No Abolition of Slavery;
The Universal Empire of Love

By James Boswell

Edited and annotated by Jack Lynch

On almost every subject Boswell agreed with his friend Samuel Johnson, but they never agreed on slavery. Johnson was one of the most vocal critics of slavery, calling for abolition, even violent slave rebellions if necessary. Boswell, who would normally go out of his way to concur with his hero, offered his “most solemn protest against his general doctrine with respect to the Slave Trade,” insisting that Johnson’s “unfavourable notion of it was owing to prejudice, and imperfect or false information.”

As efforts to abolish the slave trade circulated in the 1780s, Boswell warned his fellow Britons about the “wild and dangerous attempt which has for some time been persisted in to obtain an act of our Legislature, to abolish so very important and necessary a branch of commercial interest,” insisting that “To abolish a status, which in all ages God has sanctioned, and man has continued, would not only be robbery to an innumerable class of our fellow-subjects; but it would be extreme cruelty to the African Savages, a portion of whom it saves from massacre, or intolerable bondage in their own country, and introduces into a much happier state of life; especially now when their passage to the West-Indies and their treatment there is humanely regulated.”

Here Boswell makes similar arguments in poetic form, alternating bitter political satire with sentimental portraits of happy enslaved people overseen by loving plantation owners.

The text comes from the first edition of 1791. I’ve made only a very few corrections — the errata are integrated into the text and a very few obvious typographical errors have been silently corrected, along with a few misnumbered lines.

No Abolition of Slavery;
The Universal Empire of Love
Addressed to Miss ———

To the Respectable Body of West-India Planters and Merchants,
The Following Poem is Inscribed by the Authour.

—— Most pleasing of thy sex, thy sex = women
Born to delight and never vex; vex = bother
Whose kindness gently can controul
My wayward turbulence of soul. wayward = uncontrollable

Pry’thee, my dearest, dost thou read, [5]
The Morning Prints, and ever heed prints = newspapers
Minutes, which tell how time’s mispent, minutes = reports of parliamentary debates
In either House of Parliament?

See T——, with the front of Jove! front = appearance; Jove = Zeus
    But not like Jove with thunder grac’d, [10]
In Westminster’s superb alcove Westminster, location of the Houses of Parliament
    Like the unhappy Theseus plac’d.
Day after day indignant swells indignant = offended and angry
    His generous breast, while still he hears
Impeachment’s fierce relentless yells, [15]
    Which stir his bile and grate his ears.

And what a dull vain barren shew shew = show
    St. Stephen’s luckless Chapel fills;
Our notions of respect how low,
    While fools bring in their idle Bills. [20]

Noodles, who rave for abolition noodles = idiots
Of th’ African’s improv’d condition,
At your own cost fine projects try; projects = schemes
Don’t rob — from pure humanity.
Go, W———, with narrow scull, [25] W——— = Wilberforce, a famous abolitionist
Go home, and preach away at Hull, Hull, Wilberforce’s birthplace
No longer to the Senate cackle,
In strains which suit the Tabernacle; strains = impassioned tone
I hate your little wittling sneer, wittling = trying to be clever
Your pert and self-sufficient leer, [30] pert = cocky
Mischief to Trade sits on thy lip,
Insects will gnaw the noblest ship;
Go, W———, be gone, for shame,
Thou dwarf, with a big-sounding name.

Poor inefficient B——, we see [35] B—— = Brown
No capability in thee,
Th’ immortal spirit of thy Sire sire = father
Has borne away th’ æthereal fire, borne = carried; æthereal = unearthly
And left thee but the earthy dregs, —
Let’s never have thee on thy legs; [40]
’Tis too provoking, sure, to feel,
A kick from such a puny heel.

Pedantick pupil of old Sherry,
Whose shrugs and jerks would make us merry,
If not by tedious languor wrung — [45]
Hold thy intolerable tongue.

