Four Eclogues

Rushton’s blazing poetic celebration of African anger and resistance, with a short introduction by John Davies.

Listen to this introduction:


The eclogue is a poetic form involving dialogue between two or three characters, originating with the Roman poet Theocritus in the 3rd century BC, made famous by Virgil in the 1st century BC. In Virgil’s hands they explore a pastoral world of shepherd and shepherdesses, whilst risking some oblique satirical swipes at the empire of Augustus Caesar.

There is nothing oblique in Rushton’s eclogues – he had after all seen the brutalities of the plantation in person. The landscape descriptions that open the poems are visions of hell (the natural history is illustrated in copious notes), and the cruelties practiced on the slaves are graphic and horrible. Perhaps most importantly, the black characters in Rushton’s poems give vent to anger and a desire for revenge. In Rushton’s sensitive and imaginative hands this yearning for vengeance is justified. In this it is unique. Other anti-slavery poets, such as Wordsworth, usually limited their identification with slaves to expressions of sympathy and a desire to see an end to slavery. Rushton’s poetic expression was sufficiently explosive for the time that his close friend, Reverend William Shepherd, carefully censored certain passages for the first, posthumous, edition.  Here, censored at the time, is the heroic Jumba speaking:

“What! tamely die! | No! vengeance first shall fall on tyranny! | We’ll view these white men gasping in their gore; – | Then let me perish! JUMBA asks no more.”

Rushton was certainly primarily driven to write the eclogues by his own first hand experience. However, certain aspects of the poems could have been influenced by Aphra Behn’s 1688 novel Oroonoko, or by a number of its theatre adaptations, of which the most overtly committed to the abolitionist cause was The Prince of Angola, by Mancunian writer John Ferriar (1788). In turn, Rushton’s scene-painting may have influenced Robert Southey’s Botany Bay Eclogues, published a decade later. There are also strong Shakespearean echoes, particularly in Loango’s angry jealousy.  Loango’s anguish over his wife’s rape by their slave ‘Driver’ owner echoes King Lear, but particularly Othello:

LOANGO: How if she like the White, his gaudy cloaths,
His downy bed for pleasure and repose;
His shrivel’d frame, his sickly pallid face;
And finds a transport in his weak embrace.
It may be so. — Oh! vengeance on her head,
It is, it is: — She likes the Driver’s bed.

In turn, Rushton’s scene-painting may have influenced Robert Southey’s Botany Bay Eclogues, published a decade later.

Contemporary reaction to the poems was cautious. Even those respecting the author’s obvious anti-slavery stance worried about the voice of black rebellion which rings out so clearly. This from The Monthly Review, of December 1787:

“We applaud the author for the humanity of his design: but there is some impropriety in making the Negroes, the interlocutors in these Eclogues, chiefly employ themselves in venting imprecations, and planning revenge against their oppressors. It is doubtless extremely natural for them to do so: but as the principal design of this performance is to excite pity for the unhappy slaves, their various calamities, not their impatience, should have been chiefly dwelt upon.”

The word ‘unhappy’ to describe enslaved Africans recurs repeatedly in the mouths of apologists for slavery, and, later, African colonialism. It is as if these unfortunate people are born ‘unhappy’, it is their ‘natural’ condition, rather than the result of enslavement and extreme violence. They need to be helped out of their unfortunate state by those more enlightened than themselves. The review continues, in a more overtly racist vein:

“The author wishes ‘his Eclogues in their humble sphere may contribute to prevent excessive punishments from being unnecessarily inflicted.’ A little reflection would have told him that the tears and supplications, not the impotent rage and defiance of the wretched, are most likely to melt their persecutors’ hearts, if formed, as we trust some of our West-India planters are, of ‘penetrable stuff’”

The Haitian revolution, led by African slaves, was only four years away, and there were to be many, many other slave revolts – so much for ‘the impotent rage and defiance of the wretched’! Portraying slaves as the passive recipients of sympathy (‘supplications’), rather than active agents in their own emancipation (constructive ‘rage’), was a common theme until very recently – Rushton manages to break with it over 200 hundred years ago.



