Jamaica, a Poem in Three Parts

You know how sometimes you see something and a little bell goes off in your head reminding you that this is something you’ve heard of before? Maybe you can’t pull up the reason, but there it is: something to pay attention to.

Happened to me last Friday.

It was almost the end of the work day and I was glancing at the shelves of uncataloged Pamphlet Volumes in our “old” stacks room. One volume on one shelf was taller enough than its fellows that it was shelved spine down. So I pulled it out to see what it contained, perhaps to catalog them this week.

Where I opened the volume was clearly something from the 18th century. So I flipped back to its title page. And there I read:

Jamaica, a poem, in three parts. Written in that island, in the year MDCCLXXVI. To which is annexed, A poetical epistle, from the author in that island to a friend in England. London : Printed for William Nicoll, at No. 51, in St. Paul’s Church Yard, MDCCLXXVII.

There went that bell for some reason. So I looked around. The 9th edition of the online Mitchell’s West Indian Bibliography; Caribbean Books and Pamphlets From 1492 to the Present : English Language Non-Fiction of the West Indies. < http://books.ai > describes the 43 page pamphlet as “exceptionally scarce”. So be it. OCLC’s WorldCat only shows 4 copies in the United States and one in Australia.

Well, now OCLC shows 5 copies in the United States: NY Public, Columbia, Trinity College (Ct.), Rice, and the State Library of Pennsylvania.

The listing in Sabin mentions “See ‘M. Rev.’, LVIII. 142”. That would be the “Monthly Review” published in London 1749-1816. And, believe it or not, we also have that on our shelves. The 3 page review in the February 1778 “Monthly Review” is mixed: “We applaud this young gentleman’s humanity more than his poetry.”

I, too, found the poetry a little tough sledding. The “humanity” part refers to the anonymous poet’s description of the harshness of slavery and his nascent abolitionism. The reviewer takes an interesting tack on this, though, by drawing a favorable comparison between the lot of a Jamaican slave and a common laborer in London. In short, he writes that slaves don’t have it so bad in comparison.

Thomas Warren Krise wrote a dissertation at the University of Chicago in 1995 in which he provides notes about the text. I’m waiting for an inter-library loan copy to arrive.

In all, it’s nice to be able to claim a copy of this early anti-slavery publication. And I hold it up as an example of the kind of treasure yet to be uncovered in our cataloging backlog. (Though I still don’t know why the title rang a bell with me.)

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Published in: on 5 May 2008 at 1:37 pm  Leave a Comment