Drawcansir Dolben would destroy drawcansir = bully
Both slavery and licentious joy;
Foe to all sorts of planters, he planters = plantation owners
Will suffer neither bond nor free. [50] suffer = tolerate; bond = enslaved

Go we to the Committee room,
There gleams of light conflict with gloom,
While unread rheams in chaos lye, rheams = reams of paper
Our water closets to supply. water closets = toilets

What frenzies will a rabble seize [55] rabble = mob
In lax luxurious days, like these;
The People’s Majesty, forsooth, forsooth = truly
Must fix our rights, define our truth;
Weavers become our Lords of Trade,
And every clown throw by his spade, [60] clown = ignorant bumpkin; throw by = get rid of
T’ instruct our ministers of state,
And foreign commerce regulate:
Ev’n bony Scotland with her dirk, dirk = Scottish knife
Nay, her starv’d presbyterian kirk, kirk = [Scottish] church
With ignorant effrontery prays [65] effrontery = audacity, insolence
Britain to dim the western rays,
Which while they on our island fall
Give warmth and splendour to us all.

See in a stall three feet by four,
Where door is window, window door, [70]
Saloop a hump-back’d cobler drink; saloop = medicinal drink
“With him the muse shall sit and think”; muse, goddess who inspires poetry
He shall in sentimental strain, strain = tone
That negroes are oppress’d, complain.
What mutters the decrepit creature? [75] decrepit = old and feeble
The Dignity of Human Nature!

Windham, I won’t suppress a gibe, gibe = insult
Whilst Thou art with the whining tribe;
Thou who hast sail’d in a balloon,
And touch’d, intrepid, at the moon, [80]
(Hence, as the Ladies say you wander,
By much too fickle a Philander:) Philander = sexual partner
Shalt Thou, a Roman free and rough,
Descend to weak blue stocking stuff, blue stocking, related to intellectual women
And cherish feelings soft and kind, [85]
Till you emasculate your mind.

Let Courtenay sneer, and gibe, and hack, gibe = insult
We know Ham’s sons are always black;
On sceptick themes he wildly raves, sceptick = doubting settled wisdom
Yet Africk’s sons were always slaves; [90]
I’d have the rogue beware of libel,
And spare a jest — when on the Bible. spare = skip

Burke, art Thou here too? thou, whose pen,
Can blast the fancied rights of men: blast = attack; fancied = imaginary
Pray, by what logick are those rights [95] pray = please
Allow’d to Blacks — deny’d to Whites?

But Thou! bold Faction’s chief Antistes,
Thou, more than Samson Agonistes!
Who, Rumour tells us, would pull down
Our charter’d rights, our church, our crown; [100] charter’d = granted by formal decree
Of talents vast, but with a mind
Unaw’d, ungovern’d, unconfin’d
Best humour’d man, worst politician, best humour’d = in the best mood
Most dangerous, desp’rate state physician;
Thy manly character why stain [105]
By canting, when ’tis all in vain? canting = talking nonsense; vain = pointless
For thy tumultuous reign is o’er;
The People’s Man thou art no more.
And Thou, in whom the magick name
Of William Pitt still gathers fame, [110] William Pitt the Younger, prime minister
Who could at once exalted stand,
Spurning subordinate command; spurning = rejecting; subordinate = hierarchical
Ev’n when a stripling sit with ease, stripling = young man
The mighty helm of state to seise; helm of state to seise = to take control of the government
Whom now (a thousand storms endur’d) [115]
Years of experience have matur’d;
For whom, in glory’s race untir’d,
Th’ events of nations have conspir’d;
For whom, e’er many suns revolv’d, e’er = before
Holland has crouch’d, and France dissolv’d; [120]
And Spain, in a Don Quixote fit,
Has bullied only to submit;
Why stoop to nonsense? why cajole cajole = flatter
Blockheads who vent their rigmarole? rigmarole = nonsense

And yet, where influence must rule, [125]
’Tis sometimes wise to play the fool;
Thus, like a witch, you raise a storm,
Whether the Parliament’s Reform,
A set of Irish Propositions,
Impeachment — on your own conditions, [130]
Or Richmond’s wild fortifications,
Enough to ruin twenty nations,
Or any thing you know can’t fail,
To be a tub to Party’s whale.
Then whilst they nibble, growl, and worry, [135]
All keen and busy, hurry-scurry; hurry-scurry = chaotic
Britannia’s ship you onward guide, Britannia’s ship = the British government
Wrapt in security and pride.

Accept fair praise; but while I live
Your Regency I can’t forgive; [140]
My Tory soul with anger swell’d, Tory, one of two main political parties
When I a parcel’d Crown beheld; parcel’d crown = divided royal authority
Prerogative put under hatches, prerogative = the king’s powers; hatches = trapdoors
A Monarchy of shreds and patches;
And lo! a Phantom! to create, [145]
A huge Hermaphrodite of State!
A monster, more alarming still
Than Fox’s raw-head India Bill!