The Eastern clouds declare the coming day,
The din of reptiles slowly dies away.
The mountain-tops just glimmer on the eye,
And from their bulky sides the breezes fly.
The Ocean’s margin beats the varied strand,
It’s hoarse, deep, murmurs reach the distant land.
The Sons of Mis’ry, Britain’s foulest stain,
Arise from friendly sleep to pining pain;
Arise, perchance, from dreams of Afric’s soil,
To Slav’ry, hunger, cruelty, and toil:—
When slowly moving to their tasks assign’d,
Two sable friends thus eas’d their lab’ring mind.

Oh say, ADOMA, whence that heavy sigh?
Or is thy YARO sick — or droops the Boy?
Or say what other woe—

These wounds behold.—

Alas! by them too plain thy griefs are told!
But whence, or why these stripes? my injur’d friend.
Declare how one so mild could thus offend.

I’ll tell thee, JUMBA. — ‘Twas but yesterday,
As in the field we toil’d our strength away,
My gentle YARO with her hoe was nigh,
And on her back she bore my infant Boy.
The sultry heats had parch’d his little throat,
His head reclin’d I heard this wailing note.
The Mother, at his piteous cries distress’d,
Now paus’d from toil and gave the cheering breast.
But soon alas! the savage Driver came,
And with his cow-skin cut her tender frame;
Loudly he tax’d her laziness, — and then
He curs’d my boy, and plied the lash again!
—JUMBA, I saw the deed, — I heard her grief!
Could I do less? — I flew to her relief;
I fell before him — sued, embrac’d his knee,
And bade his anger vent itself on me,
Spurn’d from his feet I dar’d to catch his hand,
Nor loos’d it, JUMBA, at his dread command:
For, blind with rage, at one indignant blow
I thought to lay the pale-fac’d villain low!
But sudden stopp’d; — for now the whites came round,
They seiz’d my arms, — my YARO saw me bound!
Need I relate what follow’d?

Barb’rous deed!
Oh! for the pow’r to make these Tyrants bleed!
These, who in regions far remov’d from this,
Think, like ourselves, that liberty is bliss,
Yet in wing’d houses cross the dang’rous waves,
Led by base av’rice, to make others slaves:—
These, who extol the freedom they enjoy,
Yet would to others every good deny:—
These, who have torn us from our native shore
Which (dreadful thought!) we must behold no more:—
These, who taunts our tears, with mocks, our griefs, repay:
Oh! for the pow’r to bring these monsters low,
And bid them feel the biting tooth of woe!

JUMBA, my deep resolves are fix’d! my friend,
This life, this slavish journey, soon shall end.
These fest’ring gashes loudly bid me die,
And by our sacred Gods I will comply.
Yes, JUMBA, by each great Fetish I swear,
This, worse than death, I cannot, will not bear.

What! tamely perish? no, ADOMA, no—
Thy great revenge demands a glorious blow.
But dar’st thou bravely act in such a cause?
Friends must be found, — what say’st thou? — why this pause?

JUMBA, thou mov’st me much. — Thy looks are wild,
Thy gestures passionate—

If to be mild
In such a cause were virtue, — on the ground
JUMBA would crawl, and court the causeless wound.
—How oft, my friend, since first we trod these plains
Have trivial faults call’d forth the bitt’rest pains!
How oft our Tyrants, at each dex’trous lash,
With joyous looks have view’d each bleeding gash;
How oft to these, with tortures still uncloy’d,
Have they the Eben’s prickly branch applied!
And shall we still endure the keenest pain,
And pay our butchers only with disdain?
Shall we, unmov’d, still hear their coward blows?
—No: — vengeance soon shall fasten on our foes,
Lend but thy succour—

Comfort to my soul
Thy words convey, and ev’ry fear controul.
Their last, base, cruel act so steels my heart,
That in thy bold resolves I’ll bear a part.

Enough: — Our glorious aims shall soon succeed,
And thou in turn shall see th’ oppressors bleed.
Soon shall they fall, cut down like lofty Canes,
And (oh! the bliss) from us receive their pains.
Oh! ’twill be pleasant when we see them mourn,
See the fell cup to their own lip return,
View their pale faces prostrate on the ground,
Their meagre bodies gape with many a wound;
View with delight each agonizing grin,
When melted wax is dropp’d upon their skin:—
Then bid them think—

Hark! from yon plaintain trees
Methought a voice came floating on the breeze.
—Hark! — there again—

‘Tis so: our tyrants come.—
At even we’ll meet again: — mean time be dumb.


