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Grégory Pierrot on Edward Rushton's West Indian Eclogues

Grégory Pierrot (University of Connecticut at Stamford) on

“Edward Rushton’s West Indian Eclogues (1787): Rape, Slavery, and Nation in English Abolitionist Poetry”

In his description of the English annexation of Jamaica in 1655 in New History of Jamaica (1740), Charles Leslie tells the tale of a slave who joins the English in their fight against the Spaniards to avenge the rape of his wife by a Spanish planter. Leslie’s story inspired several abolitionist poems, notably the most powerful of Edward Rushton’s West Indian Eclogues (1787). The reactions of enslaved husbands at seeing their wives subjected to the lust of slave owners form a recurrent motif in Edward Rushton’s works. It interacts in significant ways with a notion popularized in French literature at the same time: droit du seigneur or jus prima noctis, the theory that feudal lords arrogated the right to claim the virginity of serf women on their lands. Beaumarchais’ Le Mariage de Figaro (1784), perhaps the most famous text to use droit du seigneur, has long been considered instrumental in preparing French popular opinion for the Revolution for providing a striking illustration of the injustice of France’s feudal system. Continental droit du seigneur plots evoke the tale of Lucretia, in which rape is the act by which a new nation is born. I argue here that these overtones become especially important in the late eighteenth-century English context: merged with a tradition of representation of black villains and failed avengers from Shakespeare’s Othello to Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, they provide the backdrop against which Rushton and other abolitionist poets struggled to find terms in which to imagine black political agency against Atlantic slavery—terms eventually spelled out in the Haitian Revolution.

Grégory Pierrotis an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Connecticut at Stamford. He has recently translated the French treatise Free Jazz/Black Power by Philippe Carles and Jean-Louis Comolli (Mississippi UP: 2015), and edited a scholarly edition of Marcus Rainsford’s An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti (Duke UP: 2013; co-edited with Paul Youngquist). His articles have been published in Studies in American Fiction, the African American Review, Criticism, and Notes and Queries. He is currently working on a monograph tentatively entitled: One in a Million: Black Avengers in Atlantic Culture.

Thursday, February 23rd at 5:15 pm in Anderson Hall 821. Pre-circulated paper via p19 listserv.