Thurlow, forbear thy awful frown; forbear = give up
I beg you may not look me down [150]
My honest fervour do not scout, scout = mock
I too like thee can be devout,
And in a solemn invocation,
Of loyalty make protestation.

Courtiers, who chanc’d to guess aright, [155]
And bask now in the Royal sight,
Gold sticks and silver, and white wands,
Ensigns of favour in your hands,
Glitt’ring with stars, and envied seen
Adorn’d with ribbands blue, red, green! [160] ribbands = ribbons
I charge you of deceit keep clear, charge = order
And poison not the Sovereign’s ear:
O ne’er let Majesty suppose
The Prince’s friends must be His foes.
There is not one amongst you all [165]
Whose sword is readier at his call;
An ancient Baron of the land,
I by my King shall ever stand; ever = always
But when it pleases Heav’n to shroud
The Royal image in a cloud, [170]
That image in the Heir I see,
The Prince is then as King to me.
Let’s have, altho’ the skies should lour, lour = look dark and threatening
No interval of Regal pow’r. interval = gap

Where have I wander’d? do I dream? [175]
Sure slaves of power are not my theme;
But honest slaves, the sons of toil,
Who cultivate the Planter’s soil. planter = plantation owner

He who to thwart God’s system tries,
Bids mountains sink, and vallies rise; [180]
Slavery, subjection, what you will, what you will = whatever you want
Has ever been, and will be still:
Trust me, that in this world of woe
Mankind must different burthens know; burthens = burdens, troubles
Each bear his own, th’ Apostle spoke; [185]
And chiefly they who bear the yoke. yoke = wooden frame on oxen’s necks

From wise subordination’s plan subordination = hierarchy
Springs the chief happiness of man;
Yet from that source to numbers flow
Varieties of pain and woe; [190]
Look round this land of freedom, pray, pray = please
And all its lower ranks survey; ranks = social classes
Bid the hard-working labourer speak,
What are his scanty gains a week?
All huddled in a smoaky shed, [195]
How are his wife and children fed?
Are not the poor in constant fear
Of the relentless Overseer?

London! Metropolis of bliss!
Ev’n there sad sights we cannot miss; [200]
Beggars at every corner stand,
With doleful look and trembling hand; doleful = gloomy
Hear the shrill piteous cry of sweep, piteous = sad, worthy of pity
See wretches riddling an ash heap; riddling an ash heap = picking through garbage
The streets some for old iron scrape, [205]
And scarce the crush of wheels escape; barely
Some share with dogs the half-eat bones,
From dunghills pick’d with weary groans.

Dear Cumberland, whose various powers [210]
Preserve thy life from languid hours, languid = idle
Thou scholar, statesman, traveller, wit,
Who prose and verse alike canst hit;
Whose gay West-Indian on our stage, West-Indian, a popular play by Cumberland
Alone might check this stupid rage; [215] check = restrict
Fastidious yet — O! condescend condescend = stoop to
To range with an advent’rous friend: range = wander
Together let us beat the rounds,
St. Giles’s ample blackguard bounds: blackguard = rogue
Try what th’ accurs’d Short’s Garden yields, [220]
His bludgeon where the Flash-man wields;
Where female votaries of sin, votaries = worshipers
With fetid rags and breath of gin, fetid = foul-smelling
Like antique statues stand in rows,
Fine fragments sure, but ne’er a nose. [225]
Let us with calmness ascertain ascertain = figure out
The liberty of Lewkner’s Lane,
And Cockpit-AlleyStewart’s Rents,
Where the fleec’d drunkard oft repents. fleec’d = cheated out of money
With Bentley’s critical acumen [230] acumen = intelligence, insight
Explore the haunts of evil’s Numen; numen = deity
And in the hundreds of Old Drury, hundreds = districts
Descant de legibus Naturæ. descant = talk nonsensically
Let’s prowl the courts of Newton-Street,
Where infamy and murder meet; [235] infamy = disgraceful reputation
Where Carpmeal must with caution tread,
Macmanus tremble for his head, tremble for his head = fear execution
Jealous look sharp with all his eyes,
And Townshend apprehend surprise; apprehend = fear
And having view’d the horrid maze, [240]
Let’s justify the Planter’s ways.