The twinkling Orbs which pierce the gloom of night
Now shine with more than European light.
Slow from the vap’ury mountains comes the breeze,
And on it’s dewy wings sits pale disease,
Rising from distant reefs and rocky shores,
Where vex’d with recent gales old Ocean roars;
Now up the slopes where spiry canes appear,
A faint unvaried din assails the ear.
The lurking reptiles now being their rounds,
And fill the air with shrill discordant sounds,
And now with varied hum in search of prey,
Unnumber’d insects wheel their airy way;
There glowing fire seems borne upon the wing,
And here the keen Mosquito darts his sting.
The wearied Negroes to their sheds return,
Prepare their morsels, and their hardships mourn,
Talk o’er their former bliss, their present woes;
Then sink to earth, and seek a short repose.
—’Twas now the sable friends, in pensive mood,
In a lone path their doleful theme renew’d.

JUMBA, those words sunk deep into my heart,
Which thou in friendship didst this morn impart.
Still at my toil my mind revolv’d them o’er,
But grew, the more I mus’d, dismay’d the more.
Oh! think on PEDRO, gibbetted alive!
Think on his fate — six long days to survive!—
His frantic looks, — his agonizing pain,—
His tongue outstretch’d to catch the drooping rain;
His vain attempts to turn his head aside,
And gnaw the flesh which his own limbs supplied;
Think on his suff’rings, when th’ inhuman crew,
T’ increase his pangs, plac’d Plaintains in his view,
And bad him eat—

If thus thy promise ends,
If thus thy dastard heart would aid thy friends,
Away, mean wretch, and view thy YARO bleed,
And bow submissive to th’ unmanly deed!—
Thou speak’st of PEDRO. — He possess’d a soul,
Which nobly burst the shackles of controul.
He fell betray’d, but boldly met his death;
And curs’d his tyrants with his latest breath.
—But go, ADOMA, since to live is sweet,
Go, like a dog, and lick the white men’s feet;
Tell them that hunger, slav’ry, toil, and pain
Thou wilt endure, nor ever once complain:
Tell them, though JUMBA dares to plot their fall,
That thou art tame, and wilt submit to all,
Go poor submissive slave. — Go, meanly bend,
Court the pale butchers, and betray thy friend.

How! — I betray my friend! — Oh, JUMBA, cease;
Nor stab ADOMA with such words as these.
Death frights me not; I wish revenge like thee;
But oh! I shudder at their cruelty.
I could undaunted, from the craggy steep
Plunge, and be swallow’d in the raging deep;
Fearless I could with manchineal, or knife,
Or cord, or bullet, end this hated life.
But oh, my friend, like PEDRO to expire,
Or feel the pangs of slow-consuming fire,—
These are most terrible!—

A ling’ring pain
Thou fear’st, and yet canst bear thy servile chain!
Canst bear incessant toil, and want of food,
Canst bear the Driver’s lash to drink thy blood!
Say, doom’d to these, what now does life supply
But ling’ring pain, which must at length destroy?
—Yet go, poor timid wretch, go fawn and grieve:
And as those gashes heal, still more receive:
Go, and submit, like oxen to the wain;—
But never say thou fear’st a ling’ring pain.

Thy charge is just. But, friend, there still remain
Two ways to free us from this galling chain.
Sure we can bid our various sorrows cease
By quitting life, or how, or when we please:
Or we can quickly fly these cruel whites
By seeking shelter on the mountains’ heights,
Where wild hogs dwell, where lofty Cocoas grow,
And boiling streams of purest water flow.
There we might live; for thou with skilful hand
Canst form the bow, and jav’lin, of our land.
There we might freely roam, in search of food,
Up the steep crag, or through the friendly wood,
There we might find—

Alas! thou dost not know
The King of all those mountains is our foe;
His subjects num’rous, and their chief employ
To hunt our race, when fled from slavery.
Lur’d by the hope of gain such arts are tried,
No rocks can cover us, no forests hide.
Against us ev’n the chatt’ring Birds combine,
And aid those hunters in their curs’d design:
For oft, through them, the fugitives are caught,
And, strongly pinion’d, to their tyrants brought.
O’er vale, or mountain, thus where’er we go,
The suff’ring Negro surely finds a foe.

