The extent of the slave trade in the eighteenth century can be measured by the fact that in the hundred years to 1786 over 2 million negroes were imported into America and the British West Indian colonies alone. The number taken annually from the African continent by the ships of various European countries about the year 1790 has been estimated at 74,000, with the British responsible for more than half the traffic and the French for more than a quarter. Religious and humanitarian opposition, however, had become increasingly widespread as the century progressed and as the public grew more fully aware of the colonial system of slavery itself and the nature of the commerce in flesh that supported it. Pope, Thomson and Dr Johnson were among the several well-known writers to denounce the slave trade, but the most influential attack was probably Cowper’s emotive indictment of ‘human nature’s broadest, foulest blot’ at the beginning of book II of The Task (1785), which followed upon his equally hard-hitting lines on ‘cargoes of despair’ and those who ‘Trade in the blood of innocence, and plead/Expedience as warrant for the deed’ in ‘Charity’ (1782).
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