Lo then, in yonder fragrant isle
Where Nature ever seems to smile,
The cheerful gang! — the negroes see
Perform the task of industry:
Ev’n at their labour hear them sing, [245]
While time flies quick on downy wing; downy = feathered
Finish’d the bus’ness of the day,
No human beings are more gay: gay = cheerful, carefree
Of food, clothes, cleanly lodging sure,
Each has his property secure; [250]
Their wives and children are protected,
In sickness they are not neglected;
And when old age brings a release, release = death
Their grateful days they end in peace.

But should our Wrongheads have their will, [255]
Should Parliament approve their bill,
Pernicious as th’ effect would be, pernicious = destructive
T’ abolish negro slavery,
Such partial freedom would be vain,
Since Love’s strong empire must remain. [260]

Venus, Czarina of the skies, czarina = queen
Despotick by her killing eyes, despotick = tyrannical
Millions of slaves who don’t complain,
Confess her universal reign: confess = acknowledge
And Cupid too well-us’d to try [265]
His bow-string lash, and darts to ply, darts = arrows
Her little Driver still we find,
A wicked rogue, although he’s blind.

Bring me not maxims from the schools; maxims from the schools = quotations from textbooks
Experience now my conduct rules; [270]
O ———! trust thy lover true,
I must and will be slave to you.

Yet I must say — but pr’ythee smile, — pr’ythee = please
’Twas a hard trip to Paphos isle; Paphos, mythical home of Venus (Aphrodite)
By your keen roving glances caught, [275]
And to a beauteous tyrant brought;
My head with giddiness turn’d round,
With strongest fetters I was bound; fetters = chains
I fancy from my frame and face, fancy = imagine
You thought me of th’ Angola race: [280]
You kept me long indeed, my dear,
Between the decks of hope and fear;
But this and all the seasoning o’er,
My blessings I enjoy the more.

Contented with my situation, [285]
I want but little regulation; want = require; regulation = enforced rules
At intervals Chanson à boire chanson à boire = drinking song
And good old port in my Code noire; Code noire, laws governing slaveholding
Nor care I when I’ve once begun,
How long I labour, in the sun [290]
Of your bright eyes! — which beam with joy,
Warm, cheer, enchant, but don’t destroy.

My charming friend! it is full time
To close this argument in rhime;
The rhapsody must now be ended, [295]
My proposition I’ve defended;
For, Slavery there must ever be,
While we have Mistresses like thee!



For “Thurlow,” i.e., Edward Thurlow, 1st Baron Thurlow, Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, a defender of the British slave trade.
thunder grac’d
Had he the command of thunder, there can be no doubt that he would long before now have cleared a troublesome quarter. [Boswell’s note.]
Theseus plac’d
Sedet eternumque sedebit / Infelix Theseus.Virg. [Boswell’s note.] “But cursed Theseus sits, and will sit forever,” from Virgil’s Aeneid.
St. Stephen’s luckless Chapel
St. Stephen’s Chapel is in the Palace of Westminster, used by members of Parliament.
Noodles, who rave for abolition
If the abettors of the Slave trade Bill should think they are too harshly treated in this Poem, let them consider how they should feel if their estates were threatened by an agrarian law; (no unplausible measure) and let them make allowances for the irritation which themselves have occasioned. [Boswell’s note.]
improv’d condition
That the Africans are in a state of savage wretchedness, appears from the most authentic accounts. Such being the fact, an abolition of the slave trade would in truth be precluding them from the first step towards progressive civilization, and consequently of happiness, which it is proved by the most respectable evidence they enjoy in a great degree in our West-India islands, though under well-regulated restraint. The clamour which is raised against this change of their situation, reminds us of the following passage in one of the late Mr. Hall’s “Fables for Grown Gentlemen.”

“’Tis thus the Highlander complains,
’Tis thus the Union they abuse,
For binding their backsides in chains,
And shackling their feet in shoes;
For giving them both food and fuel,
And comfortable cloaths,
Instead of cruel oatmeal gruel,
Instead of rags and heritable blows.” [Boswell’s note.]
No Capability in thee
Boswell puns on the nickname of the most famous landscape architect of the era, Lancelot “Capability” Brown.
Actor and educator Thomas Sheridan, who focused on teaching public speaking.
Sir William Dolben, 3rd Baronet was a prominent abolitionist. In 1788 he introduced a parliamentary bill, now known as Dolben’s Act or the Slave Trade Act, governing the conditions on slave ships.
The question now agitated in the British Parliament concerning slavery, is illustrated with great information, able argument, and perspicuous expression, in a work entitled, “Doubts on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, by an Old Member of Parliament”; printed for Stockdale, in Picadilly, 1790. It is ascribed to John Ranby, Esq.