Ah, JUMBA, worse, much worse our wretched state,
Thus vex’d, thus harrass’d, than that fishes fate,
Which frequent we beheld when wafted o’er
The great rough water from our native shore.
He, as the tyrants of the deep pursu’d,
Would quit the waves their swiftness to elude,
And skim in air: — when lo! a bird of prey
Bends his strong wing, and bears the wretch away!
No refuge, then, but death—

What! tamely die!
No! vengeance first shall fall on tyranny!
We’ll view these white men gasping in their gore;—
Then let me perish! JUMBA asks no more.—

Oh! peace, — think where thou art; thy voice is high:
Quick drop the dang’rous theme. — My shed is nigh;
There my poor YARO will our rice prepare;—
I pray thee come.—

Away, and take thy fare,
For me, I cannot eat, — haste to thy shed,
Farewell, be cautious, — think on what I’ve said.


Now downward darts the fierce meridian ray,
And nature pants amid’st the blaze of day,
Though pitying Ocean, to her suff’rings kind,
Fans her warm bosom with his eastern wind.
Now the huge mountains charm the roving eye,
Their verdant summits tow’ring to the sky.
The cultur’d hill, the vale, the spreading plain,
The distant sea worn beach, the ruffled main,
The anchoring Bark o’erspread with awnings white
All, now appear in robes of dazzling light.
The feather’d race their gaudy plumes display,
And sport, and flutter, ‘midst the glowing day.
The long bill’d, humming tribes now hover round,
And shew their tints where blossoms most abound.
With eyes intent on earth, well pois’d in air,
Now useful Vultures seek their fated fare,
Where curls the wave, the Pelican on high,
With beak enormous, and with piercing eye,
If chance he sees a watry tenant rise,
Now headlong drops and bears away his prize.
Now variegated flies their pinions spread;
And speckled Lizards start at ev’ry tread.
Now oxen to the shore in pond’rous wains,
Drag the rich produce of the juicy canes.
Now wearied Negroes to their sheds repair,
Or spreading tree, to take their scanty fare:
Whose hour expir’d, the shell is heard to blow,
And the sad tribe resume their daily woe.
‘Twas now, beneath a Tam’rind’s cool retreat,
Two sable friends thus mourn’d their wretched fate.

Oh QUAMINA! how roll’d the Suns away,
When thus upon our native soil we lay;
When we repos’d beneath the friendly shade,
And quaff’d our palmy wine, and round survey’d
Our naked offspring sporting free as air,
Our num’rous wives the chearing feast prepare:
Saw plenty smile around our cane-built sheds,
Saw Yams shoot up, and Cocoas lift their heads.
—But now ah! sad reverse! our groans arise,
Forlorn and hopeless, far from all we prize:
Timid we tremble at our tyrants’ frown,
And one vast load of mis’ry bends us down.

Yes, — those were times which we in vain may mourn,
Times which, my CONGO, never will return!
Times, e’er the scourge’s hated sound was known,
Of hunger, toil, and stripes, had caus’d a groan.
Times, when with arrows arm’d, and trusty bow,
We oft repell’d each rude, invading, foe.
Times, when we chac’d the fierce-ey’d beasts of prey
Through tangled woods, which scarcely know the day:
When oft we saw, in spite of all his care,
The bulky Elephant within our snare.

Twelve moons are past, for still I mark them down,
Since the fell trading race, attack’d our town;
Since we were seiz’d by that inhuman band,
Forc’d from our wives, our friends, and native land.
Twelve long, long moons they’ve been; and since that day
Oft have we groan’d beneath a cruel sway.
Oft has the taper’d scourge, where knots and wire
Are both combin’d to raise the torture higher,
Brought bloody pieces from each quiv’ring part,
Whilst tyrant whites have sworn ’twas dext’rous art.

