distant Glimm'rings in Darkness are lost.

        Spare a Halfpenny, &c.

But of Deeds fair and foul, when the Judge and the
Shall restore Light and Rest to the Blind and the
May the poor Sable Flock, here by Christians
Find a peaceful long Home their sweet Refuge at

        Spare a Halfpenny, spare a Halfpenny;
        O, spare a Halfpenny to a poor Negro.

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Notes on the poem

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An actor, poet, orator, and musical entertainer, John Collins was well known and respected throughout England and Ireland. Collins (1742-1808), the son of a tailor, was born and raised in Bath, where he was schooled to become a staymaker. However, with his first on-stage performance in Bath at an early age, and another in Smock Alley, Dublin at age twenty-two, it was evident that Collins had a different profession in mind. As Collins traveled around, gaining popularity, he performed in a variety of plays ranging from tragedies and comedies to farces and comic operas. Years later, he composed "The Brush" ( "Lecture on Oratory"), a collection of theatrical stories and songs, on which he would lecture at the local taverns of England and Ireland. In 1793, Collins settled down in Birmingham, where he later printed Scripscrapologia, a collection of poems encompassing a great range of different topics, including "To-morrow," "The Desponding Negro," and original poems from "The Brush" (all to be adapted to popular tunes). Soon after this, Collins suffered from a severe illness and died in Birmingham on May 2, 1808. His wife suffered from breast cancer and died during an operation. They had no children.

"The Desponding Negro, a Song" is a part of a collection of poems first printed in Scripscrapologia, in which songs are adapted to different tunes. The rhyming scheme and the light-hearted attitude of the poem suggest that it may have been a musical number in one of Collins's plays. The poem depicts a black African being snatched from his home into slavery. He runs on the deck of the slave ship, only to be struck and blinded by a bolt of lightning. He would now have cost more to support than he can be sold for, so he is tossed overboard. A passing ship rescues him from death, and he becomes a beggar. But God will rectify the situations of all who are outcast by Christians. However, the black man is still begging the white Christian for money at the close of the poem, indicating that power relations have not changed on earth.

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Bibliographical note

Collins, John, "The Desponding Negro, A Song," Scripscrapologia (Birmingham: John Collins, 1804), pp. 122-123.
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This hypertext was created on November 1, 1999, by Heather Donovan.