That the evils of the Slave Trade should, like the evils incident to other departments of civil subordination, be humanely remedied as much as may be, every good man is convinced; and accordingly we find that great advances have been gradually made in that respect, as may be seen in various publications, particularly the evidence taken before the Privy-Council. It must be admitted, that in the course of the present imprudent and dangerous attempt to bring about a total abolition, one essential advantage has been obtained, namely, a better mode of carrying the slaves from Africa to the West-Indies; but surely this might have been had in a less violent manner. [Boswell’s note.]
Diogenes being discovered in the street in fond intercourse with one of those pretty misses whom Sir William Dolben dislikes, steadily said, “Φυτενω Ανδρας — I plant men.” [Boswell’s note.]
Manchester Petition. [Boswell’s note.] The Manchester Abolition Committee, which included many weavers since Manchester was a manufacturing town, introduced a series of petitions in 1788 trying to convince Parliament to abolish the slave trade.
Some of the Scottish Presbyteries petitioned. [Boswell’s note.] A number of Scottish Presbyterian churches petitioned the government to end the slave trade in the late 1780s.
Human Nature
Risum teneatis amici. Horat. [Boswell’s note.] “Could you keep from laughing, my friends? From The Art of Poetry by the Roman poet Horace.” “The Dignity of Human Nature” is the title of one of the Scottish philosopher David Hume’s writings; Boswell makes fun of the thought that lower-class people could discuss such lofty topics.
William Windham, English politician and abolitionist.
The Montgolfier Brothers made their first successful hot-air balloon flights in 1783. Windham was just one of many people excited by the prospect of human flight.
John Courtenay, Anglo-Irish politician and abolitionist.
Ham’s sons are always black
The Bible says Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and that Noah cursed Ham’s son Canaan for seeing him naked. Later interpreters saw Ham as the ancestor of the world’s Black people, and the curse of Ham as the explanation for their black skin. The story has often been used to justify slavery.
Edmund Burke was an Anglo-Irish politician and writer. His “Sketch of a Negro Code” was a plan for the gradual emancipation of enslaved Black people.
rights of men
Burke’s most famous work, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), was a conservative rejection of revolutionary ferment. It prompted Thomas Paine to write a pamphlet in reply, The Rights of Man. The resulting pamphlet war also produced Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
When I forget Him, may God forget me! [Boswell’s note.]
Regal Pow’r
Mira cano, Sol occubuit, nox nulla sequuta. See Camden’s Remains. [Boswell’s note.] “The sun set, but no night followed.”
The state of slavery is acknowledged both in the Old Testament and the New. [Boswell’s note.]
The great Dr. Bentley was Mr. Cumberland’s grandfather. [Boswell’s note.] Richard Cumberland was a successful playwright, and the grandson of Richard Bentley, the greatest classical scholar of the eighteenth century. For several years he served as secretary to the Board of Trade and Plantations. His most popular play was The West Indian, focusing on a kindly plantation owner visiting London.
Descant de legibus Naturæ
Mr. Cumberland is a descendant of Bishop Cumberland, who wrote De legibus Naturæ. [Boswell’s note.] Richard Cumberland was Bishop of Peterborough beginning in 1691. He was the author of a book of a kind of utilitarian philosophy, On Natural Law.
Messieurs Carpmeal, Macmanus, Jealous, and Townshend, gentlemen of the Publick Office, in Bow-Street. [Boswell’s note.] Thomas Carpmeal (or Carpmael), Patrick Macmanus, Charles Jealous, and John Townsend were among the “Bow Street Runners,” law enforcement officers who were the first professional police force.
cheerful gang
Sir William Young has a series of pictures, in which the negroes in our plantations are justly and pleasingly exhibited in various scenes. [Boswell’s note.] Young held a series of governmental posts related to the West Indies, and owned slaves on his plantations.
Angola race
The Angola blacks are the most ferocious. The author does not boast, like Abyssinian Yakoob, &ldqou;of no ungracious figure”: nor does he, like another beau garçon, Mr. Gibbon, prefix his pleasing countenance to captivate the ladies. [Boswell’s note.] Boswell quotes James Bruce’s Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, and mentions Edward Gibbon, the historian most famous for The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.