Sharks seize them all! their love of torture grows,
And the whole Island echoes with our woes.
Didst thou know JUMBA? — Some close, list’ning ear,
Heard him last eve denounce in terms severe,
Deep vengeance on these whites. In vain he fled:
This morn I saw him number with the dead!

A fate so sudden! — And yet why complain?
The white mans pleasure is the Negroes pain.

Didst thou e’er see, when hither first we came,
An ancient Slave, ANGOLA was his name?
Whose vig’rous years upon these hills were spent,
In galling servitude, and discontent:
He late, too weak to bear the weighty toil,
Which all endure who till this hated soil,
Was sent, as one grown useless on th’ estate,
Far to the town to watch his Master’s gate,
Or to the house each morn the fuel bring,
Or bear cool water from the distant spring:
With many a toil, with many a labour more,
Although his aged head was silver’d o’er,
Although his body like a bow was bent,
And old, and weak, he totter’d as he went.

I knew him not,

Often, each labour sped,
Has he with aching limbs attain’d his shed.
Attain’d the spot, dejected and forlorn,
Where he might rest his aged head ’till morn:
Where, wearied out, he op’d the friendly door,
And, entring, prostrate sunk upon the floor.
Feeble and faint some moons he toil’d away;
(For trifles toil become as men decay)
When late beneath the driver’s lash he fell,
And scourg’d, and tortur’d, bade the world farewell.

But why the scourge? Wherefore such needless rage?
Is there not pity, then, for weak old age?

‘Twas part of his employ, with empty pail,
To crawl for water to a neighb’ring vale:
And as he homeward bore the liquid load,
With trembling steps along the rugged road,
His wither’d limbs denied their wonted aid:
—The broken vessel his mishap betray’d.
This his offence: — for this, thrown on the ground,
His feeble limbs outstretch’d, and strongly bound,
His body bare, each nerve convuls’d with pain,
I saw and pitied him — but ah! in vain.
Quick fell the lash: his hoary head laid low,
His eyes confess’d unutterable woe.
He sued for mercy: the big tear apace,
Stole down the furrows of his aged face.
His direful groans (for such they were indeed!)
Mix’d with his words when e’er he strove to plead,
And form’d such moving eloquence, that none,
But flinty-hearted Christians could go on.
At length releas’d, they bore him to his shed:
Much he complain’d, and the next morn was dead.

And was this all? was this th’ atrocious deed?
Which doom’d this hoary sufferer to bleed?
May ev’ry curse attend this pallid race,
Of earth the bane, of manhood the disgrace.
May their dread Judge, who, they pretend to say,
Rules the whole world with undivided sway,
May he (if such he hath) display his pow’r,
Poison their days, appall their midnight hour,
Bid them to fear his wrathful, stern, controul,
Pour his whole cup of trembling on their soul,
‘Till they, repentant, these foul deeds forego,
And feel their hearts distress’d with others woe!


With dreadful darkness, now the Isle is crown’d
And the fierce northern tempest howl’d around
Loud roars the surf; the rocks return the roar,
And liquid fire seems bursting on the shore.
Swift darts the light’ning in fantastic guise,
And bellowing thunder rolls along the skies.
Convuls’d, the big black clouds drop sheets of rain,
And uproar lords it, o’er the dark domain.
At this dread hour, deep in an orange grove,
The sad LOANGO mourn’d his absent love.

“Three nights in this appointed gloom I’ve past,
No QUAMVA comes, — and this shall be my last,
Hoarse thunder, cease thy roar: — perchance she stays,
Appall’d by thee, thou light’ning’s fiery blaze:
‘Tis past the hour: — chill North, thy blasts restrain,
And thou, black firmament, hold up thy rain:
Let QUAMVA come, my wife, my soul delight,
Torn from my arms, by that accursed white;
That pale-fac’d villain, — he, who through the day
O’erlooks our toils, and rules with bloody sway;
By him, who proud of lordship o’er the field,
By daily tortures made my QUAMVA yield;
Him, who has stol’n my treasure from my arms,
And now perhaps, now riots on her charms!
Oh! ’tis too much: — Come dark revenge and death;
He bravely falls, who stops a tyrant’s breath.

