David Dabydeen’s Slave Song

Today is the birthday of the poet, novelist, and critic, David Dabydeen, who was born and raised in Guyana before coming to Britain to study, reading English at Selwyn College, Cambridge. Dabydeen, who is a professor at the University of Warwick, has published several novels and collections of verse, as well as studies of eighteenth-century art and literature including Hogarth’s Blacks (1985) Black Writers in Britain 1760-1890 (1991).

Dabydeen’s strongest connection with William Blake lies in his 1984 collection, Slave Song, written in Creole and using Blake’s famous illustrations to John Gabriel Stedman’s The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796). Two of the four illustrations from the Narrative included in Dabydeen’s book are engraved by Blake, the other two by Francesco Bartolozzi who was also sometimes employed by Joseph Johnson, the radical publisher who hired Blake to complete some commissions for him in the 1790s.

Dabydeen describes Creole as a “naturally tragic language”, one formed by slavery, indentured labour and brutality, which is littered with obscenities like “fresh faeces” (Slave Songs, p.14). Unsurprisingly, the songs and poems in the collection depict a world where pain and labour are the norm, as in “Song of the Creole Gang Women” and “The Servant’s Song”, or where rape, murder and violence are commonplace (“For Mala”, “Slave Song”). Dabydeen does not wallow in dejection, however, and there are also moments of tenderness and beauty in the collection, as in “Guyana Pastoral” or “The Canecutter’s Song”.

The four illustrations from the Narrative are of a slave being broken on the rack, a rebel Negro, a female slave with a weight chained to her ankle, and a Surinam planter in his morning dress. The first, engraved by Blake, is the most shocking, depicting a slave bound to a wooden frame, one hand hacked off and his body covered with welts as another slave is forced to beat him to death. This is placed against the title poem, but the slave of that song also fantasises what his “gold flooding” cock could do – “Me still gat life!” – and that as long as such life continues there will be an Orcish, diabolic desire that refuses to submit to oppression for ever.

Although Dabydeen does not offer an analysis of the images he includes, among the most powerful of anti-slavery image (although Anne Mellor sees such illustrations as part of a pornographic obsession with slaves’ bodies), that Blake’s vision had a significant hold on Dabydeen’s accounts also becomes evident in another of his books, The Counting House (1996), set on the Albion Plantation in Guyana in the late nineteenth century. The sugar cane factories become the dark satanic mills of Victorian industry, a dark mirror of the British empire which maintains such economic slavery long after the ostensible slave trade had been abolished. While Mellor and some others often see in Blake an erasure of difference, the sublimation of black and white into a higher white empire of Jerusalem, the fact remains that few other poets have so celebrated opposition to slavery and consistently offered a voice to those who suffer its effects – and wish for the joy of release. As he wrote in a short lyric, “Merlin’s Prophecy”:

Tho born on the cheating banks of Thames
Tho his waters bathed my infant limbs
The Ohio shall wash his stains from me
I was born a slave but I go to be free

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