To what extent are human rights present in European anti-slavery literature?

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The French “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789” gave proof to when human rights were first conceptualized in Europe during the late 18th century. Köhler mentioned Cornelia Vismann, a German law and media scholar who contextualized human rights in speech, text and rights before the law. Photo courtesey of: Wikimedia Commons

What can 18th century European literature tell us about the transatlantic slave trade? In an online presentation, Sigrid Köhler, professor of modern German literature at the University of Tübingen, evaluates the extent to which 18th century European anti-slavery literature constitutes true human rights intervention.  

“The abolitionist critique in German literature and journal reporting is also formulated with reference to human rights and it’s done so in journal reporting who usually writes about the fate and it is done in literary texts who imagine Black characters to speak for themselves,” Köhler said. 

Köhler found that in German abolition literature, the lives of enslaved Black people were portrayed in fictitious narratives created by White men. The authors described how inhumane it was for enslaved people to be exchanged for goods or money. She acknowledged that this literature was seen as controversial but the fictitious Black characters represented enslaved peoples who could not represent themselves in society at the time, according to Köhler.  

“Of course, these languages represent language appropriation by White authors, the evidence of White authors who imagine resistance,” Köhler said. “Nevertheless, they document the European and German authors who took a critical stance to the barbaric system and they show what it means in the sense of arguments and rhetorical forms they use to voice this critique.”  

According to Köhler, the French “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789” gave proof to when human rights were first conceptualized in Europe during the late 18th century. Köhler mentioned Cornelia Vismann, a German law and media scholar who contextualized human rights in speech, text and rights before the law.  

“They had another ‘argument’ on why slavery violates human rights and it’s because it prevents humans from development to counter argument that Africans are not developed or sensible,” Köhler said. “And no it’s enslavement that prevents them from development and we need to stop them because they have the right to develop themselves.” 

“Of course, these languages represent language appropriation by White authors, the evidence of White authors who imagine resistance.”

Sigrid Köhler, professor of modern German literature at the University of Tübingen

Köhler gave an example of one journal in the 1800s that portrayed Black people practicing the Orisha religion, which was found in West Africa, and showed it as equal to European religions like Christianity. She added that the Orisha religion was a real religion that was found in West Africa.   

Köhler concludes that at the time abolition text written by Black people were scarce or not translated into German but she hopes to continue her research by looking at texts written by Black abolitionists while continuing to evaluate the effects on antislavery literature and the human rights discourse.  

“In order to understand how nations like Germany were involved, one must not remain at the state level,” Köhler said. “But one rather has to ask about the specific actors, for then it becomes clear how Germans became involved through the participation in trading and shipping companies, as plantation owners, manufacturer owners, investors and at the least as consumers.” 

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