“Roar on, fierce tempests: — Spirits of the air
Who rule the storms, oh! grant my ardent pray’r.
Assemble all your winds, direct their flight,
And hurl destruction on each cruel White:—
Sweep canes, and Mills, and houses to the ground,
And scatter ruin, pain, and death around:—
Rouse all you blasting fires, that lurk on high,
And, ‘midst his pleasures, let the plund’rer die!
But spare my QUAMVA, who, with smother’d sighs,
The odious rape endures, but now enjoys,
Wishing the Tyrant’s senses drown’d in sleep,
That she enraptur’d may her promise keep.
Oh! ’tis too much: — Come dark revenge, and death;
He bravely falls, who stops a tyrant’s breath.

“Yet let me pause. ‘Tis said that woman’s mind,
Still changes like the Hurricane’s fierce wind,
Ranging from man to man, as shifts the Bee,
Or long-bill’d Humming-bird, from tree to tree.
How if she like the White, his gaudy cloaths,
His downy bed for pleasure and repose;
His shrivel’d frame, his sickly pallid face;
And finds a transport in his weak embrace.
It may be so. — Oh! vengeance on her head,
It is, it is: — She likes the Driver’s bed.
For this she stays. — Ye hidden scorpions creep,
And with your pois’nous bites invade their sleep;
Ye keen CENTIPEDES, oh! crawl around,
Ye sharp-tooth’d Snakes, inflict your deadly wound.
Fool that I was to think her woman’s soul,
The love of beads, and fin’ry could controul:
Or think that one so beauteous would endure,
My lowly bed, a mat upon the floor;
My Yam, or Plaintain, water from the spring,
And the small bliss LOANGO’S love could bring.
—No, ’tis too plain: — Come dark revenge, and death,
And steel my soul to stop a wanton’s breath.

“The MANCHINEEL, how beauteous to the sight,
But ah! how deadly to the appetite!
Such woman is, that loveliest of ills;
If seen she charms, if more than seen she kills.
When forc’d by savage Whites from Afric’s soil,
And doom’d by them to cruelty and toil;
Death was my early wish: but QUAMVA found,
All my past woes were in possession drown’d.
Oft when I came at eve oppress’d with woe,
Gloomy, and weary from the lab’ring hoe,
Can I forget each soft, each soothing, art
Which QUAMVA us’d to chear my drooping heart?
Can I forget, ‘though she my toil had shar’d,
How soon the scanty viands were prepar’d?
Oh! never: — but those blissful days are o’er;
QUAMVA is false, and I am blest no more!
QUAMVA is false: — Come dark revenge, and death,
And steel my soul to stop a wanton’s breath.

“Glad through the herbage sport the reptile kind,
To food and pleasure are their nights consign’d.
Swift with his mate the bird unbounded flies,
And on his native hills the bliss enjoys.
Not so LOANGO: — he from peaceful plains
Where plenty dwells, and no curs’d white restrains,
Was dragg’d to slavery, torture, want, and toil.
Yet these I bore, while QUAMVA cheer’d my pains:—
But QUAMVA’S lost, and nought but death remains.
Three long, long nights, still absent! ‘Tis too plain,
The white man pleases, and my hopes are vain.
Come then, revenge, and ‘midst this horrid roar
My thirsty knife shall drink their streaming gore.
Come, swiftly come, and aid me to surprise
These guilty lovers acting o’er their joys;
Just then — great Afric’s Gods! — to strike the blow!
Just then — what transports would the stroke bestow!
Just then — my brain’s on fire! — Come, pointed blade,
And poor LOANGO’S vengeance justly aid.
Three, three must fall! for Oh! I’ll not survive;
I dread the white men’s gibbeting alive,
Their wiry tortures, and their ling’ring fires:—
These he escapes, who by the knife expires.
Come, then, revenge! — The deed will soon be o’er,
And then LOANGO views his native shore;
Rides on the fleeting clouds through airy roads,
Nor stops ’till plac’d in Afric’s bless’d abodes.
Come pointed blade; — the Tyrant’s house is nigh:—
And now for vengeance, death, and liberty!—”

Then to the place, with frenzy fir’d, he fled,
And the next morn behold the mangled dead!—

[pp. 1-24]

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